One aspect that most new-age self-help programs have in common is to get you to feel your emotions. Most use this as a starting point (like Scheinfeld’s “Process”, or the Sedona Method), but I think it may actually be the issue that’s most healing.
We’re taught from an early age to judge our emotions: anger and sadness are bad and joy is good. When I say taught, I don’t necessarily mean in the formal sense, but more from example. If you’re angry at a sibling you’re told you shouldn’t be, essentially instructed to deny your emotions. When I was very young I remember being in tears about something and my mother telling me to “stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about”, which I found baffling, as I clearly already had something to cry about, which I was. But I was taught that in most situations, feeling sad (or at least showing it) was not acceptable.
If we buy into this cultural paradigm, we end up with three choices. We either consider ourselves the victims of emotions we can’t control, so we essential feel sorry for ourselves for being stuck with our anger, or sadness, or jealousy, or whatever, which just compounds the negative experience. Or, we try to take charge of our emotions, telling ourselves we shouldn’t feel what we’re feeling, and when our emotional state doesn’t bend to our will, we berate ourselves for feeling angry or sad or jealous, and add the emotion of guilt on top of it, also compounding our suffering. Possibly worst of them is if the above fail, or we just don’t have the energy or discipline to even attempt these tactics, we repress our emotional state, burying it where we hope we will no longer experience it, though it always seems to come out anyway, usually in ways that we aren’t even aware of. Some therapists believe that all depression is really anger that has been suppressed. I don’t know whether that’s true of all depression, but I expect there are cases where this is happening.
If we look at it from the Scheinfeld or Tolle perspectives, emotions are just experiences. Trying to only experience “good” emotions and avoid “bad” emotions would be denying yourself the fullness of life (there is a similar theory I’ve heard in relation to food, that we overeat because we emphasize salty and sweet foods to the exclusion of other flavours like bitter and sour).
Denying “negative” emotions may impact your “positive” ones anyhow. There’s a great old poem called “On Joy and Sorrow” (I don’t remember the author) that contains the line “Your joy is your sorrow unmasked”. Just like the Taoist idea that you can’t have day without night, it’s possible that you can’t have positive experiences without negative ones.
So rather than categorizing emotional states and then attempting to purge yourself of the “bad” ones and force yourself into the “good” ones, just observe the emotions you’re experiencing without judgment. Let them do what they will, but don’t detach yourself from them either. Make sure you’re fully in the experience. Really get into your sadness, or anger, or fear, or whatever.
Shortly after I was “cured” of depression, I remember one morning waking up feeling a bit blue. At first I panicked, thinking that I was having a relapse, or perhaps my cure was just a short-lived respite or illusion. But then I decided if I was going to be depressed, I was going to enjoy it (that may appear oxymoronic, but it’s an attitude that, when developed, can make many previously painful, disturbing, or just plain annoying experiences enjoyable). So I decided to spend the day in bed eating Ben & Jerry’s while watching bad sci-fi movies. Curiously, I couldn’t even stay depressed through the whole day.
Years before this experience I had read a book on a jiu-jitsu approach to psychotherapy. The basic idea was instead of fighting and resisting the depression, get into it and use its own force to throw it. The book gave a bunch of ideas like making a depression painting, baking a depression cake, and I think it may even have suggested eating ice cream while watching bad movies. When I had tried it back then, it didn’t work. I believe it’s because I was trying to feel the depression in order to get rid of it, which amounts to resisting it (there’s a later chapter on this). In the more recent experience, I was actually looking forward to the day of accomplishing nothing and sitting around the house. By actually immersing myself in the experience, it ran its course and I quickly moved on to other experiences. When I had been resisting it earlier in my life, it wouldn’t budge. Possibly because I had never allowed myself to “get” the experience.
As I mentioned earlier, and will go more into in the chapter on “Judgments” (I’m assuming you’ll read that far), we learn from an early age to label things as bad or good, right or wrong. When we apply this to emotions, we expend massive effort avoiding the “bad” emotions and trying to hang onto the “good” ones. In the first case I suspect the resistance drags out the time it takes to get over the emotion, or it just keeps resurfacing. Like when you’re angry at someone and keep trying not to be, telling yourself it’s wrong to feel that way or that you’re over-reacting. And the next day (or hour) you find yourself still feeling mad at them. I’m not suggesting you punch the person, but instead allow yourself to really feel the emotion. Sit with the experience. And especially don’t try to explain it or figure out why you feel the way you do. Just be. I’ve heard that some psychotherapists, when dealing with a client with anger issues, have them repeatedly punch a pillow, or yell, or both. The idea is to get the anger “out”, but I think what’s really going on is that the person is finally letting themselves really feel it. It’s more of getting the anger “in”.
When we feel a “positive” emotion, we also have to be willing to let it go. Too often when we have what we label a good experience we try in vain to make it indefinite, and then feel bad about it ending (maybe you don’t, but I have). Everything in life is subject to change. If we try to hang onto a feeling, we’ll be unsuccessful, and may miss all the other experiences that are headed our way.
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