Updated: Aug 31, 2021
Before I have I talked about the Problem of Positive Emotions and how viewing everything through rose-colored glasses can actually hinder your ability to see the world as it is and work toward needed changes. Today I want to take a slightly different perspective and talk about why we should change how we talk (and think) about emotions so that we can actually use them to inform our life.
We most often hear emotions talked about using binary language. Popular culture, especially positive-thinking spiritual culture, can be both direct and subtle in its insistence that certain emotions are “good” or “bad.” They are helpful or harmful. They are negative or positive. This either/or format can show up in many ways:
Being angry is bad. It is bad to show your anger in public. Anger makes you a mean, abusive person.
Happiness is good. We strive to be happy as much as possible. A happy person is healthy.
Feeling anxious is bad. You shouldn’t feel anxious about things outside your control. You should always be relaxed and “go with the flow.”
Being satisfied is good. Being satisfied means you see your blessings. It means you are content with what you have and nothing can disrupt your happiness.
The problem, though, is that these binary categories don’t always hold up. Here are some ways in which the good/bad labels break down:
Being angry is good if you are in an unsafe or abusive situation. Being angry gets you out and gives you the strength you need to move on.
Happiness is bad if you are using it to ignore your grief. It can be bad if you are pretending you are happy in a life that isn’t fulfilling your purpose.
Anxiety can be good if a family member is sick or missing. You use the anxiety to drive you to get help.
Satisfaction can be bad if it is denying the reality of injustice or racism. There are a lot of satisfied people out there that contentedly watch problematic things roll across their tv screens.
So the generic binary view of emotions really doesn’t hold up in the face of reality. As Martha Beck writes in The Way of Integrity, “A cheerful statement can feel like soul-murder if you know it isn’t true, while a supposedly “negative” thought can set you free to experience joy.” No emotion is always “good” or “bad.” Setting up the expectation that certain emotions are better to experience than others simply creates a situation in which you are trying to twist the world into some preconceived notion of how you want it to work.
If you add in male/female gender stereotypes or even racial stereotypes, then you get a whole different layer of what “good” or “bad” emotions are for specific groups of people. A particular emotion (such as sadness) might be ok for a woman to show but not a man. Anger might be ok for a white person to express but not a person of color. What you end up with is a culture in which people are judged (externally and internally) based on how they feel and express those feelings. “Good” people only experience and express the proper feelings for their race/gender and don’t stray from the appropriate script. Anything unacceptable is ignored, hidden, shamed, or mocked.
The result of this binary of good/bad or positive/negative emotions is a world in which many people are walking around ignoring, hiding, or denying their own reactions to life. Some people stuff their emotions so far down that they no longer feel anything, which is often the case with depression. Others may hide their real emotions behind “more acceptable” ones, such as men who express anger when their real underlying feeling is grief. Others may deny their true feelings and pretend to be happy by manically pursuing addictions to anything that makes them feel good. The inability to acknowledge the whole range of human emotions often builds up into a general sense of overwhelming anxiety. What all this adds up to is a whole lot of people who have no idea what they feel or why.
This is problematic on a number of levels, but I am going to focus on the energetic level here. Candace Pert writes in Molecules of Emotion, “unexpressed emotions from experiences can get stuck in the body at the level of cellular memory.” When all these ignored and suppressed emotions are stored in the body, they cause disruptions to the energy system. These stuck emotions can keep energy from flowing around the body and hinder the ability to function properly or heal. This can then create physical symptoms such as disease and pain. Treating the disease or malfunction is only partly helpful because the actual problem is the emotional energy stuck in the body.
I think it is time for us to move away from this binary language of emotions and toward a neutral concept. Emotions are simply the normal reactions to everyday life. They. Just. Are. There is nothing inherently good or bad about any of them. Even the ones that feel bad aren’t necessarily bad. We may not like feeling them, but they can be really helpful and appropriate. In her book Constructive Wallowing Tina Gilbertson states that feeling your feelings is both accepting what is and accepting yourself. If we don’t have binary labels for our feelings or expectations of what those feelings say about us as spiritual or healthy people, then it is easier to accept them at their face value. (I wrote more about Tina Gilbertson's book here.)
Let me describe it this way. If you put your hand on something hot, you feel pain and immediately remove your hand from that thing. You don’t like the pain, but you don’t judge it as “good” or “bad.” It was simply a message sent to your brain to tell you that something you did was not healthy for you. You remove the hand and go deal with the pain in whatever way is necessary to heal the problem.
Emotions can be like that. Something happens in life and you have an emotional reaction to it. Whether you like the emotion or not, it gives you information about your environment and whether or not you are in a healthy place. You notice the emotion and let it go. Then you have space to decide what that emotion was telling you and what to do about it.
Emotions are similar to physical sensations. They inform you about your environment and give you information your mind can use to evaluate your world. You use emotions to decide whether you are safe or not in a particular place or with particular people. Emotions help you choose a job or a favorite restaurant. When deciding where to shop, who to hang out with, what shows to watch, what to eat tonight, or how to spend your time, you use emotions to inform your decisions.
Some people may want to criticize “emotional” decision making as easily manipulated or ignorant. What they are actually criticizing is people who are emotionally unhealthy and only feel the emotions, but can’t use those emotions to inform logical decisions. The reality is, you don’t have to let your emotions DRIVE your choices, you just need to let yourself be informed by them. The first step an emotionally healthy person takes is to notice the emotions and allow them to be what they are. The next step is to find out what information that emotion gave you and use it to inform logical decision making. One person might simply feel the emotion but ignore the logical decision making. Another might skip the emotion completely and make a decision that ignores some of the data available to them. Both of these are unhealthy emotional techniques.
Emotions are really important pieces of data you can use to find your way through life. If I’m hanging out with someone who regularly makes me scared, ignoring those emotions and continuing to stay in that relationship is a really unhealthy thing to do. If I’m in a job that makes me feel miserable every weekday while at the same time volunteering for an organization on the weekends that leaves me feeling full of joy, the emotions of that situation provide really important data that might help me change my life.
So let’s stop talking about “good” and “bad” emotions as if some are right and some are wrong. Yes, some feel better then others, but honestly, part of the reason some feel worse is that we have attached negative stigma to them. I suspect that if we were to remove the judgement around the “negative” emotions, some of their sting would be lost.
You need to get to a place where you can notice and feel your reactions to the world and accept them as they are. Your emotions are valid and should be felt and examined to see what they have to tell you about your life. They can point you toward what you need to get unstuck and find your purpose. They can inform you on who is healthy to hang out with and who isn’t. Emotions can even help you deal with stress by showing you what isn’t working in life.
If you are not used to feeling your emotions you need to start there. Learning to notice and identify your emotions can be a challenge. Many people don’t know what they feel beyond “glad,” “sad,” or “mad.” If you have trouble identifying other emotions, look up lists of emotions online and read some of the options. Then you need to take time every day to think back and notice what you felt. Even if it was momentary and immediately released, try to label it and identify why it came up.
If you are reasonably good at identifying your emotions but have no idea what to do with them, then your next step is to learn to feel and release them. Here are other articles you can read to give you some ideas of how to begin practicing this:
5 Ways to Honor Sadness Instead of Distracting From It by Erin Leyba LCSW, Ph.D.
How NOT To Abandon Yourself by Tina Gilbertson LPC
And just to be clear, feeling emotions does not necessarily mean having dramatic reactions to them. Temper tantrums, angry outbursts, throwing things, yelling, crying, or curling up in a ball are usually not necessary. You can feel your emotions without all the extra fuss and bother. In fact, the better you are at feeling your emotions the less you will need all the extra drama to experience and release them (but that’s another blog post).
Finally, if you know how to identify your emotions and let them go, but you still aren’t using them to inform your decisions, then it is time to work on that step. Emotions are vitally important pieces of information to inform your life. Your body and your emotions work together to give you signals about what you need to get unstuck and move toward your best life. If you are struggling with this piece then finding someone who will help you understand the messages behind your emotions is your next step. Counselors, coaches, and therapists are all trained to help you with this step of the process. Martha Beck’s book Finding Your Own North Star is remarkably helpful for this step of the process. You can also contact me on my website and we can talk about how the energy work and coaching I do can help you.
Most importantly, if you haven’t felt your emotions for a long time, or if you know you have been suppressing certain highly traumatic emotions, you need to take time to feel and release them. You can practice feeling your emotions in the moment, but if you don’t get rid of that backlog of old stuff hanging around, then you will stay stuck in your current situation. Get some professional help from someone experienced in the type of trauma you are dealing with to safely get in touch with your emotions and process your experiences. Your path toward wholeness and healing starts there.