Moving Through Emotions with Grace and Ease

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When bad things happen, it’s reasonable and understandable to feel bad. Whether it’s some unexpected calamity or some anticipated good event not happening, we can easily feel angry, hurt, frustrated, disappointed, victimized, worried, anxious, helpless, hopeless or confused. And once we feel these emotions, it can be extremely difficult to let them go. The challenge is learning how you can genuinely experience your emotions without getting stuck in them. This requires a better understanding of how your emotions work.

Traditionally, we’ve dealt with our emotions by questioning their validity. We’ve operated as if some emotions were okay to feel and some were not. Those that were okay to feel, our valid emotions, were those we had good enough reasons to feel. I could feel angry if I had a  good enough reason to feel anger. I could feel sad only if something sufficiently tragic had happened to justify my sadness. Those emotions we can justify are okay to feel, but those we can’t justify are not. We can feel what we feel only when we have good enough reasons to feel it.

I can remember as a child crying when my feelings were hurt and well-meaning adults trying to make me feel better by telling me that, “it wasn’t so bad.” As a result I began to question the validity of my feelings, and years later I heard myself saying something similar to my young daughter. She was crying about not getting a Barbie that she had wanted her mother and me to buy for her at the store. It seemed to me that her disappointment was about something too small and insignificant to feel upset about. Consequently I soon heard myself telling her, “that’s nothing to be upset about.” These are words I might have heard from my father’s mouth when I was a boy. This insensitivity was an old family tradition. Fortunately, my wife saved me from passing on this tradition to my daughter by pointing out that, “if there were nothing to be upset about, she wouldn’t be upset!” Now I may be slow at times, but I’m coachable, so I shut up and thought long and hard for days and weeks about how to understand what had happened. Eventually I was able to come up with a  model for understanding emotions that empowers us to move beyond the dilemma inherent in habitually questioning the validity of our emotions.

When we question the validity of our emotions, we’re diminishing the value of our emotional experience and making our emotions subordinate to our thinking, the realm of reason and rationale. Thus, whenever we feel emotional, we try to justify our emotions by finding good enough reasons to validate what we feel. Consequently, we experience our emotions as either right or wrong. As a boy I needed a good enough reason, something important, to justify my crying. When I could find good enough reasons to feel upset, I was “right” to feel hurt. Without good enough reasons, I was “wrong” to feel upset.

When we must justify our feelings in this way, making our emotions either “wrong” or “right” we learn to respond to our emotions by either repressing them or becoming righteous about them. When we can’t find sufficient reason to justify an emotion, we repress it. Subsequently, feeling these emotions that we can’t justify, we experience a conflict between what we’re feeling and what we’re allowed to feel. In the example above, if my daughter had listened to me, she would have experienced conflict between feeling upset about not getting the “Barbie” doll and feeling “wrong” to feel upset. Her natural response to this conflict would be to repress her upset feelings, seemingly resolving the conflict.

On the other hand, when we can justify our emotions with good enough reasons, we become righteous about what we feel. We are literally “right” to feel what we feel. If I forget our anniversary, my wife is “right” to feel hurt and angry with me. When my father died I was “right” to feel sad. When our feelings are either “right” or “wrong,” the only emotions we allow ourselves to feel are “righteous” ones.

Neither repressing our feelings nor being righteous about them allows us to move through our feelings. Even though repressing emotions is very different from feeling righteous about them, both these responses keep us stuck in our feelings. Repressing a feeling doesn’t get rid of it because, when we repress a feeling, we merely become unconscious to what we’re feeling. Repressed feelings don’t change; they just become more deeply buried under more repression as the years go by, and no matter how deeply we bury them, they still affect us.

When we can find sufficient reasons for our emotions and are “right” to feel what we feel, we also get stuck in them. When we use reasons to validate our feelings, experiencing our emotions only in this realm of “right” and “wrong,” in order to let go of an emotion we must have originally been “wrong” to have felt that way. Thus, moving past our feelings requires that we admit that the reasons for our emotions were “wrong” in the first place.  But, since, like most people, we would rather be right than happy, we’re reluctant to admit being wrong, and so continue to cling to our righteous feelings. This is how people who love each other can be angry with each other for years even though they forgot what they were originally upset about. They just know that they were right to feel what they felt at the time, and they’re not going to let go of it until they get an apology.

When obviously bad things occur, like losing a job or a loved one or getting seriously ill, we have lots of reason to feel bad. Whether we feel hurt, angry, scared or frustrated we can easily justify our feelings. But if we stay righteous about these feelings, we get stuck in them, which means we’re doomed to feeling bad as long as the circumstances, which are often out of our control, don’t change for the better. Fortunately, there is a solution to this dilemma. You no longer need to be stuck in your emotions when you adopt a new, more freeing understanding of your emotions.

In order to no longer be a victim of circumstance you need to understand that all your emotions are valid merely because you feel them. You don’t need to justify your feelings with reasons because they are always, already valid. When all your feelings are valid you remove what you feel from the realm of “right” or “wrong.”  You no longer need to justify what you feel. Therefore, you never need to repress your “wrong” feelings because there’s no such thing as a “wrong” feeling. And you are never righteous about your feelings, because feelings are neither “right” nor “wrong.” Youjust feel what we feel.

But making the best use of this understanding that all emotions are valid requires one important distinction. This is that all emotions are valid, but all expressions of emotion are not. Your anger about someone unfairly mistreating you is valid because you feel it. If and how you express this feeling is another decision. This distinction gives you the freedom to choose if and how to express your emotions. You can choose to express your anger to this person or choose not to. You can complain to your friends, rant and rave, or just handle your anger yourself. That your emotions are valid is not license to express your feelings without regard for how you affect others. You just have to live with the ramifications of your expression.

Just as important as learning to validate and express your emotions in a healthy way is learning to not indulge your emotions. Validating your emotions without indulging them means accepting and acknowledging your feelings without believing the story that goes along with them. Bad feelings often have a story attached to them. When the stock market crashes and your savings decrease you’re likely to feel upset. But if you are still caught up in justifying emotions, you won’t stop there. You will take this fact that you feel something and attach a story to it that can make things a whole lot worse. This is what I label indulging emotions.

There are two ways you can indulge your emotions.The first way you can indulge your emotions is by imagining that there is much more at stake in your present circumstance than is really at stake. In the above example of a stock market crash, all that’s true is that your savings today are less than they were yesterday. With the bad savings news, it might be possible that your personal finances are at stake, but that is it. Unfortunately, our minds usually don’t stop with what is really true in the present circumstances.

Along with feeling bad about the present loss you could also begin to think that much more is at stake. You can imagine that all your finances are in a shambles, or that you’re a failure at money management, or even that your whole life is a disaster and you’re terrible at managing your life. When you feel really bad, you can think there is much more at stake than there really is. You can think things like, “my life is a disaster,” or “I’m terrible at managing my life.” Sometimes, you can even make character judgments about how stupid or naïve you are. But all this wild mental expansion of how bad things really are, thinking that much more is at stake in your life than really is, is purely imaginary. All that’s true is your savings are less today than they were yesterday. You’re making all the rest up.

The second way you can indulge your emotions is taking the present circumstance and projecting  a catastrophic future out of it. You can imagine that things are only getting worse and that they will never get any better, or that you won’t have enough money to pay for your kid’s college or retire comfortably. There are an unlimited number of negative future events that your creative mind can concoct. But these futures are only made up, because they have not happened yet. This is very different from rationally considering future possibilities. This is instead a fabricated projection into the future from a very negative state. When dealing with a difficult present it is essential that you stop yourself from making catastrophic projections into the future that have no or little real basis in fact. When you allow yourself to deal with only the present known circumstances, and process your emotions accordingly, you are in much better shape to influence and deal with the future as it unfolds.

Successfully  navigating the emotions that accompany bad events that periodically occur in your life requires a new understanding of emotions. Understanding that all your emotions are valid just because you feel them, you first acknowledge and accept what you have been feeling without the need to justify your emotions. Consequently, having liberated your emotions from the realm of “right “ and “wrong,” you neither repress your emotions nor become righteous about them. You just feel what you feel because you feel it, until you don’t. Finally, you avoid indulging your emotions by interrupting negative future projections and limiting what you believe is at stake to what is true in fact.

One Response to Moving Through Emotions with Grace and Ease

  1. Posted August 18, 2013 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    Hi, I’ve recently been a lurker close to your blog for a few months. I enjoy this article and your entire internet site! Looking forward to looking at more!

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