Here’s a nice article in the Scientific American on the importance of emotions that we often relate to as negative, and consequently feel guilty or ashamed about and try to suppress. We’re talking about things like anger and sadness.
The author, a psychotherapist, writes that: “In recent years I have noticed an increase in the number of people who feel guilty or ashamed about what they perceive to be negativity. Such reactions undoubtedly stem from our culture’s overriding bias toward positive thinking. Although positive emotions are worth cultivating, problems arise when people start believing they must be upbeat all the time. In fact, anger and sadness are an important part of life, and new research shows that experiencing and accepting such emotions are vital to our mental health. Attempting to suppress thoughts can backfire and even diminish our sense of contentment.”
The article writes about the importance of trying to accept the emotions, and cites exercises in mindfulness that can help achieve this. My sessions often involve learning to accept emotions, but with the emphasis being on really diving into them and experiencing them, as a full body-mind-feeling experience. Allowing emotions fully to be there allows them to be what they are supposed to be: transient. They don’t need to hang around in the background, easily triggered by other situations.
Often in sessions we actually work on emotions that have been buried for a long time, that are from somewhere deeper in someone’s past. If we didn’t know how to deal with an experience at the time, it’s as if it remained incomplete. The feelings are still somewhere locked away, and spill into parts of our present lives. Again, we need to acknowledge and see, and really experience those old feelings, in order to finally let them go and be able to move on. Being able to do that requires feeling safety and trust; usually the reason we didn’t fully deal with old emotions in the first place is because they seemed too scary or big for us, as if they would destroy us. A big part of my role is to provide a safe context for someone to go through those feelings. It’s a bit like cradling someone, or like holding someone’s hand and saying: come on, I’m with you, we’ll jump together.