We long for things to be different, yet we instinctively resist change. Carl Jung famously wrote, “What you resist, persists.” It’s true. What we push aside or avoid about ourselves strengthens and grows more insistent. We especially play this game with emotions. We can override and deny what we would rather not feel with our distracting cell phones,
to-do lists, alcohol, drugs, etc. Even honorable activities like caring for others or learning can be used to hide from our true feelings. No matter how hard we try to avoid or dismiss our emotions, they do not disappear. Even when we’re not consciously trying to avoid we can sidestep our feelings. Fear becomes ongoing anxiety or panic, racing pulse, chest pressure or sleeplessness. Frustration grows into underlying seething anger that erupts into rage without warning or a headache or back pain. Sadness that is put aside can deepen into depression, body aches, or fatigue. The more disturbing this feels, the more we resist or try to override these emotions. We also tend to project or put our uncomfortable emotions on others. We’re more likely to take out our frustration about an exhausting work day with a critical, belittling coworker on our loved ones at home. This pattern to dismiss the emotional language of our inner experience affects our physical health, relationships, and professional life. No wonder we hide!
Clearly our drive to “get over” or override our emotions does not work. Research that measured brain activity in subjects using functional MRIs to track their responses to pictures of positive and negative events reported that subjects who reported feeling happier and more satisfied in their lives noticed negative AND positive events. Their brains were more balanced meaning that they equally focused on the good and the bad. So noticing what is disturbing or uncomfortable is an important part of living a vital, satisfying life. These findings fly in the face of some of our “just be positive” teachings, but they clearly call us to savor and intentionally notice what is going well in our lives. They also align with our brain’s natural negativity bias. Our brains are wired to notice what is wrong or what could become wrong in our lives to protect us. This is true for everyone. We all have this wiring to notice what’s wrong. We all avoid emotions that we find disturbing.
Understanding how our brain works and becoming aware of the emotions we avoid with mindful awareness and self-compassion allows us to open up to more of who we are and get unstuck from unhealthy patterns.
Begin slowly and gently on this healing path.
Start with a small piece or part of an emotion that you find difficult. For example start with frustration instead of rage. Begin with worry, not panic.
Seek help from a therapist, trusted friend, or resource.
Try a practice with me using the Emotions and Mindful Practice video posted on this page. As we become more practiced and nimble with our emotions, we ride their waves with more ease and live more authentically.