A river of emotions
You get home from work, walk in the house, and find your wife crying at the table.
What’s the first thing you say?
A friend calls you, emotionally distraught, and says, “I really need to talk to someone right now.”
What’s your first response?
In these and similar scenarios, our most common, instinctive response is a two-word question. And in that question we discover deep, subconscious truths about how we view and deal with painful emotions.
Here’s what we say when we see people grieving, angry, depressed, frustrated, distraught, etc.: “What’s wrong?”
It’s such a simple and seemingly insignificant and innocuous phrase. But an entire worldview, with mountains of assumptions, is crammed into those two words — and it’s far from insignificant or innocuous.
Our endless quest to escape painful emotions
“What’s wrong?” assumes that there is, indeed, something wrong with painful emotions or experiences. And with that assumption, there is a predisposition to run away from them.
This is how we deal with painful emotions in Western culture: We do anything and everything to just make them go away. We don’t care what it takes or what it costs — all we care about is getting rid of them.
In our culture, everything is a binary, good-versus-evil battle. We fight against everything we perceive to be evil, we fight against our perceived enemies, we fight against temptation and the carnal desires of the “flesh,” we fight our thoughts, we fight our bodies, we fight our emotions.
Paradoxically, our ultimate goal of this non-stop battle is to find “heaven” — a place of endless peace and joy. But it is precisely the battle itself that creates the very hell we’re running from.
Consider the endless strategies we use to fight against and run away from our emotions:
We turn to our drugs of choice to numb painful emotions (TV, smartphones, Facebook, sleep, pornography, sex, masturbation, pain pills, et al).
Shopping triggers dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for making us feel good. Feeling low? Flash the credit card. Voila.
In cases that don’t involve chemical or hormonal imbalances, depression isn’t a real emotion. Rather, it’s a cover-up emotion. It’s a sort of fog, or shroud we use to cover up and numb the real, underlying emotions, which we don’t face because we don’t think we can handle them.
Strangely, given how painful it is, depression is actually an attempt to escape pain.
This is prevalent in the personal development industry, which is all about conquering “negativity.” We’re given endless techniques for shifting our beliefs and perspectives, and therefore our emotions from “negative” to “positive.”
Emotions like fear, worry, anger, frustration, jealousy, loneliness, and sorrow are considered negative; emotions like confidence, cheerfulness, peace, contentment, gratitude, enthusiasm, and love are considered positive.
The ultimate promise of the personal development industry — even if unspoken — is continual, uninterrupted positivity, peace, and joy. This is an utter delusion, and an extremely harmful one at that. Like any drug, it’s yet another attempt to escape reality.
Success takes on a quasi-religious feel in Western culture. It’s why hard work — the Puritan ethic — is so valued.
So much of our ambitious, achievement-driven culture is an escape — we’re desperately trying to fill the “not enough” hole in our souls, that core sense of shame, brokenness, unworthiness, and inadequacy that is ubiquitous in our culture.
The subconscious belief is that, once we’ve accomplished and achieved enough, we’ll be free of all our fear, shame, and suffering. But it is never enough.
We often turn to spiritual teachings and practices as a way to escape pain and suffering. Ironically, we can use disciplines like meditation as a stress-relief drug — which is the precise opposite of its purpose.
True spirituality is not an escape from pain, but rather an embracing of all of life, including and especially the pain.
Perhaps the most common strategy to get rid of painful emotions is simply stifling and repressing them.
The most harmful version of this is harbored resentment. When people hurt us, instead of dealing with the situation and our emotions and moving on, we shove our emotions down deep and suppress our needs.
These buried emotions eventually surface as depression, anger, emotional triggers, and neuroses. Our suppressed emotions become a stagnant swamp, which makes us sick. They never go away until we embrace them and deal with them properly.
What wrong with “What’s wrong?”
The reason why the question “What’s wrong?” is misguided is because it assumes there is, indeed, something wrong with feeling painful emotions or going through painful experiences.
But as Shakespeare wrote,
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
“What’s wrong?” is the wrong thing to say, precisely because there is nothing wrong with feeling grief, sorrow, disappointment, anger, jealousy, or any other painful emotion.
There’s a fundamental difference between “painful” and “bad.” We make painful emotions and experiences bad with our thoughts.
No emotion, in and of itself, is wrong or bad. Emotions, even when painful, simply are. They are part of our human experience.
What creates positive or negative outcomes is not the raw, direct experience of emotions themselves, but how we respond to and deal with them.
Drain the swamp and become a river
The key to dealing with painful emotions is learning to stay with them and experience them fully, without doing anything to escape or numb them.
We instinctively push them away because, when we’re deep in them, they feel like they will last forever. But emotions, like thoughts, come and go — when we allow them to.
Paradoxically, when we stay with painful emotions, they flow through us easily. They become a flowing river that gives and enhances life, rather than a stagnant swamp that poisons and strangles life.
It’s precisely in the numbing and stifling that we make them worse. Ironically, numbing and stifling are holding on to the very emotions we’re trying to escape!
Painful emotions are like getting cut; numbing and stifling are allowing that cut to get infected and to fester.
By not making them wrong, bad, or undesirable, we don’t make them any less painful. In fact, as we become more intimate with them, we feel them more intensely. Yet at the same time, our capacity to do so is increased.
Stifling them or running away from them prevents us from being fully human, from fully experiencing life in all its flavors and textures.
There’s a famous poem by Rumi, “The Guest House,” that perfectly describes the mindful, healthy way to deal with painful emotions:
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 are 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 whatever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Use compassion to stay with painful emotions
The key to learning to stay with painful emotions is compassion.
Passion, as you know, means to suffer. The prefix com means “with.” Compassion, therefore, means “to suffer with.”
It means seeing ourselves and others in our suffering, and just being with the suffering, without trying to change or fix it. It’s just holding ourselves and others in a warm and open-hearted embrace, feeling the suffering, grieving for it, supporting each other in it.
This is another reason why “What’s wrong?” is a misguided response to grieving and suffering.
By asking “What’s wrong?”, fundamentally we’re not seeing people and being with them — we’re trying to fix their pain so they can escape it.
More importantly, we’re actually trying to escape their pain ourselves. In that sense, it’s actually quite selfish, rather than comforting.
This is the very opposite of a compassionate response. Compassion doesn’t ask, “What’s wrong?” Compassion simply says, “I’m sorry. I’m here for you.” And it often says that more effectively when no words are even spoken.
People don’t need us to fix them or their problems. They need us to see and be with them. As author Parker J. Palmer said,
“Here’s the deal. The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed — to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is. When we make that kind of deep bow to the soul of a suffering person, our respect reinforces the soul’s healing resources, the only resources that can help the sufferer make it through.”
Stopping the battle, finding freedom
As we lay down our weapons of avoidance, aversion, craving, clinging, delusion, and numbing and stop fighting with ourselves and against our emotions, a whole new world opens to us.
We find an openness and freedom we’ve never experienced before. We feel our emotions more intensely and intimately, but we are no longer held captive by them.
We see them for what they are. We experience them fully. We learn the deep and beautiful truths they have to teach us.
We unplug and clear out the poisonous swamp of past emotions. We release harbored resentment from past wounds. We hold ourselves in compassion for all our suffering. This comes as a period of profound grieving, which is deeply healing. Strangely, as our hearts break, they also open and heal.
Then, as we become healed through self-compassion, we are able to offer that same healing of compassion to others. The more attuned we become to our own suffering, the more attuned we become to that of others. We replace “What’s wrong?” with, “I’m here for you.”
Like water to parched earth, we alleviate suffering everywhere we go as we flow with the river of emotions.