How A Culinary Experiment Taught Me To Let Go By Erika Hellwig
When learning to poach an egg, the directions warn you not to panic at the chaotic sea of white that forms when the egg first drops in the water. The cook waits for the water to boil, creates a whirlpool in the pot by stirring clockwise with a spoon and then carefully drops the egg in the center. The force of whirlpool is designed to hold the egg together until it is cooked. The egg, however, appears to completely fall apart and it can defy one’s logic to imagine the end result will be a whole egg. During the process, it can be difficult not to stick your spoon in to try to put your egg back together. If you do so, it will only make the egg fall further apart. You just need patience and faith. After a few minutes, the white chaos falls away and you can see your egg resting in the pot. Another minute or two and you can spoon out your perfectly formed poached egg.
Much like the egg, my clients experience the white sea of chaos throughout their therapy experience. They can feel overwhelmed with emotions at times as they dig through painful memories and think about their life and relationships as they never had before. It can be hard for my clients not to stick their spoon in to resist the disruptive sea of emotion. So they feel like the egg in the water, as if they have completely come apart, never to be put back together again. To avoid the fear that they will fall apart, they repress and distract themselves from these difficult emotions and in doing so, generate additional problems.
This panic we feel when experiencing a strong wave of emotions can be traced back to childhood. Children do not have the experience or the perspective to know that emotions have a time limit. If they feel fearful, angry or sad they are totally engrossed in the emotion and feel that emotion is all there is and all there ever will be. They do not understand that they will feel better and need adults to help them through difficult emotions. Ideally, the helpful adult will recognize the distress, provide a non-judgmental space for the child to talk over their feelings and then help to define solutions to relieve the distress. If we do not receive enough of this comfort and training as children, we may have difficulty as adults keeping perspective during emotional swings. We will panic during the swirl of chaos and try to escape from the emotions.
I find that mental health isn’t about having only positive emotions. Rather, mental health comes when we learn to sit patiently through the swirl of emotions-and not fighting against it-until it clears. Tolerating difficult emotions can be highly uncomfortable for most people and a skill that takes practice. Once we are able to do so we are rewarded with emotional growth and an increased strength around difficulty.
I was recently drawn to the task of mastering the poached egg. When my first egg hit the water, the swirling sea of white brought up some familiar fears for me: You’re not doing this right. You are going to ruin it. This is too hard for you. Each day I coach my clients to ‘have faith’ that an emotion will pass and found it difficult myself not to panic during the chaos. This faith and ability to let go during chaos is important in so many aspects of our lives: moving to a new job, taking a chance at love, processing a trauma or making it through grief, just to name a few. A task, as simple as poaching an egg, reminded me of the importance of this faith. I quickly identified that the vulnerability of trying out a new task was bringing up old messages. To my surprise, I fished out my perfect egg from the boiling water and realized letting go could produce the results I wanted. I relaxed and enjoyed my victory.
Erika Hellwig, LMHC runs a busy New York City psychotherapy practice where she sees adults experiencing a wide variety of issues. www.erikahellwig.com