Troubling Emotions: How (Not) to Handle
Friday I could not seem to get anything right. I was edgy, and my mood sank as the day wore on. I felt sad, then lonely. I was inarticulate then downright hostile at a meeting. After that, I came home and just cried.
After sulking and wallowing a while, I realized that I wasn’t just sad, though I started out that way in the morning. By the afternoon, not content to be simply unhappy, I started feeling sorry for myself. I started explaining to myself why I felt so down, and quicker than you can say Jack Robinson, I had cooked up a whole story line where the situation was hopeless. And by the way, not my fault!
This is going to sound ridiculous, but no one ever told me that trying to figure out WHY you’re upset while you’re in the MIDDLE of being upset doesn’t work very well. In fact, it can egg you on; you can’t soothe emotion by applying thought to it, but you sure can make it stronger. Your thoughts try to explain and justify the emotion, like “I’m right to be afraid/angry/sad, because I am bad/being taken advantage of/lonely.” The harder you think, the harder you try to be objective, the more involved your story line becomes and the deeper and richer the emotion.
And…the more likely you are to act out that emotion. Write a nasty email, slam a door; drink a martini or eat something indulgent; blame yourself for being idiotic or selfish; or repress the whole sorry mess.
Then the next time, and the next, you repeat the same process; feel uneasy, make up a story explaining it, deepen the emotion, act on it….we all have our own style. It becomes habit over time. The acting out part can become addiction.
Pema Chodron, the very wise and funny Buddhist teacher, gives practical instructions for a constructive way of handling painful or disagreeable emotions. Her approach is to find a place in between acting out or squelching them. First, recognize them; then simply stay with them and fearlessly feel them. ”Drop the story line,” and taste, smell, hear, feel the emotion itself. Don’t search for words labeling them, just experience.
I used to think that I was doing something wrong, or stupid, if I felt angry or afraid or sad. That I should be “mature” and “logical” about emotional situations, and think my way through them. Not only did the pain of the painful emotions hurt, the pain of feeling defeated or inadequate because I was HAVING them hurt. And somehow, all my thinking never got me better results.
But Pema says, “we do not have to be afraid of what we are feeling right now, that we do not have to look for alternatives, that we aren’t ashamed of what we are feeling in this moment.” Rather than avoid them, we can investigate them, spend time with them. Don’t try to evaluate why you feel the way you do, just feel that way.
This wasn’t easy for me to do, at first. But gradually, I’ve gotten better at it and found that it helps me. For one thing, always being conscious of my mood and on the lookout for emotions amazes me with how variable these are, how they manifest physically, and how little I can influence them by thinking. It’s a huge relief to do this WITHOUT judging myself. For another, the time spent really FEELING the pain instead of fearing it and avoiding it has gone a long way toward enabling me to avoid acting out.
It’s do able. It’s worth it. Though you’ve got to keep at it; like Type 2, it’s a lifestyle, lifelong thing. As for me, I’m still marvelling at my outburst last week. Back to the drawing board, once again…