For much of our lives we are pursuing wanted emotions and trying to get away from unwanted emotions–the so-called negative emotions such as anger, sadness, jealousy, greed, disgust, and remorse. Often we try to identify what we are feeling, but much less often try to figure out if the emotion is appropriate to the situation and if so, is it proportional. On the other hand, sometimes we realize we are angry and we say to ourselves, “I shouldn’t be angry about that.” Or sometimes, “I shouldn’t be THAT angry about that.”
Our well-intentioned friends recognize we feel pain about unwanted emotions, and they try to help us feel better. Sometimes they tell us we shouldn’t feel the way we do or they distract us or they reassure us in some way. We don’t like the unwanted emotions, and we are easily persuaded to get rid of them in any way we can: distraction, dissociation, disavowal or discounting. We are on a mission to feel good all the time.
But from another perspective unwanted emotions are a signal to us to be reflective in some way. Sometimes they are evidence of something awry outside of ourselves and sometimes they are a signal of something awry inside of ourselves. And sometimes they are a real response to a real part of our lives, and we need to feel them and sit with them.
Unwanted emotions are evidence that something in our lives is not working right, but it is not the emotion itself that is the problem. It is the not working right part of our lives. And when we think about it, we can often come up with reasons for the feeling, but we don’t always come up with the real reason, the complete reason, or the complex meanings inside of us that underlie our responses to our experience. And sometimes the thing that is not working right is not easily fixed, whether it is inside of us or outside of us.
Human development is glacially slow and requires effort. Effort to understand ourselves deeply and effort to make choices different from what feels good or what is familiar. The important thing is that if we are willing to feel unwanted emotions and not just try to escape them, we can reflectively comprehend ourselves and the world in ever more accurate ways and as a result, make choices that are truly the choices we want to make. And, of course, true to the title of this blog, psychotherapy is one way to do this.