By Adam J. Pearson
We have a habitual tendency to resist what we call ‘negative emotions.’ Our very term for such feelings, ‘negative emotions’ bespeaks and reveals our strong tendency to resist them. In the Medieval period, such feelings were sometimes externalized and experienced as demons in a literal sense. Today, we drop the ‘demonic’ diction,’ but retain the tendency to feel aversion to our own feelings. This is the habit of resistance and it creates an experience of inner tension and fragmentation that adds disturbance to disturbance; it shatters the sensation of unity and splinters our thoughts and feelings into oppositional shards that grind up against one another.
Differently stated, we feel pain not only from the painful feelings themselves, but also from our ideas about the painful feelings, ideas that classify them as bad, negative, and fit to be resisted. We multiply our suffering by resisting it and do this so often, so habitually, so effortlessly, so automatically, that we take it to be the only way things can be, the ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ way to relate to ‘unpleasant’ feelings.
I recently decided to challenge this tendency towards aversion. Is it necessary and inevitable? I wondered, or is it simply a habit, a learned tendency, and, therefore, changeable like other habits? We can speculate all we wish about such questions, but in this case, we need not; these questions can be settled with experience.
On this particular day, I was sitting on the bus on my way to McGill and was struggling, literally struggling, with these powerfully intense feelings of sadness, anger, and frustration. This jumble of feelings was overpowering me. Not only were these messy feelings grinding up against one another like superheated plates of tectonic crust, but the thoughts about the feelings were also mixing in with them, further amplifying and compounding the chaotic mess. I sat there on the bus and stewed in the feelings and frenzied thoughts. I boiled with rage and simultaneously, however contradictory this may be, felt dragged down by sadness. This went on for minutes that seemed like hours. And then, something happened. I got fed up.
At that moment, I reached my limit, and in my extremity, considered a possibility. I asked myself: you know what, if these feelings are arising, must that be a problem? Must I make it into one? Sadness is here. Anger is here. These are facts. if I add to these feelings this additional sensation of pushing them away, this aversion, am I really ‘coping’ with these feelings? Am I really doing something I must do, something necessary? Am I ‘locked up’ or ‘bound up in’ or ‘fastened by’ this tendency to resist? Does it help?
And to all of these questions, if I was being totally honest with myself, I had to answer “no.” No, I do not need to make these feelings into a problem. No, it does not help to do so. No, aversion is not coping. And no, aversion is not necessary.
These answers came as a shock, a surprise, a revelation. Really? I thought, so-called ‘bad feelings’ don’t have to be a problem? This inner ‘pushing away’ feeling doesn’t have to be here? For a moment, the mind went blank, totally silent. And then I wondered, “well… what can I do? What should I do?” And the answer that arose was the opposite of everything I had previously done, namely everything I could think of–from using this or that therapeutic technique to stress management methodologies and even spiritual exercises. The answer that came up was so simple that it was staggering: do nothing. Anger is coming up? Sadness is coming up? Fine. Just be there with them. Don’t try to run off into this or that fantasy or comforting thought; don’t try to escape them. Just be present with them and let them be. Let them come up. Feel them through.
And, just as an experiment, this was exactly what the mind did. Instead of pushing the feelings away, instead of introducing further inner conflict and resistance to compound the existing suffering, I sat with the feelings. I just went fully into them, just experienced them completely, fully, without holding back. I just let them be, let them come up, let them arise.
The anger and sadness were extreme alright, but somehow, slowly, I relaxed into them. Before I had thought that aversion to emotions was ‘natural,’ but this seemed even more so. What I found was that when the mind simply allowed the feelings to arise and be present, this relaxation-into-the-feeling happened on its own. There was a new sensation of tension easing away, relaxing, loosening up… the anger was shaking through the body, the sadness was pulling it down, but so what? If I’m not pushing my feelings away, I asked myself, are they a problem?
Strangely, at that moment of possibilities opening up into experiential realities, there was a novel sensation that sadness and anger could be as pleasant as joy… I just sat there, feeling the feelings, and somehow a sense of peace slipped in, quietly, gradually, in the background of the mind. I saw the matter clearly: when we make a feeling into a problem, then we have two things to deal with: the feeling and the problematizing thoughts about the feeling. When we don’t make our feelings into a problem, then we have only one thing to face: the feeling itself.
And that one thing can be done, no matter how heart-wrenching the feeling may be. Even when it feels terrible, excruciating even, we can take solace in the fact that it will not last and feel it through without resistance until it subsides on its own. “Singing words of wisdom, let it be,” sang the Beatles. And those words, I saw very clearly then and still see today, are the very “words of wisdom” that I had sought for so long.
Every statement has its scope of applicability; there are a range of cases and situations for which it works and a range of cases and situations for which it breaks down. The approach to relating to so-called ‘negative’ emotions put forward in this article is no exception.
Many negative emotions are healthy reactions to the ordinary frustrations and difficulties of daily life. However, many others are indicators of (1) unhealthy situations, (2) psychiatric challenges, or (3) both. A person in an abusive relationship feels great sadness, anger, and frustration and I am not suggesting that they should simply ‘allow those feelings to be.’ Those feelings are communicating a clear message to them: namely, that this situation is unhealthy and that they need to get out of it. If you are in such a situation, please begin by finding a way to safely get out of it and then work through the emotional baggage that lingers afterwards. I’ve been in abusive relationships myself and seen many friends experience them; the wise course of action in such situations is not to simply ‘do nothing.’ It is to safely ‘get out’ and then work through the feelings that come up. Otherwise, we risk simply our own abuse rather than bringing it to an end.
Similarly, I do not recommend people who have genuine neurochemical imbalances and psychiatric challenges and who could benefit from medical treatment to simply ‘do nothing’ either. People who face chronic depression and other such emotions can and should consult a psychologist, therapist, or psychiatrist and see what help is available for them. The ‘allow the feeling to be’ strategy is not meant to be a replacement for medication and therapy; if these things are helpful, then by all means, seek them out and use them wisely. The allowing approach to feelings is meant, instead, as simply another useful tool in our bag of coping strategies. It is a way of relating to emotions that I have found helpful. Can it be the same for you? I invite you to test it out and see for yourself.
We don’t need to relate to negative emotions through aversion or resistance. When we simply allow what we are feeling to arise and remain present with it rather than trying to escape it, it subsides on its own. When we make a feeling into a problem, then we have two things to deal with: the feeling itself and the thought problem that we have constructed around it. Simply allowing the feeling to arise and being present with it cuts away the ‘thought problem’ aspect and leaves us with only the feeling to face. And that, we can do.