I had spent a lifetime running from my emotions.
Anger? Never had it.
Sadness? Didn’t feel it.
Fear? I’m suppose to be brave.
Whenever a negative emotion popped up, I would quickly try to ignore it or push it down until I returned to a happy, more pleasant feeling.
This reaction to negative emotions is common for society today. People are constantly being told that the path to success is to ignore their emotions. But the people who follow this advice are often the ones who struggle to experience joy the most.
I learned this lesson the hard way. During the times of my greatest stress, I ignored my emotions, and worsened my stress while barring myself from joy.
In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Dr. Brene Brown says, “When we numb the dark, we numb the light.”
Avoiding painful emotions only seals away joy for us. Greater joy is on the other side of all the emotions we’re unwilling to feel.
For some of you, this sounds like a near impossible challenge. How can you feel your emotions, even the ones that hurt?
First, we need to get on the same page about our understanding of emotions. Here are four radical truths that can shift your thinking about emotions, making it easier to embrace all of them.
“I am sad.” “I am angry.” “I am afraid.”
People rarely say, “I feel sad.” “I feel angry.” “I feel afraid.” There’s a big distinction between these two sets of phrases.
We are not our emotions. When we say we are sad, we make the mistake of defining ourselves by our emotions. The more we define ourselves by our emotions, the more we believe we can’t change how we feel.
We start to believe, “I am always sad,” or “I am always afraid.” But these emotions are not tied to our identity. We don’t always have to feel sadness, anger, fear, etc. We have the power to choose emotions.
Psychologist, Viktor Frankl, once said this famous quote…
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
When we believe we are our emotions, we chain together the stimulus and response. This means, we forfeit our power to choose our response. We will always react with sadness, anger, or fear.
But when we make the subtle shift to realize we are not our emotions, and we can choose our response, we exercise the freedom we have in the space between our stimulus and response. We choose what we can feel and how we will react.
You are not your emotions. You feel emotions, and you can always choose what you feel.
What if your emotions weren’t negative at all? What if they were just emotions?
We avoid emotions that hurt and quickly tell ourselves these are negative feelings we shouldn’t have. But just because the emotions hurt doesn’t mean they are bad. It is often what the emotion leads us to do that is good or bad.
Understanding this truth was revolutionary for me. I had no idea anything good could come from negative emotions until I read the book, The Voice of the Heart, by Chip Dodd.
In the book, Chip Dodd says there are eight core emotions we all have: hurt, loneliness, sadness, anger, fear, shame, guilt, and gladness. When we choose to feel these emotions in a healthy way, we experience the gift of these emotions.
At first glance, only one emotion on the eight core emotions list is positive (gladness). But Chip Dodd argues that all the emotions are positive because they all have positive results.
The more we resist feeling “negative” emotions, the less able we are to experience the gift of these emotions.
Emotions are neither good nor bad. It’s what they lead us to do that’s either good or bad.
If what your emotions lead you to do is good or bad, then it’s important you grasp this truth.
Emotions are just data or suggestions. They are not facts forcing you to do anything.
Just because you feel angry doesn’t mean you have to lash out. Just because you feel sad doesn’t mean you have to curl up on the couch with a bottle of wine. Just because you’re bored at work does not mean you have to quit.
Your brain will tell you to do these actions, and you might feel like you have no other choice than to respond. But your emotions are just suggestions for what to do next. They do not force you to react to them.
In her book, Emotional Agility, Susan David describes emotions as data, not directives. When emotions are data, we can learn from them. We can sit with the emotion and see which of our personal values was infringed upon to cause the emotion. But if the emotions are directives, then we must react.
If you want to stop reacting to your emotions, then this truth is critical. Your emotions are not forcing you to do anything. Start to see them as data you can learn from, rather than directives for reacting a certain way.
When you understand all of these truths and start leaning into your emotions more, you start to learn: the only thing you had to fear before was feeling negative.
Here’s what I mean…
When we resist our negative emotions, we only strengthen our fear of them. We never go into stressful situations for fear of feeling bad.
We’ll never ask our boss for a raise for fear of feeling embarrassed. We’ll never ask the person of our dreams out on a date for fear of feeling shame. We’ll never go on that dream trip for fear of feeling fear.
But get this… you can do all of these things because the worst that can happen is you feel bad. If you’ve grasped these truths before, you’ll realize that feeling bad isn’t the end of the world. It’s normal, and on the other side is joy.
Feeling bad is the only thing you have to fear in most situations. Isn’t this such a relief? When you ask your boss for a raise, your boss is not jump out of his or her chair and threaten your life. The worst that can happen is you feel a little fear, which isn’t bad.
Feeling bad is nothing to be afraid of. The upside far outweighs this downside.
Joy is defined at the internal satisfaction you feel when you pursue well-being and success, even through great difficulty.
When people avoid the difficulty of painful emotions, they never feel the internal satisfaction that’s waiting for them. You can feel proud of yourself for dealing with your painful emotions. But this requires sitting with them long enough to actually feel them.
Allowing your emotions and not escaping them is one of the most powerful actions you can take for your emotional health. And it’s also the path to greater joy. Let these four truths sink into your understanding and help you sit with your emotions.