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.

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The dark emotions: Food for the soul

Developing our healing muscles

“When we polarize light and dark, our healing remains partial and obsessive, easily undone.” p. 27

I turn again this week to Miriam Greenspan’s work Healing Through the Dark Emotions. As this opening quote suggests, for true healing we need to do more than classify our emotions, experiences and thoughts into good and bad or positive and negative. Indeed, as Greenspan argues, failure to recognize that these are dynamic polarities can stymy our attempts to learn and grow.

What makes clinging to static, polarized categories unproductive? Why does such an approach slow or limit our healing? One key reason is that it keeps us stuck in a fixed mindset. As I’ve described in Do You Seek to Demonstrate or Develop Diversity, the fixed mindset keeps us reliant on external motivators such as tangible rewards or punishments and puts us at risk of only taking action when someone is compelling us to do so. This damages our chances for healing because typically you only gain the approbation of the external world if you get over your hurt quickly and move on with your life.

In line with the fixed mindset, the wider world is attuned to the demonstration of healing and considers it a one-time thing. Furthermore, the all-or-none outlook of the fixed mindset says that you are either well or ill, healed or still hurting. However, the work of learning from challenging feelings, events and ruminations occupies the liminal space between broken and healed rather than neatly falling into either of these two categories. As such, at the present moment there is little respect for such healing work and perhaps even less support for people trying to find their way to a broader-based sense of what is good and bad. Returning to wholeness, however, is a continuing process, one which requires you to construct a fuller and richer sense of your place in the world and the world’s within you. Embracing a growth mindset when it comes to healing means that one seeks to uncover the value in the pain, the good that not only can be recognized but also developed.

“When we can broaden the story of our suffering…emotional alchemy happens quite naturally. We learn that suffering | does not have to deaden; it can also enliven. It does not have to weaken, it can also strengthen. It does not have to diminish but can enlarge us. We go to ‘shrinks’ to reduce our suffering, when what we need is to open to it and let it expand us.” pp. 26-27

As I discussed in Educating Our Palates About Development, adopting a fixed mindset has another disadvantage: it can often mean giving up when the going gets tough. You see yourself as having only a fixed amount of strength or capacity to engage in the healing process. And when that process does not flow smoothly and easily, when you can’t cope perfectly with new or existing setbacks, you may decide that there is no way forward because something internal to you is eternally broken. From this position you cease to strive for clarity in terms of your emotions and beliefs and instead begin to process things through the lens of the passive victim. In this state, all of your energy and zest for life dissipates.

“Painful emotions challenge us to know the sacred in the broken; to develop an enlarged sense of self beyond the suffering ego, an awareness that comes from being mindful of life’s difficulties, rather than disengaging from them; to arrive at a wider and deeper perspective not limited by our pain but expanded by it.” p. 27

Because despair, fear and grief are a part of being human, so too is healing. When we face tough situations, be they ugly and unpleasant words and actions or major shifts that force us to reappraise our lives from the ground up, we are not powerless. We can use the lens of diversity and inclusion to build bridges that join the positive and the negative into a greater, healing whole rather than erecting walls that divide us from ourselves and others in our suffering world. That is the diversity dividend.

 

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

 


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

Developing our healing muscles

Respecting the lessons of despair, fear and grief

Encountering a situation where diversity is not respected, where we feel excluded or shamed or stigmatized simply for being who we are, or for striving to be who we want to become, is typically accompanied by painful emotions. Being made to feel less than due to membership in a particular class of people, possession of, or a failure to possess, a particular characteristic or trait, or identifying with a cause, creed or group, results in feelings of grief, fear and despair. According to Miriam Greenspan, “…we are schooled to endure, deny, bypass [or transcend], avenge, and escape painful emotions. These five common ways of coping have their strengths and weaknesses, but for the most part they aren’t conducive to healing and transformation” (pp. 58-59, Healing Through the Dark Emotions). Understanding how utilizing any of these five coping strategies can block our growth and well-being, will help us to create ways to work with and through our painful emotions instead.

Endurance is the ability to withstand suffering without collapsing” (p. 59). Endurance can be a valuable skill in the short term, allowing us to survive long enough to reappraise our situation and regain our strength. However the longer we simply put up with things that cause us suffering, the more we give up our power and our agency, our ability to be the authors of our own lives. In addition, if we don’t question the system or individuals whose actions we are enduring, we may never learn that there is the possibility for change.

Denial is the unconscious detachment from emotion and the truth that emotion holds” (p. 60). Judicious use of denial can help us to accomplish tasks that might otherwise appear to be beyond our capabilities due to fear of failure or concerns about our performance. However when we push our suffering away, we are unable to hear the messages that our painful emotions hold, messages that let us know that we are being harmed. When we can process these messages, we can ask for the help we need.

[Spiritual bypass] denies the evils of earthly existence and declares that only love and light are ‘real’…” (p. 60). Privileging the good things in our lives can lead to an increased sense of gratitude and stop us from limiting our dreams and desires. However when we restrict our focus to what is positive, we may mortgage our present for some ideal future that will never arrive because we have not properly assessed the challenges and obstacles before us.

In vengeance, we neither bury nor rise above our suffering; we get mad and we get even” (p. 61). When we avenge a wrong by concentrating on how we can make the world a better place, we can build a stronger community that is able to learn from the suffering of its members. However by turning our attention outward, to the other, we can miss the impact our painful experience had on our souls, we may fail to see how we were diminished and that we need time and space to heal and rejuvenate.

Buying, owning, using gadgets, consuming experiences — these are the hallmarks of a culture of escape; so is the inability to tolerate silence. The most extreme forms of escape with the most devastating consequences are addictions” (p. 62). Distraction can be a powerful tool when we use it to give our minds and souls space to work through difficult and troubling experiences outside our conscious awareness. However, unlike all of the other coping mechanisms that begin with some acknowledgement, no matter how fleeting, that something bad is happening, distraction is an escape from the recognition that we are hurting. When we mask our pain with action and make no time for quiet reflection, we may be undermining our ability to recognize when we are suffering and immerse ourselves in distractions even when life is good.

When things are tough and grief, fear and despair threaten to overwhelm us, we can turn to one of the five coping strategies above. We can also decide to look at our experience and sit with the feelings it arouses. By allowing ourselves to process the dark emotions rather than endure, deny, bypass, avenge or escape them, we have the opportunity for learning. To help us achieve wisdom and transformation, Greenspan (p. 268) suggests asking ourselves:

  • “Out of knowing and being with my (fear, grief, despair), my task is to…
  • When I view my dark emotions as teachers I learn…
  • Instead of avoiding dark emotions, I can use them creatively by…

Respecting rather than replacing our fear, despair and grief can repay us in dividends of self-compassion, joy and healing.


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

 

 

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

Respecting the lessons of despair, fear and grief