If you’ve ever done something reactionary, without thinking it through, there was a certain element that spurred you to act even though you might not have been aware of it. If you have an addiction, or simply find yourself repeating a behavior even while knowing it isn’t good for you, this element is there as well. It’s also there when you procrastinate. And when you avoid certain people. And when you dodge uncomfortable conversations. And it inevitably plays a central role in every case of anxiety or depression.
The element I’m speaking of is feelings. And although it might sound obvious to say, “Feelings play a central role in unhappiness,” I believe that most unhappy people rarely have an intentional meeting with those feelings. Whether recognized or not, their presence moves us to act – and to avoid acting. They dramatically alter our experience of life and our perspective of the ourselves and the world.
Rather than labeling them as good or bad, I think it’s more meaningful to look at how much freedom do you have in your relationship with a given feeling?
I often ask people about their feelings, especially when the feelings seem to be in control. Specifically, I inquire about the physical experience they’re having. Frequently they report that they can’t perceive anything. Despite the fact that there’s a feeling that’s strong enough to prompt them to, say, gobble up a bag of candy faster than they can stop themselves, the felt sense of that feeling can be hard to pin down. I guarantee it’s there though, and exploring it is likely to help unravel this behavior pattern.
We’re not apt to address our unpleasant feelings directly because, well, they’re unpleasant. Maybe we believe that willingly experiencing them would be more unpleasant than distracting ourselves from them or blocking them out. Furthermore, we learn early that other people disapprove of our anger and fear, and usually there’s no wise guidance for managing these feelings. So we develop the skill of stuffing them or becoming numb. When we look at trends in violence, it’s clear that boys, in particular, are expected to learn this skill and that it often fails miserably.
Actually it fails for everyone, eventually. Not acknowledging our feelings doesn’t neutralize them. It makes them toxic.
I know that an exploration of your negative emotions, many of them associated with traumatic events, doesn’t sound like a good time. It’s work. Perhaps even painful work. But it’s supremely worthwhile work. It’s like digging out a deep splinter. You know it’s not good to let it fester in there, and maybe it’s gotten so tender and swollen that you can’t get it all at once. However, there’s a certain strength that comes from knowing you’re finally doing what needs to be done. And it doesn’t have to be a grim process; you’re not going to be less effective by bringing humor, gentleness, and self-love to this work.
You will probably discover at times that your feelings are more complicated than you thought. Dr. Les Greenberg, the main developer of Emotion-Focused Therapy, explains that we have primary emotions and secondary emotions. Our primary emotions arise in the instant that an unpleasant thought or experience occurs, and they usually make us feel vulnerable or exposed. Thus, they’re often quickly and powerfully veiled by a secondary emotion (like anger, indignation, resentment, etc.) that feels less vulnerable. Greenberg describes primary emotions as “less rapid and less action-oriented” than secondary emotions. He says if we only address our secondary or surface emotions, the primary emotion remains and is likely to trigger new secondary emotions in future conflicts. With a spirit of curiosity and trust, you can go deep and get acquainted with these neglected parts of your shadow-self, bringing them into the light.
While reading the beginning of this article, perhaps you thought, “But these are all cases of being moved by negative feelings. What about positive feelings? Aren’t they one of the best parts of life? Can they run us, too?” Yes, they are one of the best parts of life. And no, they can’t run us in the same way. I have to choose my words carefully on this topic, because it’s easy to start thinking of certain emotions as good and others as bad, some as desirable and others as undesirable, and the truth is more nuanced than that. Again, what’s most important is how we relate to our emotions.
In most basic terms, negative emotions are a message that some form of conflict, resistance, or discord is occurring, and positive emotions indicate an experience of alignment, accord, or harmony. I know that sounds like good and bad, but how about we look at it this way: the Low Oil light on your dashboard indicates the potential for imminent friction and damage to your engine. Does that make the Low Oil light a bad thing? Would you prefer to put a piece of tape over it so you don’t have to see it? Auto makers would argue that this light, the equivalent of a negative emotion, is a very good thing as long as we respond to it appropriately.
It’s kind of like the Hot/Cold game, where someone tells you you’re getting closer to some treat by saying “warmer” (i.e., a positive emotion) or further away from it by saying “colder” (i.e., a negative emotion). Hot and Cold stand to be equally useful. But imagine how the game would go if, upon hearing the other player say, “colder,” you just shut down. Or you said, “I can’t do anything right!” Or, “Why do you always have to attack everything I do?!” When we behave this way in the presence of negative emotions, the whole game ends. But when we remain open, the prize is our freedom – even if it takes years to find that treat.
Dr. Peter Borten
P.S. I don’t mean to confuse the issue, but I feel it’s worthwhile to share a few words of non-dual perspective on the subject (garnered from several spiritual traditions). Within this dualistic world, it makes perfect sense to treat negative and positive emotions as two sides of the same coin. Or as two sides of the same mountain – the light side and the shadow side. Neither is more valid or real than the other.
But as we begin to have experiences of expanded consciousness – an awareness that transcends our everyday consciousness – positive and negative feelings may take on new meaning. If we define positive feelings as those that offer greater freedom, deeper peace, union with truth and love, these are (as I see it) an indication of alignment with our Highest Self (or God, or our Authentic Self, or Dao, or Buddha, or whatever other term you like).
The non-dual perspective is that there is no opposite to this state. That is, this (love/truth) is reality, and the negative feelings and suffering that so define the human experience emerge from our immersion in an illusion, a state of forgetfulness in which love is conditional, anything of value is bound to be lost, and we must out-compete each other for happiness. Therefore, as we expand beyond our ego-dominated awareness, negative emotions may be seen as indicators that we’ve become re-immersed in the illusion, or that our ego is attempting to regain control over our consciousness. And positive feelings (as defined above) show us that we’re in the flow, that we’re expanding, or that we’re choosing love.
While the perspective of Classical Chinese Medicine isn’t non-dual per se, it takes a similar view of classifying negative and positive emotions as fundamentally different things. The five basic “sentiments” – joy, contemplation, wonder, reflection, and vigor – are qualities we’re experience continually when we’re healthy. In contrast, the five primary negative emotions – anger, fear, joylessness (or mania), worry, and grief – are considered to be signs of imbalance. (However, if we’re able to accept and experience them readily, allowing them to move through us without resistance, this is not considered unhealthy. It’s only when they occur in an extreme or prolonged way that they become toxic.)
Finally, while we can be guided almost equally well by Hot and Cold (i.e., indicators that we’re becoming more aligned and less aligned with our truth), ultimately, we can’t be shown the whole way home through expressions of the Cold end of the spectrum (i.e., “you’re going the wrong way!”). Expect to encounter discomfort and difficulty – they don’t mean you’re on the wrong path – but if you make your choices from love rather than fear, you should also expect that increased freedom, peace, love, and joy will light the way for you.