Many of us are never taught to feel what we feel. Instead, we’re trained to ignore our emotions, to stifle them. We label them as “good” or “bad,” celebrating the good emotions and judging the bad ones.
But emotions–the whole spectrum–are normal, valuable components of our humanity. Additionally, the full experience and expression of them are necessary for our physical, mental, and spiritual health.
What are emotions?
Very simply, emotions are feelings in response to beliefs, perceptions, and situations in our lives. Not everyone has the same emotion in response to a situation, but everyone has emotions.
Our individual emotional expressions are formed by many things: our childhood influences and experiences, the communities we’ve been shaped by, our own particular personality traits, values, and preferences. We both inherit and create our unique emotional responses.
Patterns of Suppression
Joy and gratitude are generally valued by both ourselves and those around us. These expressions are pleasurable, and it naturally feels good to be around people who are experiencing and expressing pleasurable emotions.
However, more “negative” emotions like anger and grief don’t receive the same kind of social support. From a very young age, we’re discouraged from or even punished for expressing anger. Instead, we hear “Be nice!” Children are warned not to be crybabies, and adults are rushed through periods of real grief.
But Suppression Doesn’t Work
For the most part, we attempt to bow to social pressure and suppress the expression of our negative emotions. This quelling does seem to work, but only for the short term.
Actually, when we don’t allow ourselves to feel and express our authentic emotions, we begin to experience various forms of dis-ease. Physically, suppression of our emotions may lead to high blood pressure, low immune responses, or even serious life-threatening illnesses like cancer and heart disease. Mentally, we may have bouts of depression or high anxiety. Spiritually, we may feel abandoned and alone in a dark night of the soul.
An emotion suppressed is like a beach ball held under water. With a lot of attention and effort, you can keep it submerged for a while. However, sooner or later, it’s going to rise to the surface with great speed and force. And then, there it is, something that must finally be experienced and dealt with.
Out of Control
For some reason, many have absorbed the idea that allowing ourselves to feel our emotions will inevitably lead to out-of-control behavior. In fact, the opposite is true. A two-year-old may well throw a spontaneous temper tantrum, but most of us have unexpected outbursts of anti-social behavior only when we’ve suppressed the natural process of feeling and expressing our emotions until the beach ball bursts violently through the surface of our lives.
The Answer is Simple
The simple answer is to respect your emotions. To acknowledge them. To allow yourself to feel what you feel. Our emotions are actually gifts. If we stop reacting and just pause and pay attention to our feelings, we receive a lot of important information.
Upon noticing that I feel angry, I can stop and ask, “Why am I feeling angry?” If I realize I’m angry because someone is ignoring my healthy boundaries, I can honor myself by sitting and allowing myself to feel the anger without a knee-jerk response. Then when I am more calm, I can ask myself what I need to do to enforce those boundaries in a healthy, gentle, mature way, and then I can put that plan into action.
Alternately, I may discover that I’m angry because I’m tired. I haven’t been practicing proper self-care, so I’ve overreacted in an immature way. Even then, I can allow myself to face the anger without self-condemnation. I can think about ways of being kinder to myself so that I’m on a more even emotional keel. If I’ve lashed out in my anger, I can plan a thoughtful, heartfelt apology.
Both Sides Now
If I’m experiencing grief, I can respect my own natural timeline and let my sadness run its course with grace. If I’m afraid, I can sit with my fear and tap into my inner courage and wisdom. I can remind myself of my own strength and the times I’ve overcome past trials.
I can allow myself to feel happiness without guilt, realizing that I am not responsible for all the ills of the world, understanding that denying my own bliss helps no one. Notably, I can discern that honoring my own joy or peace or freedom does not keep me from wanting others to experience the same and acting in ways to help them achieve it, if I am so called. I can know that my own heartfelt joy radiates outward to someone who may need it, and this too is a service.
The Highest Use of Emotions
We are not here on earth to be unfeeling automatons. Our emotional highs and lows are an essential part of the human experience. They color and enrich our life journey in countless ways.
If we experience a negative emotion like greed or envy, we can notice how unpleasant it feels. Then we can use this feedback to choose another perspective, one that feels comfortable or pleasurable in the body and/or mind. In this way, a so-called negative emotion simply becomes a pathway to personal growth.
Positive emotions like love and generosity can be more than felt. They can be embodied. We can first feel the emotion, memorizing its physical, mental, and spiritual signature. Then, we can begin to practice those emotions at will, recalling the felt experience of the emotion. With sufficient practice, we can not only feel our emotions, but also be the expression of them. Consequently, we can become the change we wish to see in the world.