One of the most valuable skills I have learned (and I am yet to perfect it) is to experience an emotion without attaching it to a story. Let me explain. Many times I have felt sad, angry or hurt. Apparently humans often do. It would also seem that some humans seek explanations for every occurrence and phenomenon they experience. Even feeling happy needs to be justified. Because you can’t just go around being happy on this dreary planet without a valid excuse.
So when feelings go bad, something must be wrong. From an evolutionary standpoint, maybe it is. Feel afraid? There may be a very good reason for it. Look around. Is there a tiger silently stalking you? That may explain your unease. But if it is a normal Tuesday and I just feel icky for no reason, maybe there really is no good reason and the feeling will pass through on its own in a matter of minutes. Unless of course I indulge my brain’s craving for finding explanations for everything and start off down the dark path of storytelling.
I feel bad. There must be a reason. Could it be because that song playing on the loudspeaker in Target reminds me of an unhappy event that happened 12 years ago? Hmm, yes it could be that. I must have never fully healed from that because I feel bad now. How about I start replaying that even in grisly detail and let the indignation of how unfair it was wash over me? How about I ruminate over it for the rest of the afternoon until I am exhausted and depressed?
Of course none of this is a conscious decision. I am seduced down the path of storytelling by the siren song of self-pity. I can’t just feel a feeling, I have to explain it, and the story I attach to it is comfortably familiar and strangely compelling. It leads me to the guilty pleasure of self-pity that’s so bad it’s good. Like toxic mental bubblegum, mmm, I can just chew on that for hours…
It doesn’t have to be that way. Emotions can simply pop up from time to time. Without any fuel in the form of stories to keep them going, they quickly sputter out and dissipate.
What I am NOT saying is “just let it go.” “Let it go” is often code for “stuff it down”. “Getting over it” sometimes involves the belief that how you feel doesn’t matter. You have no right to feel how you do. You’re over-reacting. It’s not a big deal. It’s okay for others to abuse you. Don’t confront anyone, don’t rock the boat, just swallow it all down, nod and smile, the show must go on.
I’ve tried this approach too and I don’t recommend it. It can get you by in an emergency situation, but eventually those feelings will demand attention, and come out in an unexpected and highly inconvenient way, like a scary, embarrassing panic attack at your niece’s fifth birthday party or something.
Unpleasant emotions are not to be feared; they’re okay. The other day I noticed that it was exactly one year since a highly charged altercation with a family member, so I swung into action feeling bad about it. I didn’t really want to waste time feeling bad, so I tried to figure out exactly what this version of “bad” consisted of. Anger. Great! Anger is good. Anger means you have self-respect. You wouldn’t be angry about someone overstepping your boundaries unless you had some self respect. But under the anger was hurt. That was really what was bothering me. I felt hurt. I don’t like being hurt or admitting I feel hurt. I decided to concentrate on the only thing I know for sure. The one thing that is not debatable – and that was that I felt hurt. The things that ARE debatable include: why I’m hurt, whether I should feel hurt, who made me feel hurt, why they hurt me, what I need to do about it, other times they hurt me, what I should have said to them, what I could still say now to get back at them…
All this stuff is debatable. Its truth depends on my point of view, my biases, my memory of events and conversations (which is probably flawed, because everyone has terrible memories for these things whether they think they do or not). The only truth that can’t be questioned is in that moment I feel hurt. So I’m just going to feel hurt for a little while. It’s okay to feel hurt. I won’t die or go crazy. Just feel hurt. Breath through it. Fully experience the feeling of being human. This is what I came to the planet for – the human experience in all its different colours and flavours. Feeling hurt isn’t good or bad, it’s just a part of life. Accept it, acknowledge it, honour it.
And then, just like a little kid wanting attention, my emotional self settled down again once she was satisfied that she had been seen and heard. The hurt dissipated. There was no narrative structure to sustain it. How you feel is not debatable and needs no justification. Everything else surrounding the feeling is questionable. Just focus on the feeling. Feel it, but don’t feed it. Follow the straight path of truth back to your centre, ignoring the temptation to wander off into Storyland. Bad things happen in Storyland!