We all have certain emotions we would prefer not to feel. Anger. Jealousy. Envy. Frustration. Fear. Loneliness. Sadness. Overwhelm.
Have you ever noticed that we refer to these emotions as “negative” emotions? We view them in contrast to the “positive” emotions we desire to feel: Happiness. Joy. Love.
So much of our emotional suffering comes from resisting these “negative” emotions and the pain that comes with them.
This is caused in part by social cues and what we’re told, as children, that we’re “allowed” to feel. What’s acceptable to feel.
Anger = bad. Happiness = good.
So these emotions that we believe are “taboo” cause us pain — often physical pain, because the mind and body are linked together. And that physical pain intensifies the emotional pain, creating a loop of physical and emotional pain until we are entrenched in the emotion and the physical body pain.
And of course we turn that pain into suffering by resisting it, by believing we are “bad” for feeling it. Buddhists call this the “second arrow,” but who stops at two arrows?
In fact, one interesting habit I’ve noticed, both with my clients and in myself, is how often we will use anger or other “negative” emotions as fuel for doing something that creates a positive impact.
How many successful start-up founders have a story about being rejected by schools or a desired employer and deciding, in a fit of anger, “I’ll show them.” And then that person goes on to create something extraordinary. That anger certainly looks like a positive now, doesn’t it?
Let your pain become your purpose. This is often advised in spiritual circles.
The strategy of using anger as fuel, while it may be successful in the short term, is not a wise long term strategy, but that’s another topic for another time.
How to Ease the Pain
What if we could eliminate the pain and the suffering we experience when these emotions arise?
As a first step, we can eliminate the labels.
Let’s stop using labels like “positive” and “negative” to categorize emotions. Emotions are neither positive nor negative; they simply are.
The point is that emotions themselves aren’t positive or negative, that classification comes from us. And maybe if we let go of the classification we can ease some of the pain.
So the emotion is what it is. Instead of classifying it, we can view it as a messenger. It has something to teach us.
This is the lesson of one of my favorite poems, The Guest House, by the 13th century Persian poet Rumi, in which he describes emotions as guests in our home. I often remind myself to think of emotions in this way.
Welcome it in. Allow it.
This belongs here.
Here’s the text of the poem
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 are 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 whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
— Jellaludin Rumi
Translation by Coleman Barks