Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Your Feelings: How to Honor Them without Building a City around Them

For many years, proponents of the law of attraction paradigm have been reminding us not to indulge in "negative" thoughts or feelings because these thoughts and feelings are the building blocks of our reality. I get where they're coming from, and I know it's absolutely true, but creating a happy life requires more than practicing affirmations and visualizations, and banishing certain thoughts and feelings from our minds. (People who truly understand the law of attraction are crystal clear about this, but this isn't true for everyone). The reality is that resisting our dark thoughts and uncomfortable emotions can create a world of hurt where peace and acceptance could have lived.

You've probably seen the inspirational posters on Facebook, and many of them are fantastic, but lately I've become troubled by the deluge of messages telling us that transcending our humanness is just a thought away: "One moment spent in anger is one less moment spent in joy." As a former psychotherapist, I can tell you that one moment spent in any authentic feeling (even rage) can be the best thing that ever happened to us, and one moment spent stuffing an important feeling can lead to our doom. (Note that many of our repetitive, everyday feelings are actually distortions of the true feelings they mask: depression may be repressed anger, or anger may be repressed sadness.)

Emotions are built-in messengers that let us know when something is up. Emotions are also the body's way of processing and releasing energies that could take root and become unhealthy. Toddlers understand this. When they're sad or hurt, they cry. When they're angry, they kick and scream. When they're scared, they actively seek comfort and protection. Then they move on. They feel it, express it, and let it go. They don't plot revenge for something that happened last week. Why, then, are emotions so difficult for older children and adults to handle?

The problem lies in the socialization process, which is often like the blind leading the blind. Parents, teachers, and society can only teach what they know, which often is made up of messages such as:

"anger is unladylike (or unattractive)"
"men don't cry"
"just get over it"
"look on the bright side"
"you shouldn't feel that way"
"one moment spent in anger is one less moment spent in joy"

Can you hear the fear in these messages? Your emotions are dangerous. Feeling them can hurt you. But the truth is that not feeling them can hurt you. Swallowing them (so they can fester for years in your body and psyche) is the real danger. And trying to repress thoughts doesn't work any better. When people are chronically angry, depressed, addicted, sick, self-destructive, or in pain, most often it means that they didn't know how to manage the landscape of their psychological lives, and these repressed or distorted thoughts and feelings found a convenient, but unsavory, place to camp out.

The sad irony in all this is that our original, real, pure, and true feelings are usually pretty easy to manage when we allow them to be felt and expressed, and when we don't make up stories that lead to a lot of crazy thoughts. When we're sad, we feel it and perhaps shed a tear (even if we're a man). When we're angry, we allow the feeling to be there and maybe even express it (even if we're a woman). We don't let it go underground and wreak future havoc.

This week, I ask you to observe what you do when an uncomfortable thought or emotion arises. Do you simply notice it and/or feel it for a moment without going into a reaction? Or do you argue with it, tell it to go away, try to rise above it, or reach for the Oreos? I've done all of the above (and still do occasionally), but believe me, you are strong enough to handle your emotions, especially if you deal with them as they arise. And if you feel initially overwhelmed by old stuff coming up to be released, seek the help of a therapist or wise friend. In the long run it's worth it. You're worth it.