I’ve recently been thinking a lot about our complicated relationships with “negative” feelings. How hard we work to control our anger, or to stifle our tears, or avoid pain. To be happy! We are bombarded with messaging that tells us that happiness is the ultimate goal of life. As if it is somehow wrong or abnormal to feel sadness, depression, anxiety, or any other emotional discomfort. As if we are failing if we are not ALWAYS full of joy. At the same time, we can also be so focused on those “negative” feelings that when times are good we are just waiting for the other shoe to drop. It seems easy to think of life as difficult with some happy points here and there, as opposed to recognizing the ebb and flow of great times and not so great times. But just as surely as the other shoe will drop, so, too, will good times come again.
I believe that the ultimate goal of life is to LIVE it.
I don’t believe in “negative” feelings. I believe in feelings, period. And while I understand that some of them feel good, and some of them feel not so good, I also know that having a broad range of emotional experiences is part of what it means to be alive, and to be having the human experience. I don’t believe that we can successfully shut ourselves off from feelings like anger, pain, frustration, or regret, and still expect to be able to fully experience joy, pleasure, excitement, or happiness. If we aren’t feeling ALL of our feelings, we may struggle to really feel any of them.
One of my favorite quotes can be found in the book The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran. It is his passage on Joy and Sorrow. He writes:
Then a woman said, Speak to us of Joy and Sorrow.
And he answered:
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.
Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.
Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced.
When the reassure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver, needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.
To me, this is a beautiful illustration of the complexity of our emotional experience. It points to our tendency to understand the world around us in contrasting concepts. We understand light because we understand dark. We understand wet because we understand dry. We understand smooth because we understand rough. And we understand joy because we understand sorrow.
Our emotions are the language of our internal world. They are a signal to us about how we are responding to our environments, and about what we may need at any given moment to feel supported, cared for, or fully expressed. When we spend our lives working hard to avoid emotional discomfort, we limit our ability to experience ourselves and others, authentically. We limit our ability to grow and change – because most change, even good change, is at least a little uncomfortable.
Ask yourself where in life you are attempting to avoid discomfort or “negative” feelings. How is that blocking you from going all in? How does it stand in the way of your ability to connect with others deeply, or to express yourself fully?
Someone said to me recently, “you are not the clouds that move and change. You are the sky. Your feelings are the clouds. They will move and change, but they will pass. Let them.”