Once, I was leading a group of women through an emotional expression practice. I demoed for them: screams and growls of anger, moans of sadness, dry heaves of disgust.
When I told them it was their turn, many of the women participated, some a bit hesitantly – and two in particular did not participate at all.
At the end of the practice, as we were sharing our experiences, one of the women said, “I don’t understand. Why would I purposely want to feel anger or sadness?”
This is so common in a society that teaches us to shut off our emotions, that promotes positive thinking, saying only the good emotions are appropriate, those are the only ones we want to be feeling.
This society believes that some feelings are pure and some are sinful. Some are Good and some are Bad. Anger and grief, obviously, are bad. They are “negative emotions.”
But there is nothing about these emotions that is inherently bad.
There is nothing about the emotions themselves that is wrong or needs to be fixed.
To be taught that sadness is an unfortunate thing to feel is not based in truth. It was decided by humans that sadness is bad, and feels bad.
Emotions are a way we process experiences. When a deer goes through a scary experience, it doesn’t get caught up in how it was so afraid – it shakes its body, processes the feeling, and moves on. When a horse loses its friend, it grieves – sometimes for years. It doesn’t avoid grieving or get upset about how its been grieving for so long and decide something’s wrong with it for not getting over the death more quickly or for having to experience it in the first place. It just grieves for as long as its body needs to grieve, and that’s it.
Our minds are the reason that we get so attached to our different emotional experiences. We create stories around them. We create meanings for them. We try to decide that one thing means something and the other thing means another.
We’ve lived for a long time in the shadow (or direct light, really) of a Judeo-Christian narrative of the world. There is God, and there is Satan. Some things are good and some things are bad.
When you take this on as a belief system (and you will absorb some pieces, if you grow up around it), you will decide that only some things are appropriate or acceptable to experience and feel.
And no one teaches us how to feel so-called “negative” emotions, because they’re avoided at all costs.
There is nothing that decides that some emotions are terrible and others are better.
It is not a rule. It is not an objective truth.
This doesn’t mean that you need to be delighted to grieve – of course it doesn’t, because constant delight is not the goal.
But it does open up the possibility that there is nothing wrong with any of the ways that you’re feeling.
You might find yourself going into a spiral around your emotions: feeling irritable, and then feeling annoyed that you feel irritable, and then feeling like you should fix the irritableness, and then feeling annoyed that you feel like you should fix yourself, and then going into a never-ending cycle.
This cycle gets cut short if your new belief system is that it is completely acceptable to feel irritable.
You must feel the emotions fully in your body.
I spent many, many years grieving my younger brother’s car accident in a way that was almost completely unproductive and unhelpful.
I kept going to yoga classes where I would sit and cry. I cried at home, I cried in the car, I cried in meditation.
I thought I was doing exactly what I needed to do – I wasn’t avoiding the emotion, I was feeling it.
But no one ever taught me how to feel an emotion and process it fully in my body.
Instead, I was crying while I thought about what had happened to my brother. I was in my mind – I wasn’t in my body. I was reliving the accident, sometimes effectively re-traumatizing myself. I was focused on the story of the accident, on the story of losing my brother, on how awful it was that it happened to him and to me.
I wasn’t focused on the feeling of grief that was physically living inside of my body. I was focused on my narrative of the grief.
When I started to focus on what I felt in my body, it allowed the feeling to expand through me fully. Sometimes that meant more tears, sometimes it meant intense screams, sometimes it even meant nausea and puking.
And finally, it meant that I actually started to process the stuck emotion.
I healed the majority of the anxiety I was carrying from my brother’s accident in seven months when I did practices like this regularly. Seven months, after six years of crying prior had done close to nothing for me.
Awe and wonder are your new best friends.
In one of my favorite books of all time that I will reference forever, Deep Survival (that’s not an affiliate link because Amazon banned me from their program since my nipples are on my website #truestory), Laurence Gonzales analyzes the stories of people who have survived and died in the wilderness, looking for the traits they have in common. In addition to a sense of humor, many of the people who survived incredibly intense experiences reported having a sense of awe and wonder about the world around them. Instead of getting so wrapped up in their panic and how wrong it was that they were having their experience, they instead took moments to look at the moon, to consider wildlife, to wonder at how bizarre and awe-worthy the world around them was.
I suggest replacing the belief of “some emotions are wrong and unpleasant and bad to feel” with this new belief: “My ability to feel a range of expressions is incredible, I love being able to feel everything so fully, and I am in awe of what life has to show me.”
Every emotion gets to be pleasurable.
While constant happiness is not an achievable or admirable goal, I do think that every emotion can give you pleasure, if you choose it.
Anger. Grief. Jealousy. Fear. Disgust. Rage. Sadness.
If you close your eyes and connect to your body and that emotion for a moment, you might find that it’s possible… that there juuust might be an opening… for that feeling to be a tiny bit erotic.
Our bodies like feeling. They were built to feel.
There can be immense pleasure found in roaring in anger, in wailing in deep sadness, in convulsing in disgust.
The pleasure is found in the fullness, in allowing ourselves to completely have the experience.
Pleasure does not equal happiness. But it does equal a sense of peace, a sense of being good with all of life.
I don’t sit in pleasure about the fact that my brother was in a car accident. But I do sit in pleasure with the amount I am able to feel around it, in the immense amounts of grief I can express in my body. I feel pleasure in getting to be human in this way. I feel pleasure around the ways that I’ve chosen to relate to the world since then.
When you expand your capacity to feel pleasure around one emotion, you expand your capacity to feel it in another.
When I allow myself to feel grief so fully that it triggers a fear of being completely torn apart, I also open myself up to feeling way more joy.
Pleasure gives you power. When you can feel pleasure in all aspects of life, you’ll suddenly find that possibilities feel endless, that anything feels manageable, and that you have more control over your life than you ever thought possible.