I was with a friend I hadn’t seen for years, and after being with her for an hour, I remembered why. She was hopelessly positive about everything. She had one rule about life, and that was to look only to the positive.
I understand what motivated her life’s rule – she didn’t want to descend into feeling hopeless and negative, and she was afraid she would if she stopped clinging to the positive. But what it did was alienate her from her own emotions, relegating some to bad and evil, and others to good.
Her rule also made it impossible for me to have a meaningful conversation with her; and I simply drifted away to more meaningful relationships.
In university, I learned that emotions represent our value judgments. They’re neither bad nor good. They simply let us know when we judge something as good or bad for us. When we feel pain, it’s because we’ve lost something or someone dear to us, or because we feel threatened by such a loss. When we feel joy, it’s because something or someone we value has connected with us – like an unforgettable sunset, or the face of a loved one we haven’t seen for a long time.
Psychologist Susan David argues we need what she terms emotional agility to thrive in a complex world. Refusing to feel certain emotions that we judge as “bad” will eventually lead to a loss of control over our lives, and plunge us into depression. Sometimes depression is expressed in a sense of hopelessness; most often is hides an unexpressed rage and anger. And so long as that anger is left locked down or bottled up, it will control us completely.
Research shows that when we ignore or bottle up an emotion, is simply gets stronger. It’s what happens when we obsess over something – like burnt marshmallow ice cream, or French fries, or that perfect size 2 figure. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as we try to ignore it, it will begin to dominate our thoughts. We’ll notice ice cream wherever we go, or anyone with the figure we want.
The same is true with any ignored emotion. I can’t imagine bottling up good feelings – ignoring how my heart soars when I see that sunset – but I can imagine ignoring the pain of being disrespected. When I ignore such pain, I tend to get super “professional”, until one day in the near future I don’t want to get out of bed, or I can’t get to sleep.
Bottling up our emotions simply doesn’t work. It literally makes us sick.
Ms. David’s and other research shows that in today’s world, a third of us judge our emotions as “good” or “bad”, and that depression is now the number one cause of disability in the world.
Not dealing with all our emotions stops us from dealing with the world as it is and plunges us into a world of fantasy. It renders us ineffective and non-resilient, unable to effectively deal with what life gives us.
The truth is that the only way to living happy is accepting all our emotions. When we accurately identify what we feel, we can better understand what is causing us to feel as we do. And this understanding generates our ability to take effective steps to deal with that cause.
Accepting, and honoring, all our feelings leads to resilience, and resilience leads to living a happy and contented life.
As Ms. David concludes, “discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life”.
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Maryanne Nicholls is a Registered Psychotherapist. To find out more, gain access to her weekly newsletter, meditations and programmes, sign up at www.thejoyofliving.co .