Why your emotions are allies, not enemies

Most of us have this basic idea that there are good and bad emotions. Good emotions are things like happiness, excitement and calm. Bad emotions are things like fear, anger, sadness and shame. 

In our culture today, the idea is very strongly promoted that we shouldn’t feel any of the bad emotions – nor should we express them. We should just be feeling good emotions all the time. This idea is so strongly promoted that we often feel like there is something wrong with us if we’re not always happy.

But the reality is that there is no such thing as a ‘bad’ emotion. Some emotions are more unpleasant to experience than others, but none are inherently bad or truly negative. 

All emotions serve a purpose

Our emotions are like messengers. They hold valuable information about how best to navigate our lives. 

The more difficult feelings like anger, regret or sadness often hold the most valuable information about where we need healing, where we might need change in our lives, where our boundaries or values may not have been honoured, or where our needs have not been met.

If we don’t listen to our emotions, we may miss out on opportunities to live our values more fully, heal our wounds, look after our wellbeing and grow in mental strength. We can stay stuck in old patterns.

Here’s a simple example: a feeling of loneliness, if listened to and honoured, may well be signalling to us that we need more connection in our lives and we can act on that. 

A feeling of anger or sadness might be telling us that the behaviour of another person is not feeling ok for us or that some aspect of our life situation isn’t right for us. This can be a catalyst for us to ask for change or make change. 

And a feeling of guilt about something we did in the past can tell us a lot about the kind of person we would like to be going forward in the future. 

Most of us often feel a strong urge to struggle with, distract ourselves from, push through, or numb difficult thoughts and emotions. However, this can lead to avoidance behaviours like:

  • Shopping
  • Emotional eating
  • Scrolling the web
  • Drinking more than usual

These behaviours in and of themselves in small doses are not problematic, but if they become your main strategy for dealing with unpleasant emotions, they can become addictions and it can be detrimental to our wellbeing. Plus, what we resist, persists. If we continuously avoid feeling our emotions – they will persist. Research shows that struggling with difficult emotions in all of the above ways makes them bigger and ensures they stay around longer.

Allies – not enemies

The other thing to note is that when we’re struggling with difficult emotions, it’s like we’re treating emotions like enemies instead of allies. We have this adversarial response to them and we try to get rid of them, stuff them down or ignore them.

Imagine sitting in a room with your difficult emotion. It wants your attention. Perhaps because it’s hurting and wants your care, or it’s vulnerable and seeking support, it’s frightened and it wants you to keep it safe.

Now, imagine you respond by telling it to go away. Telling it you don’t want it here. Ignoring it or physically trying to push it away somewhere. 

But it’s still there. It’s not going away…

Why? It may be that alot of the time they may actually be trying to tell us something very important! There may be a message we have not yet heard.

The science backs it up

Interestingly, according to Harvard brain scientist Dr Jill Bolte Taylor, 90 seconds is the average lifespan of an emotion when it is met with awareness, understanding, and compassion.

MRI studies of the brain show that this labelling of the emotion in a caring way, by saying something like “OK…stress is here” actually calms the brain region involved in emotional reactivity, helps you regain control and allows the emotion to naturally pass through.

Dr Jill Bolte Taylor goes on to say that emotions tend to only last longer when we become reactive to them and fused with them, or we start to struggle with them mentally.

Here is a simple three-step practice you can try

Step 1.

Pause and become still when you feel any difficult or unpleasant emotion, mentally note or name it as in, “Stress is here.” 

Step 2. 

Have the feeling of welcoming it with genuine warmth and care it, you might even mentally note, “Darling, I’m here for you.”

Step 3. 

Ask yourself, “If this emotion had a voice, what would it say?” and then listen for any answers.

My invitation for this week and ongoing is this. Try to see difficult emotions not as bad or wrong, see them as invitations to the parts of ourselves that crave attention. See them as opportunities for wisdom, healing and growth. See them as allies not enemies.

Wishing you all the best with this practice. Take care and stay strong.

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