How I Learned to Accept and Acknowledge 'Negative' Emotions


Who Will Speak Up for “Negative” Emotions?

When I was growing up, I wasn’t allowed to be sad. It was “cheer up, don’t cry, look up on the bright side.” Anger? Forget about it – there was no room at all for anger. “We don’t get angry in this family.”

The only feelings that were approved were the bright happy cheerful ones.

Of course I did have “negative” feelings — I got scared and sad and upset — but my mom was determined to redirect everything I felt into something she could handle. “What if you look at it this way?” she would say. “Maybe it was all for the best.”

I was bullied at school for years. Once – just once – I tried to tell my parents about it. It was obvious they didn’t want to hear and had no idea what to do about it. “Maybe they are just trying to be friends,” said my mom, helplessly.

Trust me, the kids who mocked me and shamed me and called me stupid and ugly… no, Mom, they were not just trying to be friends.

But I didn’t have the words to say that to my parents.

So I kept quiet about it from then on, and I started to feel more and more anxious around people, and withdraw into isolation whenever I could. Obviously, I did get sad. And angry. But because there was no welcome, no room for such feelings, they went underground in me. Sadness was shameful. Anger was unthinkable. I had no vocabulary for such feelings, because they had never been talked about around me.

Alone in my room, I turned to poetry. Poetry was the first thing that saved me. The feelings I could never talk about came out on the page. Sadness, rage and despair came pouring out. And longing.

The person reflected back to me from my poetry was so different from the quiet, polite girl who did everything she was supposed to do. I ended up feeling even more isolated, unable to show that “dark” side of me to anyone… but at least I felt alive.

The second thing that saved me was a teacher I met in grad school. He had developed a method and a philosophy for listening with absolute acceptance to all the feelings inside us. A community grew up around his teaching — young people like me who were trying out his method as a way of life.

For the first time, it was not only OK to have feelings, but there was a way to explore them, to allow and trust that every feeling has a story to tell and can change and evolve if you pay attention.

No feelings were considered “negative.” All were welcome. Just as all people were welcome in the community we created. No negative people, no negative feelings.

The inner exploration of feelings became my life’s work. Given how I started out, I can see why.

And here’s the thing: I’ve learned it wasn’t only my family and my small town that suppressed negative feelings. It’s our whole culture, our whole country. And though my childhood was a long time ago, the shunning of “negative” feelings is still going on.

If you show sadness, you’re considered a “basket case.” If you show anger, you’re labeled an “angry person” — the kiss of death. If you show anxiety, people try to fix you or talk you out of it or explain you just have to change your thoughts… good luck with that.

The latest version of ostracizing negative feelings is a kind of pseudo-neuroscience where we are told that dwelling on negatives rewires/strengthens the negative neural connections in the brain. (I haven’t found any actual science to support this.) Methods have emerged for “thought-stopping,” which teach people to suppress any “negative” thoughts.

Really? After all these years of progress and learning about being human, is that the best we can do?

When I was mocked and teased at school, I couldn’t allow myself to feel how scared I was — because that would have made the mocking worse. Besides, I knew that if I dissolved into tears, swallowed up by my misery, nothing would have changed. But the feelings, unfelt and unprocessed, stayed in me as tension in every social situation from then on… until I met that teacher in grad school.

When feelings and thoughts are suppressed and not allowed, they remain the same — unchanged. Letting our feelings take us over and run riot is also not good… because they don’t change that way either.

What I learned from my teacher was a third way: How to welcome and turn toward any feeling and give it a space to be explored. I don’t have to be anxious; I can be with an anxious part of me, and listen to what is getting it so anxious.

When I look around the world today, I see so much division and fear. Whole races and religions are called “bad” and pushed away. We’re afraid of people who aren’t just like us. The same thing is true inside us. Whole sets of thoughts and feelings are labeled “negative” and sent into internal exile. This can’t be good.

Every feeling you have is trying to understand your situation and carry you forward. Depression is a real sign that something isn’t right. Anger says, “I need this to stop.” When you learn to listen to your feelings without being taken over by them, you live more fully. You become more “you.” You contribute more to the world, your family, yourself.

Who will speak up for “negative” emotions? I do.

Ann Weiser Cornell is the co-developer and teacher/author of an empowering skill for emotional healing called Inner Relationship Focusing. She herself has struggled with anxiety, obsessions and addiction. Her latest offering is a free online course called Transforming Your Relationship to Your Inner Critic. You can also find her at focusingresources.com.

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Thinkstock illustration via berdsigns

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