Many of us are captives of our opinions. We’re “judgment- and evaluation-oholics.” We analyze everything and form opinions about it. We regard our judgments as absolute truth, never to be questioned. We reject whatever we don’t understand. The most insidious result is that out of fear, we deny major aspects of our deepest selves.
Conventional psychotherapy maintains that the way to manage strong emotion is to feel it and let it out; talk about it; and understand its origins. Why do you feel this way? How did it start? Often, when you examine past events from the protected perspective of hindsight, you discover that you had misinterpreted what happened. With release and proper understanding comes relief. The nightmare is over, thank God!
Unfortunately, no. Usually it’s not over, not completely.
Yes, you’ve done the work. You’ve cried, you’ve raged, you’ve shivered with fear. You analyzed all the events that led to your lifelong emotional distress. You understand what happened as fully as anyone could. It no longer runs you as it once did, steering you left when you wanted to go right.
But the painful emotion is still there. It haunts your dreams. It sneaks up when you least expect it. But you’ve dealt with it! You’ve released it fully a bazillion times, analyzed it to death. You’re sick of it! Why is it still hanging around?
Part of the problem is trying to use your rational mind to deal with a nonrational part of you. If you analyze a strawberry or a sunset or a great work of art or your marriage, no matter how hard you work, you can never capture the essence of the thing rationally. Emotions are a doorway into a deeper, transrational aspect of self. The deeper you open into yourself, the richer, the more dynamic, and the more multifaceted you become. No one can analyze a flowing river of life.
Resolving painful emotion is an essential aspect of growing up, of becoming an adult. Part of this process is accepting that you cannot rationally understand and analyze everything — thank God! This is a blessing, because once you give up trying to understand everything in a conventional sense, you open the way to a deeper kind of knowing.
Small children rarely edit their emotions. They let them come flying out. This release satisfies in the same way that finding a restroom feels great when we really have to go to the bathroom. Later, we learn that though dumping our emotions and blaming them on others brings release, the satisfaction doesn’t last long. Often we then have to clean up the mess we’ve made. So we learn to suppress. But that doesn’t work either.
Analyzing and “understanding” an emotion is just a fancy way of rationalizing and suppressing it.
The critical insight is that denying and burying a “painful” emotion simply makes it stronger and more terrifying.
Have you ever run from a monster in a dream? Most of us can tolerate this terrifying situation for only a few moments. Until the dream changes or we wake up, the harder we run, the more paralyzed we become. We weaken, slow down, and shrink in size. The monster becomes bigger, scarier, and more powerful. Our terror intensifies incredibly.
But why do we become progressively more paralyzed, and the monster increasingly more powerful?
Your fear strips your energy from you and feeds it to the monster. Precisely the same mechanism strengthens the emotions you resist. The more you try to avoid them, the mightier and more terrifying they become.
Here’s an exercise to illustrate the point. Right now, raise your right hand when you’re not thinking of a green elephant. Take a moment to try this now before reading further.
When I ask patients to do this, half raise their hand and look at me in triumph. They say they’re thinking of something else, or they insist they’ve stopped thinking of anything. Others get the joke: what I’ve asked them to do is impossible. Despite whatever trick you come up with, you can’t not think of something. The harder you try, the stronger it gets. If you think of something else — a blue elephant — the green elephant is right behind the blue one. If you cover up the elephant, you’ve simply created a covered-up green elephant, bigger and stronger than ever.
Let’s say you try the exercise and then find the green elephant won’t go away. How can you stop thinking about it? Again, take a moment to think of how to get rid of a green elephant. Remember, it doesn’t work to try to suppress it or kill it. You want to make it disappear!
The way you get rid of a green elephant is to not care at all whether you’re thinking of one. That’s it. Once you don’t give a damn one way or the other, it disappears. It may take awhile, particularly if you’ve put strong emotion into this exercise. You may have to acknowledge your feelings first. Some people have to befriend the green elephant before they can achieve not caring if it’s there.
How do you defeat the dream monster?
If running from the monster inherently makes it stronger and you weaker, what’s the alternative? Many people answer, “kill the monster.” But your paralysis makes that impossible. All you’ll do is make it angry (your anger feeds it).
Some people create a dream ally who defeats the monster. That’s not bad.
The best approach is to get the joke about what’s really going on: you’re demonizing a part of you that you need. There never was a monster; you made it up. You decided a part of you is awful and scary, and the rest follows. The fairy tales about Beauty and the Beast and the Frog Prince are wonderful allegories that describe this process.
So the way to handle the monster in the dream is to grab it and dance. You’ll immediately be filled with powerful emotion. If you can stay with it, the monster will transform into whatever it really is: some aspect of yourself you’ve rejected.
If dumping, analyzing, fighting, or suppressing your emotions — or blaming them on others — doesn’t work, what’s the alternative? I call it radical acceptance. I’ll explain.
The practice of mindfulness is growing in popularity among psychotherapists as a means to deal with painful emotion. It consists of deliberately taking the time to notice and acknowledge whatever you’re thinking and feeling. You don’t do anything with thoughts or feelings; you simply notice them. When you react emotionally, notice that. If you’re upset, notice that. Ditto if you’re happy or content. When you judge or evaluate your experience, notice that. Notice whatever.
Let’s say you decide to try mindfulness. You notice now you’re thinking, “This sounds really stupid.” Okay, that’s interesting. “No, really, I’m being taken advantage of again. It’s just like all the other times when someone talked me into doing something stupid.” Yup, that’s worthy of note too. Now you become upset as you recall specific times you felt like a fool. Great; keep noticing.
I have a mental image of leaning back in a chair, feet propped up on the desk, munching popcorn as I observe my experience. Kind of like watching a movie. This is a particularly useful image when your experience is upsetting. Maybe it’s a horror movie, or a suspense drama!
Whenever you can just hang out with your experience, and with whatever reactions you have to it, the sting of painful memories begins to dissipate. Your judgments and evaluations are just thoughts; actually they aren’t any more real than anything else. You don’t always have to be right. All those rules you learned from your parents are just that, rules. You begin to appreciate the humor in your self-righteousness. You stop struggling and begin to relax. You no longer feel overwhelmed or pursued. You’re alert and present in the moment, not spaced out or numb.
When a particular emotion or experience is particularly troubling, you can address it directly, with an even more powerful technique than mindfulness: what I’m calling radical acceptance. If mindfulness is watching the monster chase you in the dream, radical acceptance is hugging the monster and inviting it for tea.
Our culture teaches us that painful emotions will damage us. We’re certain that if we allow ourselves to feel fully, we’ll become overwhelmed, destroyed and swept away by the tsunami. The emotion will take over and will never let go. We’ll be stuck in it forever.
Of course, this fear bears a sliver of truth: any strong emotion exists outside time. In other words, when we feel something fully, for the few moments it’s there, the experience includes the certainty we’ll always feel that way. If we’re deliriously happy, we’ve always been happy and will always be happy; life is a joy! If we’re sad, life is horrible and can only remain that way; life sucks and then you die.
Strong emotion brings all sorts of cognitive distortions you can learn to recognize and not take seriously.
Radical acceptance is choosing to accept the experience you are having this moment, no matter what. You accept without believing them whatever judgments and evaluations come to mind. Like it, hate it, fear it, whatever happens, you accept it.
The trick is to create a safe space to feel strong emotion without becoming overwhelmed. I recommend learning how to create a ground of being through meditation or journaling. Learn how to create a warm, nurturing space where you can be with yourself in comfort and safety.
I use the analogy of how a loving parent soothes a small child who is crying and upset: he/she picks up the child, holds it softly, and listens to the child’s experience of becoming hurt or upset, without becoming involved emotionally in the incident itself. If the adult is composed and accepting, the child will calm down after he/she has fully described what happened. Most often, the emotional sting of the incident disappears, never to return.
So create a warm, nurturing space for yourself. Bring the strong emotion or painful memory into that comforting nest. Keep one foot in the nest as an observer and one foot deeply within your experience. Then become the emotion or memory. Feel it fully. Hang out with it. Let it move through you. Become the judgments and evaluations you’ve made without believing them.
Emotions have both a mental component and a variety of physical sensations. All are temporary and change as you stay with the experience. As you concentrate on the emotion and the sense it will stay this way forever, feel into the physical sensations. In what part of your body do you notice them? Hot or cold, moving or still, noisy or silent? Is there something a part of your body is trying to tell you?
There are dozens of questions you could ask about your experience in this moment. Stay with whatever is there. Notice how it begins to shift, one infinite moment blending into the next.
Hey, this is better than network television!
Pinning the tail on the donkey
As you become more aware of your experience, you discover that you constantly make assumptions about what’s happening around you. But these presumptions are your reactions to the emotions you’re avoiding. You project those emotions onto others and imagine they are acting in concert with your feelings. But that’s not true: people do whatever they do without reference to your emotions, unless you insist they participate in your inner drama.
Believing people act just like your inner demons is another example of the Pin the Tail on the Donkey game: projecting your emotions onto others and pretending it’s about them rather than about you.
On the other hand, there’s something about inner demons that creates self-fulfilling prophecies. You might find that it’s no fantasy — you repeatedly deal with incompetent, angry, sad, happy, abusive, violent, or whatever kind of people. Then the trick is to figure out why you keep winding up with such-and-such sort of people.
This isn’t passivity
Some people fear that aggressively accepting your feelings means you’ve become a wimp: not reacting appropriately when action is called for. Nonsense. A much better analogy is driving. You’re better off looking at the road around you than closing your eyes, so certain you know what’s going on you never have to look, or it’s so awful you can’t bear to open your eyes. In the same way, appropriate action follows knowing precisely what’s happening within you and around you.