Fully feeling and being aware of your emotions are central to what it means to live. Otherwise, you are just existing – robotically accomplishing and achieving without ‘heart.’ And so it’s important to pay attention to your range of experiences. Some are thoroughly uplifting; while others suck you down into some kind of emotional quicksand, making every motion difficult. And, of course, there is every other imaginable experience in-between. From an optimistic perspective, you can think of each experience as an opportunity for personal growth. But from a more practical perspective, awareness of your experiences can provide you with guidance in your life right now.
Chances are that you want to avoid what hurts and go toward what feels good. This is a very basic instinct that has been extremely helpful in the continued survival of humans. For instance, we (and our ancestors) experience both ends of this spectrum with fire – huddling around it for warmth, but also learning not to get too close. So, this instinct is generally good. However, it can also backfire.
When people respond to pain by reflexively trying to block it out, bad things can happen. Think about the damage people do to themselves when they ignore back pain so that they can continue to garden or shoot hoops with friends. Similarly, people harm themselves when they deny or ignore their emotions.
On a basic level, people deny an important aspect of themselves when they ignore their emotions. It limits their self-knowledge and their appreciation of various aspects of being human. For instance, you have empathy for those who were harmed in the Boston marathon bombings because you can relate, at least to some degree, with their pain. In addition, by ignoring emotions, people block out feedback that can be important in guiding their daily actions. For instance, your “gut instinct” (perhaps feelings of tension or anxiety) might cause you not to trust someone in a potentially dangerous situation. Or your overwhelming sadness might be an indication that you are deeply unhappy in your marriage. For these reasons, ignoring emotions can limit you in many ways.
So, choose to pay attention to your emotions – even when you feel upset. As you do so, it’s important that you also learn to accept, tolerate, and even befriend them so that they don’t overwhelm you. So, for instance, you can accept grief about the loss of a loved one as a painful emotion that feels right (though not good), rather than respond with a need to outrun it or a sense of being totally distressed by it. Not only will learning to acknowledge and accept emotions help you to feel alive, but it can also expand your horizons, add to your empathy and compassion (for yourself and others), and guide you in day-to-day decisions.
With this in mind, consider the following poem by Jalaluddin Rumi, a 13th Century Persian poet (and translated by Coleman Barks):
The Guest House
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.
Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ. She also writes a blog for WebMD (The Art of Relationships) and is the relationship expert on WebMD’s Relationships and Coping Community.
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Making Change blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional assistance.
Personal change through compassionate self-awareness