The other day, I was listening to a TED Talk by psychologist Susan David. She spoke about how we judge ourselves for having emotions we deem negative and how we try to push these “negative” emotions aside. I often hear our patients talk about not wanting to feel pain, hurt, failure, and disappointment. They avoid wanting to feel alone or ashamed. They use their eating disorder or other maladaptive coping behaviors in an attempt to run away and disconnect from these feelings. Dr. David speaks about the desire to not have certain feelings as the individual having, “dead people’s goals.” She says, “Only dead people don’t fail or mess up, or feel scared, or alone. Only dead people don’t get stressed.”
It’s true. Allowing one’s self to be fully human means having all emotions. Having emotions that are not always pleasant to experience is part of our contract of being part of life. Being in relationships with people you love and care about sometimes means feeling hurt or disappointment. Having children means that sometimes you will feel scared or overwhelmed. Having a job can sometimes mean being passed over for a promotion and lead to feeling rejected.
Having all emotions is truly the price of a meaningful life. Emotions are not “good or bad;” they provide us with information about how we are internalizing what may be going on around us and placing value judgments on emotions tends not to be very helpful in managing emotional responses. One cannot be fully engaged or present in life if only certain emotions are allowed or expressed. The only way to avoid certain emotions would be to disengage from the experiences themselves, to isolate and not be in relationships, or to use maladaptive coping mechanisms to try to mitigate specific emotions. None of these options would lead to a very fulfilling or meaningful life. Experiencing a full array of emotions is part of the beauty of being alive and reminds us of our humanity; It means that we are operating in the world fully connected.
Tanja Haaland, MA, LPC-S
Clinical Director, The Meadows Ranch