The (Sometimes) Awful Truth

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.

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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10 comments

    Part of what you bring up to me is the cultural hype of the power of positive thinking, the idea of simply affirming the positive will make it so. I’m not saying that there is not room for this, but there exists a kind of tyranny around about looking on the bright side of things. There is a great chapter in Gabor Mate’s book “When the Body Says No” called “The Power of Negative Thinking” about the ability to deal squarely w/ reality, which I love.

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    I really liked this post, you know, it helps me as I sometimes forget that of course we all have these feelings! And it is important to validate we are feeling creatures, the feelings will not just go away in psychotherapy, but it is a process to be experienced and lived.
    Many times I have had clients come off of psychotrophic medications have intense emotional dreams, the brain doing its normal processing of emotions not fully experienced…of course these medications have their uses…but it is interesting to note the intense dreams, the emotions being experienced and categorized by the brain into memory..

    I have been reading your posts for several weeks now, and feel so fortunate that I have wandered into this island of sanity in an otherwise often quite insane world.

    Having spent ten years with an excellent therapist and 17 years as a Buddhist meditator, I have arrived (finally) at the point in my life where I can accept that I have emotions and feelings that can be difficult to let in. However, I am now able to sit with them (either on my cushion or in my mind) and allow myself to learn from them about what I need to do. I have spent many years writing a story about how this ability can be gradually gained from a meditation practice, and my book, Choosing to Be: Lessons in Living from a Feline Zen Master, is helping many people who might not otherwise consider Buddhist meditation as a path to sanity and inner peace.

    I love the examples you use from your own life to illustrate your teachings. Envy is such a difficult emotion, one I still struggle with — to let this in, acknowledge it, and share it with someone helps me release the toxins that would otherwise affect my health. No shame here, just plain old envy, old as mankind, no big deal.

    Thank you for your beautiful work. I now follow you on Twitter, and read at least one of your posts every day. One of my favorite poems is The Guest House by Rumi, and I have copies of it framed and placed in several rooms of my home. Your posts have become as important to me as this poem.

    Appreciatively,
    Kat Tansey

    PS – Here is the poem, for benefit of those who may not know it.

    The Guest House by Rumi

    This being human is a guest house.
    Every morning a new arrival.
    A joy, a depression, a meanness,
    some momentary awareness comes
    as an unexpected visitor.
    Welcome and entertain them all!
    Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
    who violently sweep your house
    empty of its furniture.
    Still, treat each guest honorably.
    He may be clearing you
    out for some new delight.
    The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
    meet them at the door laughing
    and invite them in.
    Be grateful for whoever comes,
    because each has been sent
    as a guide from beyond.

    It’s comments like yours, Kat, that make all the work worthwhile. Thank you for taking the time to post your appreciation.

    Well, I am quite fond of feeling happy. I think it is good to let yourself feel the range of emotions if it is important for some reason for your well-being or to make you a better person. There is a lot of talk these days about emotional literacy. As I think I am always in touch with what emotion I am feeling, it is kind of hard for me to understand how some people don’t know they are angry. I worry that I don’t cry like I did when I was younger. I do cry some and it is almost so rare that I am sometimes quite happy to see that something will bring me tears. I am grateful to usually feel happy.

    I like the thinking deep and clear thoughts part. As I have read some of your blog it resurfaced me wondering if it would be good to know what my subconscious is thinking. I don’t have a savage inner voice constantly telling me that I am not of worth.
    I do have my problems that I will not go into here. But in many ways, I am pretty comfortable in my own skin, which isn’t something that I would have said as a teen. I hate to think that maybe my subconscious is all conflicted and torn up and all. I don’t know if I subscribe to all the psychoanalysis as it is seems like it almost says that whatever you think you are that you are the opposite. I only want that to be true for my bad attributes. :)

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