The Tao of Emotions

Re-thinking our obsession with coping.

Posted Oct 07, 2020

Shangchu Constantine/Unsplash
Bending to the wind
Source: Shangchu Constantine/Unsplash

We human beings spend a lot of time trying to cope with problems, and the emotions that they bring. And no wonder: Life is full of challenges, seemingly one after the other at times. Most of our coping focuses on our emotions—the ebbs and flows of our feelings, the frustrations, worries, the sadness or regret, the panic. This is not comfortable stuff. And it can often seem like we are fighting those feelings back: "Coping" often becomes a struggle of trying to make them go away. We try to change our thinking, to be more positive, cheer up, focus our mind elsewhere, stop worrying. But the truth is that we often lose this battle. Unfortunately, even in my world of clinical psychology, the focus often seems to be how to "reduce symptoms" and the expectations of patients are the need for "coping skills" to get their symptoms to go away. I totally get this: We want anxiety out. We want panic gone. We need sadness to lift. It's so uncomfortable. The desire is human and completely understandable.

Here's a new perspective: Is it possible that we are paddling upstream? Because the more we struggle with our emotions, the more they seem to hang around, intensify, and get stuck. And, in my view, from doing clinical work for more than a decade, the more people try to "cope" by pushing their feelings away, the more they get stuck. I see that understandable feelings of fear, once contracted and unmet, get turned into anxiety. And sadness or grief, unexpressed, consolidates into depression. These are patterns, whereby over time emotions that are not felt fully turn inward and get stuck. They get "disordered."

But I don't see it this way. You are not "disordered," and there's nothing inherently wrong with you at your core. Nothing broken. Rather, perhaps, you, like everyone else, as been trained to turn away from yourself in times of intense emotion. To fix. We learn that "coping" means strength, and we go about the business of controlling our emotions, fearing that, if we don't get them under control, they will spiral out of control into a mental health disaster.

But here's the truth: Your emotions, like everything else in the impressively designed body-mind that we have, are inherently in control. They are part of an intelligent system that has mechanisms for healing issues that arise. Do we have biological predispositions? Sure. Do we have tendencies and ingrained patterns from our life experiences? Sure. But one thing we can trust in is this: In the right space, emotions are self-correcting. I know this is hard to believe; my clients often don't believe me at first. But it's true. When emotions are experienced and felt fully, they move along toward healing. In fact, emotions are meant to flow.

I can hear you asking, What about things like trauma, losing a loved one, or receiving a life-threatening diagnosis? I'm not saying these things aren't incredibly difficult. And I'm also not saying that there are times when our emotional patterns aren't dysfunctional or have long complicated histories that move these patterns into the realm of significant mental health problems. Many life experiences and their companion emotions can feel soul-crushing. The idea here is not that they don't hurt: It's that when you move into that emotion and experience the hurt directly, it keeps flowing. And it shows you what it is doing there, and how you can move forward. The emotions themselves, once felt, deliver you to the other side, when you ride their waves.

Thinking about your feelings, and trying to influence them from the control tower that is your mind, is often futile. Emotions are designed to be felt. Emotions have a message for you: Lean in. Its the best way through.

References

Greenspan, M. (2003) Healing Through The Dark Emotions. Shambhala Publications