There are so many preconceptions about feelings and emotions we do not challenge that we usually have a one-sided (very biased) view on them. This view is very patronising and is fed to us by our families, society, self-help books, different styles of therapies, and so on. We have been conditioned to think that happiness should be our normal state of mind. If it’s not, we should strive for it until we finally find it (Russ, The Happiness Trap). On the flip side, we are conditioned to think that sadness, shame, fear, anxiety, and the likes are negative emotions and that we should fight them – or at least learn to control them and/or replace them for positive ones such as joy. But, as I have been learning in therapy for the past two months… this is not true nor an effective mechanism to deal with emotions or believe system to uphold.
My therapist recommended I watched Pixar’s latest film Inside Out as it aligns perfectly with the method we are using called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (known as ACT).This form of therapy – in my own words – is about learning to accept that we don’t really have that much control over our emotions (like some psychologists think), that we can still work towards what we want to do/be/become even though there are some
negative emotions on the way because, guess what, these emotions will always be there. Unlike self-help books and some mainstream modern yoga Instagram pictures, even if “I choose happiness” (whatever that means) and try to replace all the negative for the positive or just pay attention to the positive rants (and suppress the negative, which takes a huge amount of energy), ACT is really refreshing because it teaches us to accept and make space for emotions such as anxiety, sadness, shame, and other not-so-pleasant feelings. That in order to live a full and meaningful life, we have to understand, accept, make room, and treat ourselves with compassion because those emotions enable us to FEEL THE WORLD IN ALL ITS COMPLEXITY AND BEAUTY.
Here’s where the masterpiece Inside Out comes in. I won’t say too much about the plot as I want you to go watch it for yourself and not spoil it, but I will mention what I learned so when I’m feeling blue I can come re-read this as it has been vital for me to feel understood lately.
In the film, there are five basic emotions: joy, sadness, disgust, fear, and anger and they control the emotive reactions (and all the processes the brain does but I don’t know them lol) of a 11 year old girl named Riley. Riley and her family move from Minnesota to San Francisco and she has trouble adjusting. Her dad is under a lot of pressure and so her mum asks her to ‘stay happy’ as that would help. So naturally, Joy wants to be in charge of Riley’s experiences, but in doing so, she tries to keep Sadness away from sparking any emotion or changing any memory. This is very much what society tells us to do – let ‘Joy’ take the wheel (see what I did there, Jesus?) and suppress sadness, because if we do not, there is something wrong with us. Sadness is seen as having no real purpose for us. It is seen as unhelpful. However, in the film, Joy eventually realises the huge role sadness plays in Riley’s life. By manifesting sadness, we can get help and feel more connected to others through derivative feelings such as empathy and compassion. This very much relates to an exercise I did this week with my therapist on the pillar of acceptance in ACT, that we usually label
negative emotions as negative, forgetting how important they are to bring us certain experiences that we deem valuable. So, teaching #1: to live a rich, full, and meaningful life we need to experience ALL the emotions. Let them come and visit us and let them go, we should make space for them (and in ACT lingo, do not get fused with them, but defuse and accept them).
Teaching #2: The enemy is not the (unpleasant) emotions that we feel, but numbness. My boyfriend pointed out this one for me when we were walking back to our house from the cinema by saying “the movie showed it is better to feel sad than to not feel anything at all“. I can’t tell you how important this is, and even though we “know this”, we easily forget it, and hearing it made it very real for me. In therapy I’ve learned to realise that I spend SO much time and energy trying to suppress, deny, get rid of, hide from, shut down, pretend, ignore, and attempting to replace any
negative emotions that I ultimately numb myself. Numbing – or not feeling anything at all – can feel like a relief sometimes, but this is a very dangerous and unfulfilling strategy because when you numb the bad you end up numbing the good too (even if you don’t meant to). Numbing sucks because obviously this prevents us from feeling and being in tune with ourselves and others. I numb myself by bingewatching TV series on Netflix, procrastinating on everything, daydreaming in the shower (you all do that too!), and scrolling endlessly and mindlessly on Instagram. We all do this, is normal, and okay to an extent. But, unfortunately, all this numbing and all the mechanisms I described above do not allow us to be vulnerable – an action that I feel takes a lot of courage to perform, but it is completely worthy and scary (scary good) (for more on vulnerability read anything by the amazing Brené Brown).
So, all in all, like I’m learning through ACT, my yoga practice which has deepened a lot, my daily meditation, and some awesome mindfulness books and techniques is that we need to learn to embrace all the emotions that visit us – even the not so pleasant/
negative ones. This doesn’t mean sit down and cry and feel defeated (but that too, of course!!), but learning to observe them, notice them, make space for them and sometimes get hooked or unhooked from them.
Writing this post was really hard for me, but I am happy I did as this has been a difficult yet relieving journey – a journey I’m only beginning but that I feel hopeful (or try to, some days) will make me a stronger and wiser person walking the path towards a full, rich, and meaningful balanced life. And because of this, I truly recommend watching Inside Out, not only because they illustrated all the thought processes that happen when someone is depressed, but because we need more films like this and people talking about this. Mental health issues, topics, and people that struggle with them feel like we are alone, but all these emotions, numbing mechanisms, or mindful mechanisms can help/hurt us all. And you know what doesn’t really get talked about at all? Child depression. Yeah, it’s a real thing!!
So I’ll try embracing one emotion at a time. And I hope you do too.