Emotions are complicated. At times they bring us great joy and satisfaction. At other times they can lead us into a dark hole. Some emotions point to truth and others really do deceive us. For example, the long standing emotions of love you have for your best friends, cherished family members or your partner/spouse is usually a good indicator of truth. These are enduring relationships having the test of time behind them and the feeling of love indicates a safe reality. Other feelings deceive us because they lead us into fiction. Depression is a prime offender. If we are going through a difficult time in life and aren’t coping well, or if depression seems to be winning out, the feeling will lead us to think that “life is depression”. It may coax us into thinking we will never feel anything else, we may think there is no way out and we often start to think poorly of ourselves and abilities. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never encountered a feeling that didn’t eventually subside. Even the “true” emotions such as love subsides in the sense that we aren’t “always feeling love” 24 hours a day as we’re engaged in our daily business and distracted! The reality of love exists, but the feeling doesn’t. Most unpleasant emotions are not a reality, they won’t endure and will also pass away.
It’s important to understand the nature of emotions before claiming certainties about them. As a therapist with over 13 years experience, it’s my bias that our natural disposition is one of contentment, and even joy… barring circumstances that interfere. Yes, there are those exceptions for people who have chronic mental illness, but I am not speaking to that. Just as the body’s natural state is health, there are chronic illnesses that occur in the physical realm and this is also the exception to the rule. Now, when we become anxious, depressed or angry… these feelings should be approached with some caution. As with the body, a pain indicates there is a problem needing tending. Anxiety, depression or anger is a symptom alerting us that something is out of alignment. It’s very easy for us to be misled by these feelings though, and become despondent or hopeless as the belief we have about the feeling leaves us inert. Just as I wouldn’t give up on my body if I had an infection causing me pain, it is not very wise of me to give up on my self, future, my day or even my hour if I experience emotional pain. The painful or unhealthy emotion is trying to communicate something to us. It is trying to tell us something is misaligned and for us to tend to it! Sometimes the remedy is simply time and just staying on top of your daily responsibilities so you don’t isolate or withdraw until a circumstance passes. Sometimes it takes changing a situation you’re in – for example an unhealthy relationship, an unrewarding job, a very bad habit or a bad living environment. Sometimes it takes some reflection and introspection about some long standing patterns that keep repeating themselves and leading us back to feeling poorly. And, there are more. But, as I said before, it is not a good idea to believe the emotion as representing truth about yourself and life. Feelings speak to our condition, but never speak in truth about our identities or abilities. Most of our negative feelings (and some of the positive if we’re not careful!) are simply indicators and opportunities for making changes that will lead to more contentment in life if addressed. It’s when we miss these cues we then miss opportunities to improve, grow and become happier.
So, the next time you are feeling a negative feeling, no matter how powerful it is in the moment, I urge you to consider the above. Is it trying to tell you to give up on happiness? Is it whispering in your ear how hopeless things are or how powerless you are? Is it saying something negative about you as a person? If so, then you’re most definitely being lied to. So, I’m challenging you to have a new relationship with many of your emotions. Consider them opportunities, don’t readily believe them as “truth”, listen to what they’re trying to tell you about what needs changing in your life and do your best to make those changes in the midst of feeling the burden and difficulty of the feelings. But, whatever you do, don’t let them negatively define who you are.
Sylvia Flanagan, MFT is a San Diego therapist with a private practice in Mission Valley. For more information feel free to call or email her. Office hours are Monday through Thursday 9:00 to 6:00.