- The Facts:
Our difficult emotions are not just unpleasant experiences. They have hidden gifts, including the capacity to transform our lives into more joy and wholeness. They impart wisdom and compassion we can't find living on, or fearfully clinging to, the su
- Reflect On:
Which emotions do you have trouble feeling or accepting in yourself and others? These might be the frontiers you need to embrace and enter to more fully embody your life.
Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It is a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.
Unless we look into and skillfully navigate our dark sides, we can’t become our fullest selves. Consequently, we can’t truly love ourselves and the world as much as we are capable. Following Pema Chodron’s reasoning: if we cannot bear our own pain, how can we bear the pain of others? If we are afraid of our own suffering, how can we genuinely stand with another in theirs and thereby be the friend possible?
Below I list eight natural, universal emotions that at first blush we might feel like avoiding. This list is a kind of treasure hunt, revealing what we get to discover when we welcome and allow these at first uncomfortable feelings to be, and eventually change us from our depths on up through our heart and mind. For this growth to happen, we first have to be honest with ourselves—to be aware of what we are feeling and able to name it. Then we can embrace the feelings and go from there.
Notice how each “negative” emotion mentioned below informs us of our care. To welcome and work with our shadow emotions enables us to care more. Caring also requires sensitivity. So, if we have a sensitive heart, we will likely feel all these difficult emotions in good measure. And, when we learn how to intimately, courageously and patiently dance with them, they give us more heart and more inner power. Each emotion is therefore a portal to fulfill our capacity for greater love—love for ourselves, for those we love, and the Earth itself.
Difficult Emotion #1: Guilt
Guilt is usually a signal that we have acted, or might act, inappropriately. Guilt brings us back to our values, morality, and care for one another. Guilt shows us where we have acted poorly and can do better. Guilt keeps us accountable to one another. Guilt (that we have done wrong) need not become shame (that we are wrong or bad). We can harvest the lesson in our guilt (oftentimes along with our remorse), make amends, and forgive ourselves. For example, if I feel guilty that I wasn’t fully honest with you and this cost you, I might make an amend and confess my shortcoming.
Sitting with guilt allows the sting of wrongdoing to impress a lesson upon us, or to change our hearts for the long term. Guilt need not be self-hatred, self-condemnation, or endless regret. It can be a mature reckoning and opportunity for more integrity. Note, guilt can also be a symptom of depression and OCD, in which case it’s best to notice it and not ruminate on it or try to mine it for wisdom.
Difficult Emotion #2: Anger or Rage
Almost every instance of anger arises because something we treasure has been threatened or taken away. It shows us what we care about and how we feel violated. Anger is the smoke alerting us to the fire of where we have been hurt. Anger shows us where our boundaries are, and welcoming the energy of anger helps us set boundaries. Anger protects what we love and shows us how much we care and value what is rightfully ours, or what is another’s. In the face of abuse, for example, anger or even rage, is an appropriate response. It protects our vulnerability.
Sitting with anger, without acting it out violently (unless appropriate in the moment to set a strong boundary) empowers our functional ego, or sense of self. It’s good, however, to make sure we get the facts straight before we let our anger take over, so we are not acting out on false assumption. With all this said, I find anger one of the less remunerative emotions to perpetuate. I try to get the lesson, hear the message from anger, then try to skillfully express, discharge, or let it go (not suppress or perpetuate it in thought and heart) as soon as possible. In excess, anger ages, wears us down, and burns bridges of support. At the same time, not embracing and discharging anger in healthy ways can sabotage and age us even more quickly.
Difficult Emotion #3: Fear
There is helpful and unhelpful fear. Helpful fear shows us our limits and where our limits for self-protection are, and therefore, what we care about. Fear of heights, or walking at the edge of a cliff, help us be careful so we don’t hurt ourselves. This is helpful fear. We all have limits, and healthy fear tells us when to stop and what to avoid, or to be careful in proceeding. Sitting with helpful fear shows us how to take care of ourselves and others, how to avoid harm. Unhelpful fear should be confronted, skillfully, and in good timing, so it doesn’t prevent us from achieving our goals. Asking that someone special out on a date or taking the steps to follow through on a dream, despite the fear, is confronting unhelpful fear and not letting it hold us back. We can’t help feeling unhelpful fear, and sometimes rather than try not to feel fear, the way to conquer it is simply to “Feel the fear and do it anyway.”
Difficult Emotion #4: Remorse
Remorse is related to guilt. It signals us that we have made a mistake, caused harm, or could have done better. Remorse arises because we care; otherwise we wouldn’t care how our actions affect others. Sitting with remorse allows it to teach us a heartfelt lesson. The remorse we feel because we didn’t take the time to review the pesticide-impact report accurately, or because we didn’t make the call that would have prevented a disaster, can all be good medicine. It’s important to allow remorse and not excessively beat ourselves up about it, which also gives us the opportunity to practice forgiveness. Remorse is tinged with sadness, which arises from caring, which is why it’s a good sign to feel remorse; it means we have a heart, care about life, and have a moral compass.
Difficult Emotion #5: Despair
Despair is tough and humbling. Sometimes we can’t help but despair. Despair has an element of giving up, and this total or partial surrender can bolster our capacity for letting go of unnecessary control. When we do, we can find inner strength we didn’t know we had, as well as outside support in those who come to our aid. Inside despair is the kernel of faith. Despair can be a path to what we might call God or Spirit, which is often our own resiliency and trust that things will somehow work out when we have given up, or feel like we have nothing left.
It’s important to have support and to self-motivate when appropriate so that despair does not unnecessarily turn to depression and self-harm. Falling apart in the arms of despair can be a powerful way to contact our depths and find that invisible inner fortitude. This is best done with people who can stand by us, hold us, and keep our heads above water, if indeed we are afraid of figuratively drowning. When we have support and can weather its storm, despair also reveals what we care about and who unconditionally cares for us.
Difficult Emotion #6: Worry or Anxiety
Worry can be unrealistic or realistic, and shades of both, just like fear. Noticing what we worry about can show us what we care about; otherwise, why would we bother to worry? Some are worrywarts, in which case it’s helpful to try not to worry as much, while preserving the kernel of care in worry. Sometimes it’s appropriate to act in order to reduce worry. If I’m worrying about having left the gate open, getting up and closing it abets my worry. Other times, when our worry is more unrealistic, we don’t need to act as much as we need to bring our minds back into balance. Sitting with realistic worry shows us what we need to do to protect ourselves and others, even if it’s as simple as closing the gate or moving a glass from the edge of the table. Worry brings out the care in our hearts or our fear of harm. Controlling negative and anxious thinking, getting the facts straight, and breathing deeply all help keep worry from becoming exaggerated, unrealistic, and getting the best of us. Worry is our hearts thinking out loud about what we care for.
Difficult Emotion #7: Grief
Grief is the price we pay for the privilege of love. Yet, it’s only a temporary cost, for I consider grief the most soul-making of the emotions. Grief takes us down into ourselves; it is the polisher of our souls. Grief dissolves our pain, which making it invaluable for living as a sustainable person. For if we don’t clear our hearts of pain, the tendency is to poison the world and others with the hurt we didn’t allow it to dissolve. Within grief is the blossom of rebirth from suffering and loss. The more we grieve, the more we can love; and the more we love, the more we feel the sting of loss. To deny grief is to deny love. While most of us don’t want to feel the drag, dullness, and despair of grief, it is a natural and healthy reaction to loss. Grief is a symbol of our love and when we can welcome it, we give our hearts the opportunity to break and grow as wide as the world. Grief work is an aspect of grief that I describe as intentionally entering our past pain, especially that from childhood, that has not been resolved. This work frees our lives from the inside out as nothing else can. Grief is merely the other side of feel-good love and is always in fluid communication with it.
Difficult Emotion #8: Envy or Jealousy
Envy, as the desire for what someone else has, points to our fulfillment. It brings out our longing and desire and shows us what we want and what we can work for to make our lives better or more enjoyable. Of course, it’s important to make sure that what we are envious of is something we truly want and value, and not just an excuse to hate on someone. Sometimes we feel a heavy dose of envy because we don’t want to work for the success another has. Yet, once we admit our admiration for someone else’s success or freedom, we can use that inspiration to work to acquire what we envy, and admire our own progress and achievements.
Jealousy, which is feeling threatened that what we cherish will be taken away or injured, is often accompanied by anger. In wanting to possess, jealousy shows us what we value, what we want to protect, what we would feel pain in losing. The element of anger, or even worry, in jealousy helps us set boundaries and limits to protect what we want and care about. Marriage, or committing to monogamy, are examples.
I hope this deeper glimpse into difficult emotions allows you to lean into and appreciate them for their uncommon gifts and not throw out their wisdom with the bathwater of knee-jerk reaction of temporary discomfort. Yes, they can be difficult and bring us down, but when we wisely work with them, and for long enough, they release their nectar, transform us into better and kinder people, and initiate us to our shared humanity. Their benevolent darkness gifts us depth and beauty we can’t otherwise find in the sunny side of life alone.
Jack Adam Weber, L.Ac., M.A., is Chinese medicine physician, having graduated valedictorian of his class in 2000. He has authored hundreds of articles, thousands of poems, and several books. Weber is an activist for embodied spirituality and writes extensively on the subjects of holistic medicine, emotional depth work, and mind-body integration, all the while challenging his readers to think and act outside the box. His latest creation is the Nourish Practice, a deeply restorative, embodied meditation practice as well as an educational guide for healing the wounds of childhood. His work can be found at jackadamweber.com, on Facebook, or Twitter, where he can also be contacted for medical consultations and life-coaching.
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