Early in my own psychotherapy, my therapist once asked me, “Are you interested in how you actually feel, or do you want to feel one particular way?” I don’t remember what prompted that question, but I probably said something like, “I just want to be happy.” Over the years, I’ve heard many of my own clients say similar things and I’ve responded in more or less the same words.
Wanting to be “happy” is understandable but in truth, it’s not possible. I don’t mean we can’t find a basic contentment with our lot, but life is full of frustration, pain, disappointment, loss, grief and other “unhappy” feelings. Even if we’re in a strong relationship, satisfied with our career and in good health, we’ll inevitably have our down days. We may have difficult co-workers, friends can move away, a loved one will eventually die.
For those who seek professional help, the pain of their existence is usually much deeper and harder to bear than ordinary loss and disappointment. Their suffering may be extreme; the symptoms of depression or anxiety can make their lives an ongoing agony. “Take away my pain,” they plead, whether or not they say those actual words. Empathizing with their pain, health care professionals understandably prescribe them drugs to relieve them of their unbearable emotions and feelings. Whether you can actually eliminate anxiety or depression with psychotropic medication is an open question, though recent studies suggest that the anti-depressants currently in use work no better than placebos. I believe these medications at best blunt awareness and in the process often create a new set of problems: loss of sex drive, weight gains, emotional deadness.
[For a detailed discussion of the actual effects of psychiatric medication, read my later post about the dubious theory that medical illness is caused a chemical imbalance in brain functioning; another on the false claim that psychiatric medications have let to actual improvements in mental health outcomes; and a third discussing the false representation by pharmaceutical companies and the medical profession that taking “anti-depressants” for mental illness is just like taking insulin for diabetes.}
If you’re visiting this site, I assume you’re more interested in meaning than relief of symptoms. Why am I depressed? Under what conditions do I become anxious? What makes me behave in these ways I don’t understand? Of course you want to suffer less, but your primary goal must be to know yourself better.
If you truly want to grow, you can’t decide in advance how you want to feel, which feelings are acceptable to you and which you reject. You need to embrace the entire range of your emotional experience. One of my teachers once said that the goal of therapy is to teach our clients to feel deeply and think clearly. In other words, the goal is not to eliminate unwanted parts of your experience, but to probe it more profoundly, however painful it may be, and to understand and cope with it more effectively.
Finding Your Own Way
Make a list of some feelings you don’t want to feel. Pick one and reflect on a few occasions when that feeling came up for you. How did you react? Did you run away from the experience or try to deny it? Did the feeling overwhelm you — i.e., did you find it impossible to think and respond in a way that didn’t lower your self-respect? Under ideal conditions, how might you have handled the experience differently?
As an example, let me talk about envy. a feeling that nobody wants to feel. Last year, in the middle of one of the most financially taxing years of my life, I was on a road trip and stopped to visit friends I hadn’t seen in a very long time. Since we’d last met, they’d become quite wealthy and their house was huge and beautiful; they could quite literally afford to buy anything they wanted. In comparison, I felt very small, as if I were a failure, and painfully envious of their financial freedom and material possessions. I stayed the night in their home, and when I went to bed, I planned to get up early, leave them a note and hit the road before they got up.
Instead, I waited and talked to them over breakfast about what I’d been going through the past year and received some unexpected support and sympathy. I still felt envious of their wealth, but somehow feeling emotionally closer to them mitigated the pain and made that experience easier to bear. We can’t always expect to have such a happy outcome, but I believe that it’s always better to face the emotional truth than to run from it. Simply admitting that you have a feeling, accepting it as one hue in the human emotional spectrum, is half the battle won.