Ever notice that most people are quite selective about their choice of preferred feeling states? I haven’t met anyone concerned about having too much joy and happiness in their life yet the slightest inkling of sadness and we scramble to turn it off as fast as possible.
I often hear people talk about feelings as either good or bad. I get it. Feeling angry, for example, sure doesn’t feel pleasant. Yet, inherent in this type of good – bad dichotomy implies that there is no usefulness in experiencing the “darker” emotions such as despair, anger, and fear.
Whenever someone initially calls to schedule an appointment with me it is never to discuss how they are feeling content. They want help because they are in emotional distress. Sometimes their pain and life circumstances are indeed excruciating, and truthfully, heartbreaking to hear. We all want relief. Who wouldn’t?
While in graduate school I learned psychological theories that supported the notion that we should get rid of “negative” feelings by analyzing and reasoning our way out of them. Treating them as something we should not have and suggesting that we are somehow defective for having them.
Sometimes our emotions can get the best of us and cause problems but most of the time it’s not the feelings per se that are the problem. It is often what we do in response to them that cause us hardship. There is nothing defective about us because we feel despair, fearful, anxious, sad, or even angry. Having emotions is what makes us human. Emotions give us important and necessary information about ourselves that beckons to be acknowledged and understood. I like to think of emotions as useful informants. It is the dismissal of this information that can give us more grief than experiencing the feelings directly. By limiting our emotional palette we cut off vital parts of ourselves.
Have you ever told an anxious person “don’t worry”? I have never found that response helpful. Have you? Sometimes we can use logic and reason to put things in a different perspective and that IS quite helpful. What we tell ourselves about a given situation will create an emotional response and sometime we do need to modify our self-talk. But I think it is only one part of the solution.
We attach meaning to our experiences and sometimes these associations are outside our conscious awareness. It is important to sit quietly enough to understand what we need to hear. To think that we can go through life without feeling distress is unrealistic. Once we can connect with ourselves fully, working through difficult emotions can lead to great fulfillment.
Miriam Greenspan, author and psychotherapist, wrote an insightful book Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair. She writes:
” …our avoidance and denial of these dark emotions contributes to the epidemic of psychological ailments characteristic of our age: chronic depression, anxiety, psychic numbing, addiction, and irrational violence. By attending to and befriending the dark emotions, we discover their innate intelligence and purpose. We learn the emotional alchemy by which grief turns to gratitude, fear delivers us to joy, and despair becomes a doorway to a more resilient faith in life. The wisdom of the dark emotions not only helps us to heal and transform our lives, but strengthens our connections to one another and to the world. ”
While this book was written only a few years ago, the premise is not new. I will leave you with this poem from the 13th century Sufi mystic and poet, Rumi.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
~ Rumi ~
(The Essential Rumi, versions by Coleman Barks)