By: Bryan Nixon, MA, LPC
No emotion is permanent.
I just wrote those words, but I don’t always believe them in the moment. I was doing yoga last week and felt a surge of anger mixed with fear course through my body from the tips of my toes to the top of my head. I was convinced that the yoga teacher, in a large class of about 70 people, was trying to kill me. Just me. My reptilian brain kicked into high gear and fight or flight were my only options. I considered flipping the teacher the bird, clearly a fight response, but fortunately I had a millisecond of clarity and instead chose to take child’s pose. My body, no longer in a God-forsaken contorted position, finally calmed down and my grown up brain came back online.
Emotions are like energy. Some would argue that they are, in fact, energy. Energy moves in waves. Likewise, the intensity of an emotion has a beginning, middle and end. Picture a bell curve with an initial rise in intensity, an eventual plateau of intensity and then a decline in intensity. We tend to have a difficult time simply riding the wave, particularly when the emotion is an unpleasant one. Think about how you deal with times of grief, sadness, fear, disgust, shame and anger. Anger is particularly difficult to allow for those of us who live in West Michigan, am I right?!
Sidenote: anger is a feeling not a behavior. We often confuse violent behavior with anger, which is why we typically try to stuff our anger down deep. I would argue that violent behavior is actually the result of one’s inability to tolerate one’s own anger in a healthy and mindful way.
With difficult emotions we tend to experience aversion, which is most simply defined as a strong sense of dislike or disapproval. Aversion often shows up like a clutched fist attempting to resist, fight off, or numb unwanted or unpleasant emotions. Who could blame us for not wanting to feel these difficult emotions and trying to avoid, ignore or eliminate them?
The dilemma is that when we give in to aversion it disrupts the natural flow of the wave of intensity and leads to deeper suffering because, as the saying goes, “when we resist our emotions, they go down into the basement to lift weights,” and they pop back up later stronger than before and usually at the worst time imaginable. Have you seen this in your life? I know I have!
It’s not just the difficult emotions that we struggle to simply ride the wave with. We often react to pleasant emotions, i.e., joy, delight, awe, with a sense of attachment because we like the way they feel. Attachment is like a white-knuckled hand attempting to grasp and cling to desirable and pleasant emotions in an attempt to make them stay. Again, who could blame us for wanting the good stuff to stick around?
The dilemma here is that this also leads to deeper suffering because the emotion will eventually leave in spite of our best efforts to make it a permanent state of being. When the pleasant emotions leave we often interpret that to mean that we have done something wrong.
Stop shoulding on yourself!
When it comes to our emotional experiences we are flooded with shoulds and shouldn’ts. We inherit these from our families, our communities, our churches, culture at large…you get the picture. They usually go something like this, “You should be happy. Look at how good you’ve got it,” or, “You shouldn’t be angry. That’s not very Christian of you,” or, “You shouldn’t be sad. Just suck it up and get over it.”
The shoulds and shouldn’ts get embedded deeply into our psyches and make us feel crazy because we can’t choose which emotions to experience. They are what they are. So we are in a bind when our embedded shoulds and shouldn’ts don’t jive with our actual emotional experiences as they arise.
We can, however, learn to choose what type of relationship we will have with our emotions when they arise. See Rumi’s poem, The Guest House, as referenced in a previous post, for a beautiful picture of what a healthy relationship with our own emotions can be like without the shoulds and shouldn’ts.
Rumi paints a picture of a third way of relating to our emotional experiences. It is the way of acceptance. Acceptance is like an open hand that allows the coming and going of each experience without aversion or attachment. We can notice our emotions and the physical sensations that come with them. We more easily release the shoulds and shouldn’ts and embrace the reality that how we are feeling in this moment is how we are feeling in this moment, and we can begin to give the emotion permission to be here. When we do this we actually reduce the amount of suffering we experience both when unpleasant emotions are present and when pleasant emotions depart.
In addition to reducing suffering, acceptance allows us to experience our emotions as guides and teachers into deeper authenticity and self-understanding. This, in turn, helps us to show up in our lives in more intentional and meaningful ways. Also, it might just help you avoid flipping your yoga teacher the bird!