Mindfulness is all about getting rid of negative emotions and practicing positive thinking, right? Actually, no. Mindfulness is about opening to our whole experience, including the unwelcome aspects.
The pushing away of difficult emotions, even those that may be appropriate in the circumstances, is a deep-rooted habit for most of us. We have all been inculcated since early childhood with messages about which emotions are acceptable and which are less so. I once witnessed a striking interaction between a father and his visibly enraged young daughter. The father, clearly wishing to help the child to calm down, was telling her in reassuring tones: “you’re not feeling angry!” I wondered how it affected the child, to be firmly assured that she was not feeling what she so manifestly was feeling.
Sigmund Freud encapsulated what happens when emotions are denied in the idea of the return of the repressed, whereby buried, unallowable emotions continue to be expressed, but in less direct and more complex ways. If we habitually deny how we feel, we may risk falling into an unhealthy state of dissociation in which we lose connection with our natural responses and energies.
Psychologist and author of ‘Emotional Agility’ Dr Susan David warns against regarding our emotions as being either good or bad. She suggests that, whatever we are feeling, our emotions can act as signposts towards what is most important to us that time. She points out that we don’t feel strong emotions unless we care about the issue; and acknowledging the depth of feeling can help us see where our values lie. For example, we may feel unhappy about being spoken to in an insulting manner. By allowing, rather than turning away from, the resulting feeling of humiliation, we may recognise that we value being treated with respect. This in turn could encourage us to set healthy boundaries for the future.
She recommends that we take care to name our emotions as accurately as we can. Rather than using vague, general terms such as “I feel stressed” at the end of a working day, we might identify that we feel disappointed by a lack of support from colleagues, or incensed that our workload has progressively increased to the point of being unmanageable.
Acceptance and clarity in relation to our emotional responses allows a natural process of moving on, whereas denial leaves the emotion stuck.
In his system of Non-violent Communication, Marshal Rosenburg likewise encouraged the naming of emotions with greater precision. Rosenburg further taught that beneath our difficult feelings are important human needs calling out for recognition, for example the need for connection, safety or choice. Getting clearer about our underlying needs has an empowering effect whereby we may be able to take greater responsibility for ourselves and also communicate more effectively with others.
We have not evolved to have purely positive emotions for good reason. Difficult emotions may be flagging up an issue that requires our attention and which, honestly addressed, could change things for the better. Emotional honesty comes from a willingness to be with discomfort as we meet the whole range of our feelings with curiosity and care. Because, in the words of Dr David: “Only dead people never feel stress, anger, agitation, or fear.”