Can you befriend difficult emotions?
The poet Rumi writes,
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
I love this poem, because it normalizes our human tendency not to welcome certain “guests,” certain emotions. For me, this includes things like anxiety, depression, anger, rage, loneliness, grief, jealousy and more. Which emotions are difficult for you to befriend?
And why is caring for difficult emotions so hard, anyway?
When I first gave up sugar in 2007, I thought my food problems were done. Finito. I thought that making this commitment to a sugar free life would mean I would never overeat, crave or suffer again. I thought I’d found the Holy Grail – the answer that would keep any pain, discomfort or negative emotion at bay. Looking back, I can see that I was wanting something way beyond sugar abstinence – I wanted an escape from the experience of being a human being.
While abstaining from sugar continues to be essential to my well being – one of the best decisions I’ve made – I’ve learned that it is not a panacea. (This is one of the reasons why I went back and rewrote Overcoming Sugar Addiction, to reflect this new understanding.)
Nothing in this world can keep us from living in our guest house – from experiencing the full range of human emotion. And slowly, slowly, I’m learning that this is okay. In fact, more than okay. Learning how to love and care for all my emotions is perhaps, one of the kindest things I can do for myself – and one of the most healing.
Oh, beloved if your heart wants to awaken – and I believe yours does, or you wouldn’t be reading this post! – I’ve got some mixed news:
1. It will hurt.
And 2. It’s worth it.
Because 3. It will lead to the deepest freedom. (Of not hurting so much!)
If you want to be free from suffering, if you want to open your heart, to grow your compassion, to find peace in this ever changing, impermanent world, you must open your heart. We need to move from control to unconditional love. This means unconditionally loving and embracing all the pesky emotions that flow through our bodies, hearts and minds.
I appreciate that this is not easy for several reasons:
1. Our culture doesn’t teach us how to care for our emotions, and is often intolerant towards them.
2. The emotions we tend to have the hardest time befriending are usually the ones that, as children, we weren’t allowed to feel. Perhaps our feelings and needs were minimized, mocked, denied (“You can’t be hungry!”) perhaps we weren’t allowed to show certain emotions (“Don’t be angry,”) perhaps those feelings were labeled as “bad,” or perhaps our parents and communities didn’t know how to help us feel our feelings. (“Do you want a cookie?”)
3. It’s normal not to want to feel certain emotions, particularly if they hurt!
4. If you’re sensitive, you’re probably very skittish towards your emotions. You feel that you need to minimize them, especially if you were told often, “Stop being so sensitive.”
Here’s how this all works together:
When you’re sensitive and empathetic, you’re a feeler. You pick up on everything. You feel what is felt/believed – even if it’s unsaid. This is particularly true with emotion – you feel all the thoughts and judgment of, “______ emotion is bad.” Even if no one says a thing about anger, if everyone around us walks on eggshells so as not to express anger, we pick up on this and learn, “Anger makes people uncomfortable.” Then it’s easy to take this one step further to, “I shouldn’t ever feel angry because I don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable.”
So you learn from an early age that, oh, anger isn’t okay, or my crying makes mom and dad feel uncomfortable, or loneliness is shamed. Because you feel and sense this (even if it isn’t expressed outright – even if it’s merely communicated in tone, gesture, facial expression, or more), you internalize this “rule” and obey it for your own safety. In some way, your brain learns, “if I want to be accepted and love, I can’t feel _______.”
Then as adults, as these emotions pop up – we feel angry, or sad, or lonely – those same, “Uh, oh, this feeling is bad! Make it go away,” feelings arise. So you not only have the feeling you’re feeling itself – the anger or sadness – you also have the judgment, the anxiety of, “This feeling is bad.” Instead of being with our feelings or feeling them, we get caught in trying to control our experience. In so many words, our hearts clench up, our bodies tighten, our mind spins, and we believe, “I have to make this feeling go away. No wonder we feel tense!
We can make the emotions go away by suppressing them, by eating them, denying them, thinking/fixing and more. We can even get really fancy and do the spiritual bypass, where we move right to, “it’s all good” as a way of not feeling our feelings.
But the body knows. Those emotions we stuff underground? They don’t go away. They’re still there, in the body. Eventually our escape tactics fail. And if we want wholeness – if we want to heal our food addiction, or to stop overeating – we have to stop running from our feelings and feel them.
I would gently, gently encourage you to practice befriending your emotions. Besides freeing you from emotional eating and bingeing, when we befriend our emotions, we’re not walking on eggshells, trying to control life, food, other people, or ourselves. We’re more free to ride the waves of our experience. This creates levity, joy and freedom. Ease.
We may find wisdom in our emotions, because I believe all emotions have an intelligence to them – and often a message.
Here’s a story from my own life that shows what this looks like. I’ve been experiencing some painful anxiety lately – anxiety that’s been off the charts. Sometimes my anxiety is just my overactive nervous system feeling triggered, so it’s easy for me to dismiss. But my anxiety has been so persistent that I realized there was something more there. This week I actually sat with it and became curious.
I asked my anxiety, “What do you need from me? What are you trying to tell me?”
And it very clearly shared what it saw – some unhealthy patterns in my life – some things that I had an inkling about but didn’t want to see. Hence my persistent anxiety. It was going to make me look at what wasn’t working, come hell or high water.
With this perspective, I found that instead of looking at my anxiety as a nuisance, an aggravation I want to cut out, I found that, it, too, had wisdom. I actually felt grateful towards it and the message it was communicating to me. My whole attitude towards my anxiety shifted.
This is one example of the power of befriending our emotions. When I kindly open my heart to even those painful emotions, the tight clench around my heart – that feeling of control, of white knuckling it – softens. I find that the more I allow myself to be with my feelings, the less tense I feel – and the less I dump them out on others.
If you’re interested in this practice of feeling your feelings, this is the path that has helped me. (I explain this in much further detail in Heal Overeating: Untangled. Untangled is an audio program to heal the roots of emotional eating.)
It starts with honesty – tapping into our hearts to see, “What am I feeling?” To be honest about the feelings that arise instead of pretending we’re feeling something so much better and prettier (and that might look “better.”) Then we allow our feelings to be there. Instead of saying, “Go away,” we invite them in, as Rumi suggests. We show them kindness. We befriend them. We may even ask them, “What do you want to tell me?”
We can also care for our feelings by simply feeling them – holding our pain, feeling our grief or anger rise and fall, and offering it our care and compassion. In the wake of this softening, this acceptance, this unconditional love, we put back those parts of us that we’ve been cut off from. We feel more whole; more complete.
Our hearts soften as we recognize, “My heart is big enough for all of me.”
Interestingly enough, I find strength when I befriend those dark, icky parts of me. After I listened to my anxiety, I felt so much stronger – as if in tapping into my anxiety I also reclaimed a hidden strength. I’ve found this to be true so often that I wonder – in opening to our “darkness” or “negative” emotions, perhaps we also reclaim lost positive parts of ourselves that we’ve shed along the way? Parts of us that we thought were “too much” or that made people uncomfortable or that we didn’t feel that we could embody? Perhaps we reclaim our light as well as our “darkness?”
To me, that’s the mystery; the grace. It reminds me of a Bible verse I’ve always loved that says, “What was lost will be returned to you.” Yes, we reclaim. We come home.
So here’s one last story for you. Last week I had a phone conversation with a wise, older friend. I was crying, sharing my deep sorrow about the pain in my life. I told her, “I’m tired of hurting. I’ve just had enough!”
She said something to me that has stuck with me – that I’ve been replaying over and over in my mind. She said, “Karly, when you have pain in your life, you have two choices. You can harden your heart and turn bitter. You can hold onto the pain and build up walls. Or you can allow your pain to soften your heart, to grow your compassion, to grow your love. If this is the case, it will hurt. But it will hurt because you’re growing a bigger heart. What you’re feeling are the necessary growing pains of growing up, of opening your heart.”
I found this image so beautiful – that the pain we feel in feeling our feelings is not lost, is not in vain – that it is used – transmuted – in the service of growing our hearts.
So, dear one, when you care for your anger, when you care for your anxiety, when you care for your frustration, when you feel your feelings and their pain, you’re growing a bigger heart. You’re growing your heart big enough to include all your many “selves,” all your emotions, all your feelings, all your needs, every hidden part of you – even those things that have you think, “If you knew _____ about me, you’d lock me up and think I was the world’s worst person!” (Isn’t it funny that we can all think that way about ourselves?)
Yes, it may hurt as you feel those feelings, especially ones that you feel afraid to feel. Yes, it may hurt as you feel your feelings instead of suppressing them.
But it is not the pain of something’s wrong; it is the necessary growing pain from growing a bigger heart.
As you care for this pain, as you befriend every part of you, you find a wholeness, a strength within. Those parts of us that have been cut off for so long – we reintegrate them back to us. We find wholeness not in perfection but in an open heart, in the integrity of unconditional love. It’s as my friend Maureen says, “I love all of me.”
When we can open our arms to all our feelings, we find something priceless: that the lie that we’ve believed for so long – that our imperfection makes us unlovable; that we’re too broken to be worthy, to be loved; that we have to be perfect to be “good” – is not true.
In befriending our emotions, we find our homecoming. We find our goodness. We find peace.
Beloved, open the door. Come home.