'Negativity' Re-Imagined

Our aim is not to feel better, but to get better at feeling…

Michael Brown: The Presence Process

Despair in childhood leaves a brutal legacy. It inhibits our faith that feeling bad – angry, hurt, disappointed – is part of life. Instead, these seem impostors we should deny – so threatening to our tentative attachments that we must repress them.  All this quickly becomes instinctive; we dismiss our distress, we turn aggression inward; we pretend that all is well.

From the point of view of mood, this is a disaster: we find ourselves at odds with our own experience, constrained and cautious with others, ‘knowing’ there is much we must repress. We find ourselves isolated, living muted lives, sadder than we feel we should be.

On Learning to Feel Bad

If this is where we find ourselves, what are our options? Essentially, to remain as we are - or to begin to recover our capacity to feel ‘bad’ things. This is to admit that we carry hurt, rage, bitterness, and to see how these have led us to withdraw and to contract. It is to ask ourselves whether our attempts to avoid these states have really helped us; or whether they have stunted our relationships and deepened our struggle with mood.

This is not to criticize our attempt to manage pain: It is natural that we are frightened. We have associated bad feelings with overwhelm in childhood; we continue to worry that they will devastate us as they once did. But our capacity is different now, and if we are despairing as adults, we need to investigate this territory: to question whether we continue to ‘jump over’ difficult parts of our experience, and what the effect of this may be. It is possible, that we may need to feel not less, but more to release the vitality blocked by burying these difficult states. 

At this point in our development, we can recover this lost art of feeling bad. Some lucky people learned this small: how to go on being amid distress. But so many of us didn’t.

This is ground we can reclaim. There is a lot to be gained by learning how to feel, especially when we feel bad. We may come to see that ‘bad’ feelings are not our enemy; they are natural and necessary to our relationships and to our living. This is not just a matter of acknowledging difficult feelings, but of living through them well. We can learn to let them in, to give them breathing space, to ask what their function is, seek what they are trying to show us.

For a moment, over to Rumi:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Rumi's Guesthouse

This is, in the words of Rumi’s poem, to see that however temporarily difficult to experience, feelings are also a source of information, a ‘guide from beyond…’

Why – when they seem so negative - might we choose to make room for feelings such as these? Because we are suffering. Because sadness or despair can be a stagnant place, arising from an inner impulse to deaden, a shutting down to impact. Faced with pain, we learned to block, to dissociate, to rationalize and to pretend. But all this cuts is off from a flow/rhythm of renewal, from life, vitality and truth.

‘Bad’ feelings are a natural part of life. For as long as they seem a threat, we will be bullied by them.  If we want to build our strength and resilience, we must develop our capacity to remain alive, sensitive and open, amid unwanted things. This helps us feel robust and secure:  Finally, we can start to trust ourselves to feel the emotions we have always felt obliged to reject – to experience what we actually think and feel, however often we have muted it.

Every day we further embed low mood because we never learned how to feel bad well. We do not imagine such a thing is possible.  But it is. Over time, we can develop a deep familiarity with difficult emotions and a trust in our capacity to bear them.

Among the deeply moody, for all our claims of enduring great suffering, most of us are bad at actually feeling bad.

Among the deeply moody, for all our claims of enduring great suffering, most of us are bad at actually feeling bad. We can speak about it, we can describe our awful moods, but we rarely know how to actually feel them. Insidiously they seep into us – and fuel low mood.

Anger

One of the most easy to reject of these is anger. (We're not too good with hurt and disappointment either, but anger is often a central element in this recovery).

Freud pointed out that depressives tend to skew their anger, frustration and disappointment into self-hatred, bitterness and diffuse resentment. If we disavow anger and desire, so much grinds to a halt. So tuning into our anger, learning to allow it and engage it, can be at the heart of recovering our capacity to feel bad well – and thus to live well. The first part of the chapter explores the value of opening to and ‘including’ anger, learning to allow ourselves to experience it viscerally, and learning to attend to the messages that it contains. We then look at ‘what lies beneath’: the other emotions: disappointment, longing, heart, which anger arises in response to. We explore how to feel these things, and what their significance is within the economy of our sadness.

Three Capacities with our Emotions

There are three capacities we need to develop with each emotion: the ability to accept, allow and live through it at an experiential level – befriending its presence within us; the ability to listen to the truths/messages which it contains – the valuable information it carries for us; and the ability to include these feelings within the central relationships of our lives. (This is to return to the origin of melancholia identified by Freud – relational disappointment – and to find a way to live through it that forges relationship and vitality rather than isolation and despair.)

More about anger here: