It’s quite possible that you are struggling with painful feelings. There are many possibilities: anger, shame, guilt, sadness, loneliness, hate, jealousy, insecurity, criticalness, inferiority, fear, arrogance, helpless, powerlessness, or anxiety. How do you deal with them? Some of the common approaches are:
1. Change your thinking, such as reframing or thinking positively.
2. Change your actions, such as doing something kind for someone else.
3. Distract yourself and focus on something else.
4. Use will power to push it out of your mind.
5. Numb the feelings by eating or getting drunk
6. Pray for Divine help and guidance.
All of these approaches can be useful, but what happens when they don’t work? There are many people who struggle with such feelings and no matter how hard they try they are never able to completely resolve them. What’s worse, when these techniques don’t work, some people blame themselves and denigrate themselves.
I believe one of the main reasons why people fail to fully resolve such feelings is that they create an adversarial relationship with their feelings. People often talk about personal growth in terms of fighting their troubling feelings or conquering their problems. This approach implies that feelings are to be regarded as enemies. If my feelings are enemies, than I want to stay far away from and rid myself of them.
Ironically, I believe the true path to inner peace and emotional well-being is to do the opposite and make friends with your emotional pain. When I take a “friendly” approach towards my feelings, I can get close to them, listen to them, process them and learn from them. Sometimes, the way to “conquer” our inner demons is to make friends with them! I call this approach, “getting close to your feelings.” The playwright, Arthur Miller, describes this approach quite dramatically.
I think it’s a mistake to ever look for hope outside of one’s self…I tried to die near the end of the war. The same dream returned each night until I dared not to sleep and grew quite ill. I dreamed I had a child and even in the dream I saw it was my life, and it was an idiot, and I ran away. But it always crept onto my lap again and clutched at my clothes. Until I thought, if I could kiss it, whatever in it was my own, perhaps I could sleep. And I bent to its broken face, and it was horrible…but I kissed it. I think one must finally take one’s life in one’s arms.
When I embrace my emotional pain and “kiss it” I can learn from it. Feelings are our inner teachers. They are information. They are like emails (emotion mail!). I can open them or delete them. If I open them, I can read the message. If I delete them I lose the message forever. If we make our feelings our friends and not our enemies, we can learn from them.
What’s more, something wonderful happens the moment I decide to embrace my feelings rather than fight them or dismiss them. I stop being afraid of them and I relax. When I relax, I become more curious about the meaning of my feelings. And this curiosity can open-up a new world of self-discovery. What we resist persists. What we feel we can heal.
What are the benefits that come from listening to and learning from my feelings? The better we understand our feelings, the better we understand ourselves. Chronic bad feelings like the ones listed above, often have histories. As children we unconsciously organize our emotional experiences into what are called, organizing principles. These organizing principles form the mental templates that determine how we experience the world. For example, if I have a problem with getting angry at my wife, besides the obvious reasons for my anger, there may be a deeper unconscious reason for my anger. Let’s say for example, that my father was critical and verbally abusive. From this experience, I may have unconsciously formed the following organizing principle: “I must strike first at the first sign of disapproval before others get the upper hand and hurt me.”
The benefit of discovering this organizing principle is that it reveals a hidden reason for my anger at my wife, which as it turns out, has very little to do with her and much more to do with my father! My wife’s behavior is not why I get angry. Her behavior only triggers my unconscious memories of my father, which say to me, “Watch out! Here comes danger. Get ready to protect yourself!” Suddenly without explanation, I’m feeling defensive, scared, and angry.
Such a discovery creates a new option for dealing with my anger that never existed previously. Before this discovery, the only options available for coping with my anger were to use will-power or some type of technique such as those mentioned earlier. Now, when I begin to get angry at my wife, I can stop myself by reminding myself that she is not going to hurt me. I am reacting to her like I did to my father, who actually did want to hurt me. With this new awareness of my organizing principle comes new possibilities for dealing with my anger. I am now well on my way to eliminating my anger altogether!
The deeper we understand our feelings, the more empowered we become and the more capable we are of truly conquering our inner demons. And the only way to achieve a deeper understanding of our feelings is by choosing to create a friendly relationship with them, which means getting close to them in order to learn from their hidden messages.