Space for the Unpleasant
Accepting the emotions of living
BY: Troy Murphy |May 2014
"I shouldn't feel this way,” during bouts of uncomfortable emotions, we try to convince ourselves the emotion is wrong. There is something wrong—that’s the purpose of emotions. Our body is signaling loss of homeostatic balance. There is change that needs a response. A better understanding of this feeling, recognizing the internal motion, and the pushes to move helps us appropriately respond to achieve long-term intentions.
The lives we live, the choices we make, and the people whom we spend precious time with influences feelings, creating rich sources of input—some good and some not so good. Our body reacts favorably to some conditions and unfavorably to others. We feel the emotions. Our pasts burn into implicit and explicit memories, coupling with hardwired programming, interact with present inputs. We have some control of the felt experience—a skilled approach enhances future pleasant feelings. For example, when we are employed, managing money, and budgeting expenses, the stress of paying the monthly bills is mitigated. When we skillfully interact, limit destructive relationships, and develop intimacy, relationship anxieties subside. Present moment choices create future harmony or invite anxiety producing chaos, depending on perceptiveness and discipline in the present; but even the best choices don’t eliminate pain—we still experience loss, failure and disappointments.
We notice powerful emotions—both positive and negative. A strong emotion blasts through our serenity demanding action; something in the environment needs attention. Unpleasant emotions are essential for survival. The pain of a burn instinctively motivates pulling our hand from the fire. We instinctively try to resolve discomfort. We consciously—or unconsciously—survey the environment and make adjustments. But we error in our judgments; ego interferes, protecting the self. If the cause is internal but falsely projected to an outside trigger, the underlying cause slyly continues to exist disrupting our lives. We routinely create stories, place blame, and deny experience to sooth the discomforting, internal realities of our lives.
We stupidly wage war against our own feelings—as if feelings can be squashed by will-power. Discrediting, ignoring or denying biological responses is not healthy. Forcefully attempting to eliminate emotions disconnects the mind from feeling-states of the body. Even when denied, our body continues to experiences the stress, behind our strained and forced smiles.
Our bodies react to experience. We can’t change that. If we interpret an experience, consciously or not, as threatening, chemicals release into the blood changing body functioning —heart rate increases, oxygen in take increases, digestion slows, and glucose is released. We are prepared to respond. Emotions aren’t the enemy. Emotions prepare the body to engage experience—either seize opportunities or avoid threats. Consciousness, recognizing feeling states, is an evolutionary anomaly. Outside the human brain other species only marginally enjoy the same blessings and curses of consciousness. Awareness properly used broadens our understanding of the distinct biological complexity of living creatures—especially ourselves.
We not only feel but are aware we are feeling.
Awareness of bodily reactions—emotions—opens deeper explorations of the psyche, discovering connections between the self and the environment. Consciousness isn’t perfect. We misinterpret emotions, intensifying or softening the original emotion. Our thoughts generate secondary emotions; sometimes complicating the true causes of the original reaction.
Our thoughts can spur anger to cover feelings of sadness. We can feel guilty for feeling angry. We may even feel sad about being sad. The first emotion triggered by experience followed by a second emotion generated from the thoughts stirred by the original emotion. If in the past, we experienced debilitating depression, the smallest feeling of sadness signals the in coming storm, we begin to fret and then panic, and eventually experience another episode of debilitating depression. The first emotion triggers more powerful emotions. When an emotion becomes threatening, we automatically respond as we do to any other threat—by freezing, fighting or fleeing.
We can interrupt the entrapping cycles of feeling and thinking with mindfulness. Mindfully examining emotions from a safe distance lessons the impact of the secondary emotions. Instead of being at war with the original emotion, we become an interested participant. We carefully and skeptically exam the emotion for causes and strive to constructively implement effective resolutions. Fighting against the emotion is frustrating, leaving us discouraged and feeling helpless.
Mindfulness is a skill, requiring practice and patience. Mindfulness expands emotional intelligence, developing greater control over life. Emotional intelligence is the foundation of social connectedness and intimacy.
We attend to unpleasant feelings by creating space, diminishing the fear of the emotion. Discomforting emotions will continue to visit—no matter how healthy our choices; but the discomfort will be more manageable. We learn to work through sadness, fear and anger while continuing to make healthy choices, engaging in activities that nurture mental well-being and improve futures. When feelings determine how we act, life spirals out of control, creates chaos, and generates more of the feelings we desperately seek to avoid.