The dark emotions: Food for the soul

For this latest post inspired by Miriam Greenspan’s Healing Through the Dark Emotions, I’d like to talk about what she refers to as “affect tolerance” or our ability to feel our dark emotions, to experience them fully, and wherever possible, without judgment.

“To befriend the dark emotions, your intention must be to get close to what you want to run away from. You need to take your time and give yourself permission to let yourself feel whatever you’re feeling without shame, doubt, analysis, or condemnation.”
p. 77

How do we engage with the energy of the dark emotions long enough to learn and grow from the experience? As Greenspan suggests, when it comes to the dark emotions (and perhaps emotional energy more generally), we need to release our shame and our doubt, our need to analyze, and our tendency to condemnation.

Shame. As Brené Brown has highlighted we all battle shame in the effort to see ourselves as “[worthy] of love and belonging” (Supersoul Sunday – Shame is Lethal). To be mature, we are told, is to be free of certain emotions. We are socialized to present a façade which conceals our discomfort or pain when fear, despair and grief strike, not solely because the expression of these emotions could make other people uncomfortable, but also because of our should’s— we shouldn’t feel this way, we shouldn’t react this way, we shouldn’t express ourselves this way, if we want to be seen as a proper grown up people. These should’s keep us stuck in a sense that we are “never enough” (Supersoul Sunday – Shame is Lethal); and, until we let them go, we will find it difficult to absorb the lessons of the dark emotions.

Doubt. When we doubt, we deny the truth of our emotions. We call into question the their very existence. We get caught up in thinking that we are losing our sanity because no one else seems to feel despair, fear or grief. If we believe that we are alone in experiencing these feelings, we may come to question both the validity of our emotions and our right to feel them. Operating from this place of skepticism and distrust, these feelings will appear unreasonable or suspicious. Unless we can adopt a more open perspective that affirms the legitimacy of these feelings, we will struggle to benefit from the transformative power of our dark emotions.

Analysis. When we turn to analysis, we seek to hold back the rawness and the pain of the dark emotions by boxing them up neatly. Instead of despair, fear and grief, we have a problem that can be solved or a list of actions to be taken. Instead of feelings, we focus on facts. We examine the current situation, the wrongs from our past or our concerns about the future, neglecting the emotional and spiritual realm in favor the intellectual one. Yet without an emotional appraisal, we cannot be truly engaged and any solution we do find is likely to be lifeless and uninspiring.

Condemnation. We are brought up to see some emotions as dishonorable, disgusting or even wicked. With these labels comes the sense that we are these emotions incarnate, and, because they are bad, so are we. When we move from saying “I am afraid right now” to “I am a pathetic coward” or from “I am overwhelmed by despair right now” to “I am a pitiful loser,” we condemn ourselves to an understanding of self that is inflexible and limited (a fixed mindset in Carol Dweck’s terms). This mindset blocks our growing and changing through these experiences. Until we can recognize the invitation in our dark emotions— to do something different, to ask for help, to fail better the next time, to develop a richer model of who we are—we will wrestle with them fruitlessly. But when we take a welcoming and appreciative approach and sit with them patiently, full of wonder and curiosity, the dark emotions cease to make us feel as if we are destined to live in hell and instead can reveal a route to the divine.

In truth, we need to recognize that emotions simply are. To accept this idea, it may be helpful to think of them in terms of a physical process like digestion: You take something in and this sets off a cascade of processes where some of what you take in nourishes you and some must be released as waste. Everything deserves to be “chewed on,” however, because the more you can focus on maximizing the value you extract, the stronger you grow.


Miriam Greenspan. (2003). Healing through the dark emotions. The wisdom of grief, fear, and despair. Boston: Shambala.

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The Diversity Dividend by Katherine W Hirsh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

The dark emotions: Food for the soul

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