Lately, I have been spending a lot of time focusing on the notion that life is supposed to be rough, 50% of the time. It brings to my mind the ancient Yin Yang symbol. The Yin Yang can be interpreted, literally to mean “shady side” and “sunny side” and stands for the idea that two opposite dualities create the balanced whole. The Tao Te Ching describes the same:
“When people see things as beautiful, ugliness is created. When people see things as good, evil is created.” One cannot exist without the other.
In our modern lives, these ancient concepts mean that there is a higher purpose for our negative experiences and emotions. If that is so, why is it that so many of us spend our lives trying to avoid and resist negative emotions? In honor of this concept, I’ve been spending more time examining negative emotions in my life. Specifically, I have been trying to better understand what it means to experience negative emotion – where is it located in my body? What do I do when I feel that emotion? How do I act? How do I show up? What is going on in my head that is creating that feeling?
One of the most common misconceptions so many of us have about our lives is that everything should be good – better – happier.
Everyone just wants to be happy. Your marriage should be happy, parents should be supportive, family members should be loving. Abuse should not happen, infidelity should not occur, etc. These thoughts that our lives “should be” happier are toxic. They cause us to resist the bad bits of life, to struggle against negative experiences and emotions, to bury them and avoid them. When we are feeling upset about life, we tell ourselves It wasn’t supposed to be this way. This was not supposed to happen. Or we make ourselves the victim of our circumstances. I was the victim of abuse. My horrible boss fired me. None of these actions or thoughts create happiness. They just perpetuate the misery until it resurfaces again.
So what is so bad about these emotions that we have to run from them and bury them? What is so bad about being angry? What is so bad about feeling sad? It’s just a vibration in our bodies. It stems from our thoughts about neutral circumstances.
What so many of us struggle to see is that negative emotions and experiences are the foundation of a happy life.
If we didn’t know the pains of loss, we wouldn’t be able to understand and experience love. If we hadn’t experienced anxiety, we wouldn’t be able to appreciate or even identify feelings of peacefulness. In other words, if our lives were 100% positive all the time, that positivity would lose its value. It would no longer mean anything to us. We would not be able to see those positive experiences and emotions for what there are – they are a departure from sadness, loss, guilt, fear, etc. Happiness and positive emotions exist only in the absence of the negative and vice versa. Yin and yang.
So why, then, is it that so many of us spend our lives trying to avoid negative emotions and feelings? What are we so afraid of? I have clients that want so much more in their lives but they aren’t willing to take action because they are afraid they will fail.
They are afraid of what the failure will feel like.
In order to avoid embarrassment, guilt and shame, they simply choose not to take action at all. Because they are afraid of those negative vibrations in their bodies. Many of us are driven by avoidance of those negative emotions. We buffer them with work, exercise, alcohol, blame, etc. just to try and create a jolt of happiness or distraction to cover up the negative emotions underneath. Others make themselves victims rather than face their negative feelings of embarrassment or shame. They never truly own the fact that they are feeling embarrassed or shameful and can’t recognize that it’s okay to experience those emotions—it’s part of the human experience. They make excuses and buffer so that they can forget and ignore the feelings. But this never works! It just delays the inevitable meltdown.
Similarly, some of my clients are dreaming big. They want more for themselves – bigger houses, more money, more prestigious jobs, etc. When we work through those dreams, what we ultimately find is that they want those things because of how they believe they will feel once they achieve those things. Feelings of worthiness, pride, peace, etc. Only once they achieve those goals will they allow themselves to think positively about themselves and experience those emotions. So they strive toward those goals, looking for an external source of internal positivity.
In the end, whether you are acting towards your dreams or not acting towards you dreams, you are being driven by your feelings –feelings you want to have or feelings you are avoiding.
Now consider that everything you feel is the product of your thoughts. You can choose to think thoughts that create peace, pride or worthiness. You don’t need to wait for an external event to think thoughts that will generate those emotions. One the other hand, if your thoughts are creating feelings of worthlessness or shame, how is that so scary? It’s just a thought creating sensations in your body. Those thoughts are not truths and those feelings are not going to hurt you.
Now this doesn’t mean that we should automatically replace all of our negative thinking with positive thoughts so that we can feel happy all the time. That is directly inconsistent with the premise that life is 50-50 and that we can’t have the good without the bad.
But what is so essential is being able to accept that sometimes you will feel negative emotions and that is okay.
What’s more, you recognize your negative emotions and positive emotions and learn what thoughts are creating those outcomes. We can gain so much understanding about our lives and our experiences if we can become better stewards of our minds and our emotions. This doesn’t mean that we replace negative thoughts with positive thoughts, what it means is that we become intimate acquaintances with negative emotions. That we learn the thoughts that are generating those emotions so that we can learn more about ourselves. Certainly at some point you may be able to start adjusting those thoughts to stop creating negative emotions but at that point, you will have a deeper understanding of those negative emotions and they will no longer hold you back. Once you become intimate acquaintances with anxiety, for instance, you will no longer fear that emotion, it will no longer control you. You will be able to recognize it and choose how you move and act when you are feeling the emotion of anxiety. You will reclaim the driver’s seat.
For example, Sunday evenings are often anxiety-ridden for me. On Sunday nights, my weekend to-do list resurfaces and I start feeling guilty about all the things I did not accomplish over the weekend. Then, I inevitably tell myself that instead of relaxing with my partner, I “should” tackle a few more things on my list. Then I start feeling guilty about my lack of accomplishments, and then I start feeling guilty for not being present with my partner, and then I beat myself up for my inability to relax, and thus the cycle begins! Whenever I am feeling this way, I snap at my partner and criticize him, I pull away from him and don’t show up as the partner I want to be. Then, after I have sufficiently beaten myself down, I get up and started running around, an anxiety-fueled speed demon trying to get 10,000 things done at once so I can feel like I am worthy and productive. All the while this goes on, I beat myself up, telling myself what a terrible partner I am and how I should be better to him, and I should be more organized, and around and around it goes.
Lately, I have been focusing on simply sitting with this anxiety. I know it is coming and when it does, I just sit with it and feel it in my body….a tightness in my chest, a dull headache and dizziness, a slightly racing heart. I just sit still and feel those sensations in my body. As I sit there, I observe the thoughts swirling around my brain and resist the urge to spring up and get to action in an attempt to make myself feel better (buffering!). Instead, I just sit there, watch the thoughts, feel the sensations in my body and introduce myself to my friend, anxiety. Hello, my friend, I see that you have arrived once again. That’s okay. Come sit with me awhile…
It has been transformational to observe this from a removed perspective. I had no idea how strong the urge to act and buffer against those negative emotions was for me. I was so used to letting those thoughts and feelings switch me into auto-pilot. Since starting this work, I have been able to overcome the visceral urge to jump up and do something to “make myself feel better.” Instead, I just identify all the negative things in my mind that were making me feel terrible. As I sat there and watched them, it was like they lost their power. I no longer felt anxious or scared and the urge to act slipped away like an afterthought. The chatter in my brain dimmed. I was still left with my knowledge of those negative thoughts but the power of that emotion of anxiety waned significantly and I was able to show up and be more present while carrying the weight of those thoughts and feelings with me. I have no doubt that this will continue to be a challenge for me but I am lessening the fear of that feeling of anxiety. I am learning to identify it and just live with it – it doesn’t have to control me or drive my actions like a mad woman. It is just a part of my life sometimes and that is okay. I can carry it with me and be just fine. I can just be still with it and learn to better understand it. Maybe someday I will be able to let go of those thoughts creating my Sunday night anxieties but for now, we are still getting to know each other.
Are you being driven by negative emotions? What could experiencing, rather than resisting or buffering negative emotions do for you? Have you considered which of your thoughts are creating those feelings? The answer may surprise you!
Experiencing negative emotions is the most valuable skill I can teach my clients. Coach with me and let me show you how this skill can change your life!