When I was smoking, I’d light up a cigarette at the first sign of any strong emotion, whether it was positive or negative. I think it was my way of emulating a stereotype (the “strong, silent type”) that I learned in my childhood (think of James Dean in “Rebel Without A Cause” or Bogie in “Casablanca” or John Wayne in pretty much anything).
The “smokescreen” gave me something to hide behind so I didn’t have to let anyone else know what was going on inside, and I think that, eventually, it got so good at hiding what was going on inside that it even hid it from me. I remember many times getting into confrontations — especially in relationships — and storming away, lighting up, stuffing whatever it was I was feeling behind the smokescreen and pretending that it really didn’t matter.
I was Surprised by the Strength of my Emotions
When I quit — and for a long time after I quit — I was surprised by the strength of the emotions I was feeling. For instance, after I’d been quit for a year or so, I decided it was time to move on from the support forum at the American Lung Association’s “Freedom From Smoking” online program and I posted my farewell thread: my friend, Nancers, posted an animated image of a snowman waving goodbye at the end of her response to that thread, and when I saw it, I started crying (and I was at work at the time!). I honestly thought I was going nuts; I’d never acted like this before.
Why is This Happening to Me?
One idea that I heard somewhere along the way that still strikes me as a reasonable explanation for the strength of the smokescreen and its power to dampen or mediate emotion (at least for those like me who started smoking very young) is this: when we started to smoke, it became an emotional “crutch” that prevented us from reaching emotional maturity at a normal age. In other words, while our non-smoking friends were growing up and learning how to deal with their emotions during their teenage years, we just smoked them away and didn’t learn how to deal with them at all.
And now that we’ve lifted the smokescreen we get to look at all the stuff we swept under the rug all those years.
Learning to Deal with Our Emotions
The good news is that we can learn how to deal with our emotions much more quickly as adults than we could have if we’d done it as teenagers; we just have to recognize that many times our emotions have no basis in reality. I mean, if you see a child about to do something dangerous, you may feel fear, but the fear is based on reality and will probably cause you to act appropriately: you’ll do something to stop the child from hurting themselves. On the other hand, if we think somebody is mad at us, and we’re afraid to talk to them because we’re afraid that they won’t like us any more if we tell them how we really feel, that fear is not based on reality, and it will probably not lead us to act appropriately.
Once Again, We See that Resistance is Futile
One thing I know for sure: resisting whatever emotion you’re feeling will tend to make it stronger. You may think you shouldn’t feel certain things, but the reality is, you are feeling those things, and thinking that you shouldn’t isn’t helping you to deal with them appropriately.
What I try to do when I feel myself revisiting emotions I’m feeling is to simply “label” the emotion (like, “thinking she’s not being fair”, or, “feeling sad about that memory”) and then return my attention to whatever it was I was doing, or to whatever’s going on around me right here and now. Just noticing the feeling and labeling it puts me in the position of being an observer, and it’s much harder to invest any emotional energy in something you’re just observing. I acknowledge that the emotion exists without having to “own” it, or internalize it, and that gives me a more objective perspective.
Easier Said than Done
Of course, this is not an easy practice (it’s much easier to either run with the emotion, investing energy into it in increasing amounts as it grows stronger, or to stuff it, trying to pretend we don’t really feel the way we do), but the more you practice it, the more you’re able to separate the harmful, non-reality-based emotions from the useful, reality-based emotions and act appropriately.
What emotions have you had when you quit smoking that seemed to come out of left field and caught you totally off-guard? How do you plan to deal with it when this happens again?