In Western culture we have a history of treating emotions with suspicion and contempt, as somethign alien, other, separate from us. From Plato onwards the ‘passions’ have be viewed as our ‘lower nature.’ Regarding the source of the passions, as Freud did, as an ‘it’ (id), ‘a primitive chaos, a cauldron of seething excitement’, makes it hard to develop a friendly relationship with emotions or accept them as part of ourselves. This view of emotion as primitive and alien is a classic form of dualistic Western thinking.
As a result of regarding emotions as other, we feel the need to rid ourselves of these alien forces invading our system, either by acting them out or suppressing them. Yet this fear of our emotions indicates how alienated we are from ourselves. First we are alienated from our own energy, making it other and judging it negatively. Then we start to imagine these emotions are demonic, that we have monsters in side us. The irony is that in judging and controlling our emotions, we become further overwhelmed by them, which leads to explosive eruptions that leave us all the more alienated from ourselves. In treating emotions as other, we grant them dominion over us. Suppressing emotions and acting them out are both alienated, afflicted strategies that prevent us from experiencing emotions as they are, face to face.
John Welwood : Toward a Psychology of Awakening
An alternative way of regarding our emotions is to understand them as part of us, an intrinsic part of our raw and vital aliveness, expressions of basic life energy moving through us. The saddest part of suppressing our emotions is that we lose access to this liveliness and depression is often a result. We become split and divided from our essential engine of soul/spirit in body that guides us and keeps us in touch with life through our emotions and our felt sense of being.
Gendlin addressed the concept of felt sense in his book Focusing. A particular feeling such as sadness may actually have different layers of feeling associated with it and there are ways we can use to get in touch with the felt sense of a particular feeling in order to come in touch with the more essential part of our being and vital aliveness underlying certain emotions.
At first the felt sense that lies beneath an emotion may not be very clear to us, most especially if we are conditioned to run from or over express certain emotions in such a way, rather than be in touch with them, instead we then tend to become over powered. This is because often an emotion is a more intense form of feeling. For example sadness can build into grief, irritation may erupt into rage, a feeling of fear may turn into panic. When feelings become intensified in such a way they do tend to overtake us and we need a strong sense of attention to be able to contain and feel and hold the feeling and observe how it may build into something more intense and wisdom to see what lies under it and may be motivating us.
In his book Toward A Psychology of Awakening, therapist John Welwood describes such a situation as ’emotional entanglement. He explains how a feeling of sadness can be amplified by the way in which we choose to respond to it. Whether we resist or judge ourselves for it thinking or seeing it as a sign of something wrong, annoying or unwanted. This can happen when a feeling threatens our self image and then we can start to tell ourselves stories about the feeling we are having most of which tend to magnify it or make it far harder to engage with in a productive way.
reacting against feelings – fearing fear, being outraged about anger, becoming depressed about sadness – is much worse than the primary feelings themselves, for it turns us against ourselves and causes us to go around in emotional circles. As we spin around in the cycle of feelings – giving rise to highly charged thoughts, our perception becomes cloudy, and we often say or do things we later regret.
Cutting through this tendency to get lost in emotionally driven thoughts and stories requires a certain discipline, which psychotherapy and meditation provide in different ways.
Working in a therapeutic way with our psyche involves unpacking the deeper felt sense underlying emotions and stories we tell, it is a way of tapping more deeply into underlying meanings and responses beneath emotions. In fact certain emotions may be pointing towards a need we must address. For example sadness may be a reason to look at the ways in which we are missing happiness, joy and connection in our lives, or an indicator of loss we need to work through. Anger may be a message that we need to express certain feelings and needs to someone who is hurting us or a sign we need to treat our frustration and discomfort gently by setting a boundary or sharing a truth. Fear may be a sign that something isn’t safe for us or we may need to take care.
Without access to our feelings we either split them off and denigrate ourselves or let feelings build and build intensifying with the punishing stories we can tell. If instead we can open our minds and hearts to our bodies and the feelings that may have valuable messages for us, if we can welcome them in and pay mindful attention we may learn a valuable lesson in self care and find a sense of calm, connection, contentment and rest that does not come if we are continually fearing them and pushing them away