How to accept the positive and negative in life
Another brochure in the mail: “Create the life you have always dreamed of! Make miracles happen! Have everything you want in abundance!” These brochures are always accompanied by an airbrushed photo of the coiffed facilitator looking highly “successful” and happy. Through affirmations and positive thinking they promise to show you the way to a new life.
Such brochures tend to generate one of two reactions within me. My childish ego says, “Oh goody, thanks. I’ll take an overseas holiday and a new house.” My adolescent cynical self wants to run amok and create some chaos because it can’t stand the neat, perfect life being described.
While there is nothing wrong with the techniques being taught, they only give half the story. They imply there’s something wrong with experiencing difficulties; that life should always be smooth and positive, otherwise you are doing something wrong. This attitude may encourage an avoidance of painful feelings, but it’s actually dealing with “negative” states that builds a stronger, wiser and more resilient self.
The healthy human system
Most of us understandably embrace feelings such as peace, happiness and confidence. We are a little more reluctant to face sadness, anger or fear. If we look to nature, however, we get a demonstration of just how important both positive and negative energies are. For example, there is the creation of new life going on (positive), but there is also death and decay (negative). But it’s death that makes way for and feeds new life. There is order (positive) in the social networks of a species but there is also chaos (negative) in the genetic variations that occur. It’s this genetic “chaos” that allows for new features to evolve within the species. We can witness lots of different forces at work in nature, not only those we would normally consider positive. All these energies are necessary to maintain a healthy, balanced ecosystem.
Natural systems are definitely not always nice and gentle. If these systems were all too perfect and controlled there would not be enough fluidity to allow for the incredible variety and adaptability of the natural world. Similarly, with human systems, we need access to all our inner forces, or emotions. They allow for growth and development and we ignore them at our peril.
The ancient Greeks understood how the emotions influence the lives of human beings. They described these forces and emotions as gods at work outside of the individual. They told stories and wrote plays about these emotions and warned people they were unwise to ignore them lest calamity unfold. The same is true today. The only difference is we now realise these gods are actually inside us as our emotions and desires. It’s up to us to work with these inner gods and demons. If we don’t, calamity results in ever-widening circles of influence. We see the consequences played out within the individual, within a culture and now on a global level.
Projection and scapegoating
One of the common ways people avoid difficult issues and emotions is via projection. This occurs when we avoid something inside ourselves by disowning it and instead saying other people are actually those with the issue. A classic example is when men cannot bear the thought that they might have affectionate feelings for other men. They completely deny these natural feelings because they don’t fit with their image of masculinity. Then when they see gay men openly expressing their affection for other men they become outraged. This denial leads to homophobia, which, in its worst extreme, is expressed as violence towards gay men.
A more subtle violence can happen within families. Clare was a client who wanted to work on her stress levels. As we talked it became clear that she had come from an extremely dysfunctional family. Her father was a violent alcoholic and her mother, in her efforts to pacify him, disregarded her children’s needs. Clare glossed over these issues and instead complained about her brother, who had a mental illness. Her sister and she were both “fine”, the family was “fine”; it was just the brother who was mean and caused problems. Clare’s parents and sister all denied there were family problems. It was the brother who got affected by it all and ended up becoming ill.
This is an all-too-common way families deal with issues: there may be dysfunction going on but only one member picks up on it and expresses it via some symptom such as illness or acting out in some way. They are usually the most sensitive or vulnerable family member and they become the scapegoat. If all the family members owned up to the dysfunction, that person might not be so severely affected.
We all have violent energies inside: feelings of rage, revenge, lust and jealousy. We all have dysfunctional energies such as laziness, selfishness and fear. If we don’t hold our own share of these energies, they are forced into the collective psyche where they will be picked up by more vulnerable members of the community. When crimes or scandals erupt, people then react with shock and outrage wondering, “How could anyone do such a thing?” With enough self knowledge we can understand exactly why people do these things. It may be uncomfortable but it’s much healthier for the community if we all own up to our own dysfunction.
We can see how dangerous avoidance and projection are if we look at the world stage at present. We live in a climate of fear that has supposedly been generated by the existence of terrorists. Instead of looking inside ourselves and inquiring into what we might all really be afraid of, we feel better about projecting it outside onto terrorists. “Ah, that explains it,” we think inside. “It’s the terrorists that are making us frightened.” What about global warming, the degradation of our planet and millions living in poverty? What about death? Mightn’t these things be scary for us? And isn’t it scary living on a planet that is no better than a schoolyard where one group taunts another with cries of “You are the axis of evil!” and the other shouts back “No, you are the evil ones!” Each projects onto the other what they cannot own in themselves. And we all get caught up in this madness.
Another means of avoiding difficult feelings is denial. There are many ways we practise denial. Some people do it by staying busy and overactive, which may be compensation for feelings of inferiority, insecurity and other anxieties. Instead of owning the anxiety, it’s hidden under behaviour that looks quite functional by the standards of our culture.
Others avoid feelings by indulging in substance abuse. I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve seen who deny being alcoholic and yet list a huge amount of alcohol as their weekly average. I see young people who can’t have a good time without drugs but see nothing wrong with it because it’s “cool”. Their self-image problems, relationship issues or anxieties about the future are ignored. None of these people owns up to the uncomfortable feelings they are numbing by consuming their substance of choice.
Still others avoid feelings by rising above them. A client, Mary, complained of being tired of the spiritual community she belonged to because she was sick of the denial of feelings. Members were encouraged to rise above these states and transcend them. The leaders taught that people shouldn’t be encouraged to examine themselves; they should instead concentrate only on their higher self. The problem with such a philosophy is the negative feelings still exist and are forced to leak out and damage the community in more insidious ways. “You should hear the criticism and gossip that goes on behind people’s backs … and the power plays. No one owns their aggression, but boy it’s there in bucketloads,” said Mary.
With interest in spiritual teachings on the rise it’s important to be clear about the implications for our inner emotional lives. Spiritual teachings often talk about non-duality where all is one. This may be true on the spiritual level, but once we enter the material plane there is duality. Opposites arise together in the material world. There is light and dark, wet and dry. If there is order there will also be chaos. In the human realm, this duality manifests in such polarities as anger and gentleness, cruelty and kindness, sorrow and joy.
Both sides of an emotional polarity are necessary. It’s just that each energy has its strengths as well as its negative applications. For example, anger is necessary in situations where abuse is happening. It says, “No, this hurts. Stop this now.” That anger has a protective application. In contrast, one of its negative applications is in bullying where one person uses angry energy to gain power over another. Similarly, gentleness is good in situations of sorrow or with children. But if you were to be gentle all the time, there might not be enough creative action taking place.
Sometimes, I have clients who come to me concerned about dreams of violence and killing. They’re relieved to find out such dreams don’t have to signal anything bad is going on in their psyche. In fact, it may be the opposite. It may be that their self has become too comfy and secure and is holding them back from a new development or creativity. It might be a relationship that’s stale or a job that’s empty. If we don’t move on in such scenarios, we may need to activate a stronger energy in our psyche to help make the shift possible. This strong energy can turn up in dreams as a killer. It’s killing off the passivity to allow for new creativity.
Sometimes, it is time for violence and destruction. When something has gone past its usefulness it’s time to dismantle it, to pull it down. This makes space for something new. We therefore need to access all our energies. They are not bad in and of themselves. They are all necessary. It is just a matter of how we manage and express them. Positive affirmations are not enough, since we need the dark and the light. If we’re only prepared to own one side of a duality, someone else may have to pick up the other. Wouldn’t it be better to be able to contain both ourselves?
A strong container self
To be a strong container for emotions means being capable of feeling emotions without going to either extreme of repression or compulsive expression. To do this you must be bigger than the emotion. If you fear emotions and therefore repress them, it indicates the feelings are bigger than you are. Colloquially, we refer to such people as control freaks. If you feel emotions but have no control about when or how you express them, you are energetically too small to hold strong levels of energy without having to let them out. Drama queens and rage-aholics fit this description. Instead, we need to aim for the line between these two extremes, where you just have the emotion.
To gain this capacity, regularly practise these steps:
- Identify the emotion in the moment.
- Notice the thoughts that go with this emotional state.
- Observe where the emotions are being expressed physically in your body. Notice the sensation, the location, the texture, the depth and any movement associated with the emotion.
- Close your eyes and focus on the felt sense of the emotion. Simply watch it and feel it. Stay with it for a few minutes.
- Find the best word that fits this feeling.
- Notice if the sensations change at all. Change your word if they do.
- Ask yourself: “What does this feeling need?” Allow an answer to arise.
- Notice what happens to the sensation as you do this.
As you practise focusing on feelings in this way, you will become familiar with just sitting with feelings without repression or reaction. Something magical happens when we simply bring consciousness to our feeling states. They just need attention. When we fully feel them, they’re free to move. This doesn’t happen overnight because there’s usually a backlog of feelings we have buried over a long period. Hopefully, children who are taught such methods of dealing with feelings will be able to stay up to date with their inner selves and won’t become bottled-up adults.
When you’re practised at being with emotions you’ll be able to stay with whatever you are feeling without having to manipulate or control yourself, others or the scenario. You will be able to manage strong energies such as fear or fury and use such states to ask yourself: “What is this current fear telling me about myself or my current life situation?” This strategy leads to freedom because you no longer have to always feel good. Real freedom is being able to tackle any event rather than manipulate life to create only positive events. This leads to self mastery, to a capacity for resilience and tolerance. We can let life be without having to control it. We can own up to our humanity instead of pretending to be perfect.
With less control comes the capacity for more creativity. Life is life. There will always be ups and downs. Wisdom comes as you discover that even negative feelings and events can create positive outcomes. Many people, having worked through health issues, relationship troubles or personal crises, have found a capacity for courage, insight and growth that would not have been available otherwise.
Riding life’s waves
Light and dark, fullness and emptiness, joy and sorrow. These are all parts of life’s intricate pattern. Mathematicians have actually discovered there are beautiful patterns that come from the interplay of order and chaos. They cannot predict which way the pattern will go but they know it will unfold with beauty.
It can be the same in our own lives. Life creates a wave where control meets chaos. We have to learn to ride this wave. The process is exhilarating because we don’t know what the future holds or what will be coming next. We just keep riding it through, being with whatever arises both inside and out. It can be an adventure. It’s way more exciting than floating above the wave in spiritual practice or standing on the shore with our back to it in denial. We’re going to get wet. Why not get out there and learn to surf!
All names have been changed to protect client confidentiality.
Cynthia Hickman is a psychologist working in private practice in Melbourne. T: 0417 103 018.