This was me yesterday. And possibly the day before.
Stop me if this sounds familiar: Something happens that pisses you off. Or makes you jealous. Or causes you to burst into tears at incredibly inconvenient times. Like a staff meeting. Or during a conversation with a new acquaintance. Or in the checkout line at Target. (Maybe this last one is just me?)
And then, instead of just allowing yourself to feel whatever comes up—excusing yourself to cry in the bathroom, letting yourself feel rage that someone cut you off in traffic, graciously receiving a tissue and a 10% off coupon from the Target cashier—you begin a very nasty process of berating yourself for having the emotion in the first place:
“I shouldn’t feel jealous about Stan’s promotion because I have a good job and am lucky to be employed.”
“I shouldn’t be so angry at my husband for never picking up his clothes – he works hard and is helpful in other ways.”
“I shouldn’t still be sad about Joe’s passing – it was over a year ago.”
“I shouldn’t cry when I’m frustrated. Ugh – I’m such a *girl.*”
Here’s the thing, though. Babies are generally born with the capacity to feel the full range of human emotions. This is by design. Because human emotions – every last one of them – are incredibly useful and functional.
Somewhere along the way, we decided that we know better (as we tend to do). Collectively, we chose to ignore this functionality by labeling certain emotions as “bad.” You know, emotions such as hate and anger and jealousy and grief.
Which is really too bad for the human race.
Because when we try to make certain emotions go away, we miss out on the gifts that these emotions offer us. We deny them their function by trying to shame them away.
Anger, for instance, is incredibly useful in letting us know when one or more of our boundaries has been violated.
Feeling angry because your Aunt Margie is coming for her fifth visit of the year, without asking in advance whether it’s a good time for you?
While that anger might feel like it is directing you to short-sheet Aunt Margie’s bed or drink three glasses of wine before she comes, what it is actually asking you to do is set a better boundary by saying “No.”
Is your anger toward Aunt Margie starting to snowball into hatred that you would never admit to anyone but dear God it is burning you up inside?
That hatred is long-standing anger urgently trying to get your attention about setting boundaries, like RIGHT NOW.
Emotions are like a really cool map that can guide us to freedom.
Which is exactly what we teach our children.
Instead, most children are taught that anger is unacceptable (“if you don’t calm down, you’re going to get spanked!”), sadness is only allowed for a few moments at a time (“stop being such a baby!”), and that jealousy makes them horrible people. (“I’m tired of you focusing on what your sister has – you’re so ungrateful!”)
Imagine a world in which people felt free to say, “I won’t be in today, Judy. I’m taking a day to sit with my feelings of anger and see what they have to tell me.” Or, “Can you get the kids today, Bob? I need to stay in bed and cry and let go of some stuff that’s been gunking me up for a while.”
Doesn’t sound appealing? Well, now imagine that this new world is also free from relationships in which people lash out at each other instead of owning their stuff, passive-aggressiveness, and co-workers constantly causing drama in the workplace.
Because that’s the connection: when we allow space to simply let our emotions flow through us without trying to DO anything about them and then get real curious about what they are trying to tell us, there isn’t a need to have them leak out in all sorts of other messy ways.
As far as I know, there has never been a human being anywhere who ceased feeling sad simply because he told himself to stop feeling sad. Emotions don’t work that way, and they are not supposed to. We are meant to feel them, let them impart their wisdom, and then let them go.
I can promise you this: learning to start sitting with the emotions that scare you the most, even just a little at a time, will transform everything. At the very least, please stop putting poop on top of poop by judging yourself for having emotions in the first place.
If you really do still feel compelled to call yourself something the next time you experience an “unsavory” emotion, may I suggest: