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Our culture celebrates positive emotions and despises negative emotions. We want to be happy, joyful, content, and proud. We don’t want to be sad, angry, fearful, anxious, and ashamed. This division penetrates the entire society.

When a little child gets angry, her parents tell her, “Don’t be angry! Stop being angry!” And then they distract the child with a candy. When a boy becomes scared, his parents can tell him, “Boys don’t get scared! Boys should be fearless!” When a child repeatedly hears these types of instructions from her parents, she learns that her parents’ love is conditional. If she is angry or afraid, she may not get love. Thus, she learns that she has no right to experience anger or fear. These emotions become unacceptable to her. When she experiences them, she tries to ignore and suppress them. She can even start judging herself for experiencing these emotions.

Ignoring and suppressing emotions, severe self-judgment, is the road to separating one’s SELF into many parts. The person is no longer WHOLE. One part of the self-judges the other. As a result, physiology changes. Just like when conflict with another person is a stressful situation resulting in endocrine changes (e.g. increased production of cortisol), in a similar fashion, conflict with the self-leads to whole body changes.

The girl grows up. One day, the girl’s boss disrespects and insults her. It is at this moment when she should feel angry! This anger can protect her sense of self and her dignity against the assault. But she learned that she has no right or power for anger. So, she does not defend herself. She becomes sad instead.

Does this sound like you or somebody you know?

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When she experiences them, she tries to ignore and suppress them. She can even start judging herself for experiencing these emotions.

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There is a good reason I feel angry. Anger puts my physiology in a state that helps me to protect myself and my dignity.

There is a good reason I feel scared. I become much more cautious and this helps me to come out a winner in precarious situations.

There is a good reason I become sad. At the very least, this tells me that I have lost someone very dear to my heart, and this might be a time for grief.

There is actually nothing new about the idea that there is absolutely nothing wrong or negative about these emotions. In fact,

‘‘Both fear and confidence and appetite and anger and pity and in general pleasure and pain may be felt both too much and too little, and in both cases not well; but to feel them at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way is what is both intermediate and best, and this is characteristic of virtue.”

Of course, the tricky part is to properly define what “right” is in Aristotle’s definition of virtue. Search for this “right” can ultimately be a big part of one’s spiritual path:

  • What is “at the right time?”
  • What is “with reference to the right objects?”
  • What is “towards the right people?”
  • What is “the right motive?”
  • What is “the right way?”

Feeling all of the emotions and finding the middle way, having all of these experiences defines the flow of life, one’s path. The path is full of mistakes, tribulations, wondering, and thinking. Without experiencing these emotions, without this flow of life, we lose part of the experience, part of life, and part of ourselves.

And yet, there is one hidden danger in these emotions. It is dangerous when we internalize these emotions. Emotions are a fairly short-term phenomenon. They come and go. When emotions get stuck, these challenging feelings of sadness, anger, shame, and anxiety become internalized into our mood and the self.

And this might be a sign that we need to work on figuring out how to process these feelings and become whole again. But that’s a topic for another article.

 

References

[1] Aristotle (1925), The Nicomachean Ethics (Oxford University Press, New York, NY) D. Ross, Trans.

[2] Ryff, C. D., & Singer, B. H. (2013). Know thyself and become what you are: A eudaimonic approach to psychological well-being. In The exploration of happiness (pp. 97-116). Springer, Dordrecht.