I heard this wonderful analogy many years ago that has always impressed me. This is how it went:
There was an experiment with this fish tank. At first the fish were given free reign of the whole fish tank and happily swam round and round having no restrictions. Then one day the experimenters inserted a glass wall right in the middle of the tank. The fish were shocked to discover that their movement was restricted as they butted their noses against the new obstacle. After having crashed into the unfamiliar glass wall a few times they began to register that their circumstances had changed and they changed their swimming patterns to suit the smaller space accordingly. They avoided the pain of butting their noses by carefully turning just before reaching the new barrier.
The experimenters then did something interesting. They removed the glass wall in the middle of the aquarium. Predictably perhaps, the fish did not realize that the barrier was no longer there and that they could use the entire tank again. Bizarrely they continued to swim in the same restricted way as if the glass barrier were still there. If those fish had just tested their boundaries regularly and taken the risk for a little temporary pain they might have discovered that their territory had expanded so much further.
This concept impressed me. Although it was intended as a message to never give up, to keep pushing boundaries in achieving our goals, I have seen other insights in this metaphor. I have watched people who have been emotionally hurt who have placed the equivalent of the glass barrier into their lives as a form of protection from being re-hurt. These barriers have been important ways of self-preservation at the time, to give the body and the emotions time to heal and to adjust to new realities: a divorce, abuse from a loved one, the death of someone close, the loss of a cherished job. So many reasons for emotional pain exist in our lives and often we react with building a protective barrier around ourselves.
A problem occurs when we keep living behind these walls that we have created for ourselves, long after they need to exist. We find ourselves swimming in our smaller tank and losing out on the opportunities of enlarging our lives, trying new territories.
Emotional pain can feel very physical at times and certainly can be frightening in its intensity. Our initial reaction to run or hide from it, while understandable, can trap us and halt our personal development. The very walls that we have built to protect ourselves from being re-hurt become our personal, self-inflicted jails. We hold people at a distance from us as a form of self-defense but that also means that we have lost the opportunities for connection and intimacy. When we suppress our negative emotions we also suppress all our positive emotions.
What to do? When we allow ourselves to sit in our emotional pain, to express our negative feelings clearly and safely, when we give ourselves permission to be angry or sad or frustrated then we will walk through the emotional difficulties and we will find ourselves on the other side. Each time we allow ourselves to do this we become strengthened emotionally. We can rightfully say to ourselves, “You know what? I survived the last heart wrenching time and came out OK. I can do this again!” Learning to express our negative emotions and not sit on them allows us to gain personal confidence and emotional self-reliance. By contrast, when we self-medicate to avoid feeling that emotional hurt or we run away, we paradoxically take longer to heal. In other words, we feel the pain less intensely but it will last so much longer and will begin to affect the relationships around us.
In the immortal words of Dory in 'Finding Nemo':
Dory: Hey there, Mr. Grumpy Gills. When life gets you down do you wanna know what you've gotta do?
Marlin: No I don't wanna know.
Dory: [singing] Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming. What do we do? We swim, swim.