I had an interesting conversation recently about the movie Inside Out (side note: one of the unintended side effects of parenthood is most of my film viewing is family films; thank god for Pixar…)
The person I was talking to hated the message the film gives to kids. “It doesn’t tell children they can choose how they feel,” she said. “And I just couldn’t stand the way Sadness was always moping.”
Conversely, I had liked the message the film may have been imparting to my kids; namely, that we all have a range of emotions and we can share these, rather than trying to pretend they aren’t there, can’t lighten the burden.
As an adult, this is something I continue to deal with – how to respond to negative emotions. Do you wallow in the negative emotion? Or swallow it, suppressing it until you no longer feel it? Or can you allow the emotion to exist without taking over?
There’s little value in self-indulgent wallowing. Or giving into a tidal wave of emotion like anger and giving it free rein over one’s brain and subsequent actions. Emotions are highly fluid, changeable, and an intense feeling of sadness or anger or fear can seem almost laughable with even a few hours’ distance. So it can create problems for us when we act immediately on every emotion, only to feel silly or angry with ourselves when the moment has passed.
Emotions are highly fluid, changeable, and an intense feeling of sadness or anger or fear can seem almost laughable with even a few hours’ distance.
On the other hand, it’s harmful to ignore a negative emotion completely. I agree that we do have some agency when it comes to our emotions, and we can certainly challenge some of the underlying beliefs that may make a particular event lead to a particular emotional response.
But to deny ourselves the right to feel what we feel seems cruel. And ineffective. Very often the person who squashes any feeling of anger will find it seeps out of them in passive aggressive comments, or bursts forth over apparently minor triggers often disproportionate to the emotion that has finally broken free of its owner.
Being with uncomfortable emotions can be beautiful, helpful, and healing.
Around this same time, a friend was dealing with the imminent death of a beloved dog. She asked around for advice or support or wise words or even comforting words to help her through the next few days.
I was reminded of losing a friend a couple of years ago to cancer and how, at that time, mourning mindfully for my friend was the greatest comfort. Acknowledging and respecting the sadness and sometimes pain lent a kind of beauty to the weeks surrounding his death, and I look back at our goodbye Skype call (him in hospice, me at my home in London) with something akin to fondness. He couldn’t speak, he was so near the end, but I said goodbye and recalled some fond memories from our friendship, and he moaned as if he heard me, while another dear-yet-distant friend held the screen for us.
But the feeling was heavier than fondness. Allowing the sadness into my life eventually made room for a beautiful sense of love and gratitude. But it did mean sitting with uncomfortable feelings at times, and maybe giving up a lot of emotional and mental space to his death for a while.
Being uncomfortable isn’t always easy
Of course, the negative feelings we’re talking about are not always comfortable. Grief is heavy and exhausting. Anger bristles under the skin like an itch that wants to be scratched, urging you towards action. Anxiety wants escape. It’s easy to sit in the good times and talk about honouring the emotions, allowing them to be there, but much harder when you’re the one feeling overwhelmed by it.
But here’s the key, for me. Allowing the emotion doesn’t mean justifying it, or giving into it. We have the right to feel any emotion at any given time, but feeling it doesn’t mean the emotion is right in the sense of being correct in some fundamentally true way.
Recognising that I am not the emotion I am feeling gives me a different perspective from which to observe the feeling. Like gazing at the emotions passing my window as I sit in a comfortable armchair surrounded by calm. Not trying to understand it, or rationalise it, or put it into words. Just watching it.
For me, I find this particularly helpful with emotions like anger, which I find distinctly uncomfortable. As I wrote about recently, I find that when I’m angry, I spend a lot of mental resource justifying my position, which actually can look a lot like wallowing rather than allowing.
Identifying wallowing, not allowing, and allowing
So are you wallowing in an emotion, avoiding it, or allowing it to be there? Let’s use a particular example to see what these look like.
Note: I write about wallowing and suppressing emotions having had plenty of practice with each.
Example scenario: You recently met a friend for coffee and she kept saying things that made you think she was judging you for the way you raise your kids. You felt like she was undermining your parenting style the whole time, and one-upping you the whole time. You left feeling like a terrible mother, but also really angry with her for being that way when she’s meant to be your friend.
Here are some signs of wallowing in an emotion:
- Ruminating on what triggered the emotion. Maybe you’re mentally rehashing the conversation you had with your friend over and over again – what you said, what she said, what you said – getting angry all over again each time you go over it again.
- Building your case for why the emotion is valid and legitimate, such as talking about your friend with other people, looking for them to agree with you that she was being judgemental or her views on parenting aren’t correct. Or privately arguing your case to a non-existent judge and jury in your mind.
- Getting some weird satisfaction from acting on the uncomfortable emotion. So having a go at your friend, or maybe even making snide comments to her, just the right side of offensive that she doesn’t say anything, but clearly wrong-footing her, in a way that satisfies that anger-itch momentarily. With sadness it can look like excusing yourself for eating loads of sugar and staying in bed all day while the house looks increasingly like a tip around you. If guilt is the uncomfortable emotion, beating yourself up about it repeatedly.
Instead of wallowing, you could be swallowing the emotion. Using the same example of the judgemental friend above, this might look like:
- Building your case for why the emotion is not valid or legitimate. With this example, maybe you keep talking yourself down or making excuses for your friend. With guilt as the uncomfortable emotion, it could mean looking for evidence to let yourself off the hook, such as looking for others’ mistakes and using them to justify why you made the mistake you made and why it isn’t really your fault. Often this can lead to feeling frustrated with yourself for repeatedly feeling a way that you keep telling yourself isn’t valid, wondering if there’s something wrong with you that you keep feeling angry/depressed/anxious
- Flitting to other emotions or lines of thought whenever the uncomfortable feeling arises. So when you start by feeling guilty and then your brain suddenly changes gears and you feel angry and defensive instead. In our friend example, maybe it’s the opposite – you feel angry and this is immediately replaced with seeking your friend’s approval, starting to try to parent more like her or address the particular points about your parenting style that seemed to needle her,
- Busying yourself. Chronic busy-ness is often a tactic for suppressing uncomfortable or inconvenient feelings. So rather than allowing yourself to reflect on your conversation with your friend and how that left you feeling, you rush around and any time you sit still and the feelings arise again, you get up and start doing something else until the uncomfortable feelings and thoughts go away again.
Whereas allowing an emotion can look like:
- Taking compassionate self-care for while you’re feeling the uncomfortable emotion, such as taking some space from your friend so you don’t keep feeling triggered. Maybe it means tapping into your support network, or taking time for yourself.
- Acknowledge the emotion is there without having to label it as correct or wrong, good or bad. Feeling angry with your friend? Just notice it’s there right now. It may not be there in an hour. Or maybe it will be. You don’t have to do anything with it besides acknowledge it’s there. You may even choose to observe it as if it is a third party, be curious about it – what does it feel like in your body? How can you tell when you feel it? Again, just to be curious and to recognise it, not to do anything with it necessarily.
- Thank your brain for trying to protect you. Uncomfortable emotions all have some evolutionary purpose to protect us. Anger can tell us when a line is being crossed, when a personal boundary is being trespassed. We evolved to feel fear so we can avoid dangerous things that might kill us, and in the absence of lions hunting us this often looks like social exclusion or losing face. Even sadness can help us try to make up for a loss of some kind, which goes hand-in-hand with the positive emotions like love, ambition, and hope that may preface the sadness.
Pulling it all together
After you’ve allowed the emotion, you are in a much better place to make decisions about how to act. Often the simple act of allowing the emotion, just with yourself, makes outward steps directed at other people less relevant to you. Personally, I’ve been surprised at how the behaviours described above for allowing an emotion has helped me overcome my need to get the last word in an argument.
As an example, I recently was angry with someone. It doesn’t matter who it was or why I was angry. But I was angry. I was ruminating, building my case in my head and sometimes garnering support by talking about the situation with neutral third parties who didn’t know the person I was angry with. None of that helped. In fact, most of it made it harder for me.
I also tried suppressing the emotion, which made me feel awful – why am I always so angry, I wondered? What’s wrong with me? And I paid for busying myself and ignoring the emotions in the form of sleepless nights, the thoughts and feelings confronting me when I was lying in darkness with no means of escape.
The moment I started to allow the emotions, without making them ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, I felt a weight lift. I was angry. I didn’t have to ‘win’. I didn’t have to be right. The fact I was angry indicated a boundary had been crossed. Framing it that way, I was able to do something constructive besides ruminating. I looked at what my boundary was that had been crossed. Once I identified that, a constructive course of action became much, much clearer. I was able to take steps that helped me assert my boundary but – and this is important – without malice or venom to the person I had been angry with.
In fact, as I write this I realise I am no longer angry. Really. Not because anger is a bad thing or I’m trying to convince myself that I’m not angry. I was able to move beyond the anger by allowing it first.