Tag Archives: emotions

When not to be positive

It is true that a positive attitude and a willingness to make the best of things can help a person in many situations. However, it isn’t always the right choice. Too much forced positivity distorts experience and cuts us off from our authentic emotions. We need to feel those ‘negative’ things as well, and they serve us in many ways.

Anger is protective. Good anger helps us hold boundaries and recognise when things are not as they should be. Anger is not necessarily violent or aggressive. Making room for it enables a person to take better care of themselves and everything and everyone they care for.

Grief and pain are the inevitable consequences of love. There is no love without loss, and there is no grief without care. You can’t have one side of this equation and not the other. Un-dealt-with grief just builds up in a person and will rob you of energy, or burst out in some sudden and uncontrolled way.

Resentment, envy, jealousy and bitterness don’t go away just because you focus your attention on something more positive. In my experience, the worst people for passive aggression and backstabbing are those who profess to be invested in love and light. If you don’t let yourself look at your less appealing characteristics, you won’t notice when you’re expressing them. If you don’t process these feelings and find ways to deal with them, the result is usually vicious.

There’s no such thing as a ‘wrong’ emotion. All feelings are valid. What we choose to do in response to them bears thought and scrutiny. The first emotional response we have is not necessarily the most authentic – it could be what we’ve been taught, or it could come from out of date coping mechanisms, for example. It’s better to make room for those feelings and find out what they are and where they come from.

It’s easier to be a more positive person if you don’t expend a lot of energy tying yourself in knots to try and deny the bits of you that aren’t upbeat and relentlessly cheerful. It’s easier to be positive if you have made space to deal with your baggage. It is easier to be kind and cooperative if you know how to make the space for grumpy, frustrated and unhappy feelings when they come along.


Riding the Waves of Me (Maybe)

A guest blog by Irisanya Moon

I originally wrote this as an Instagram post that came into my mind while out for a walk the other day. I use my walking time in the morning to chat with myself (yes, sometimes out loud) and to sort out my feelings. I recognized that my energy had been vacillating between joy and sorrow, and to be even more specific, extreme joy and anxious sadness.

Up and down, up and down.

It used to worry me that I wasn’t ‘okay.’ I worried that since I wasn’t always happy, I was doing something wrong. But on that walk, I remembered what a spiritual teacher of mine said: emotions are like the weather.

Right.

My energy waxes and wanes.

When moving toward the new moon

I am fresh, new, open

I find opportunities

And openings

For a few days

Then

I get tired, sluggish, unmotivated

I need to be still, to have space, to breathe more deeply

As I move from new to full

My energy expands

I am creative and wilder

I build, arrange, and share

I have bundles of energy

And sleepless nights

I then move into anxiety

And wanting to do all the things

Before the shadow grows

It is a brave thing

A serious thing

To ride the waves

Of being human

And the stories I assign

And the feelings

That just want validation

And chocolate

Or a good cry

And a wide laugh

This business of being

Invites me along

Hold on

I invite you to track your emotions, your weather patterns, and just see them for what they are. Moments. Hours. Days. Weeks. But always passing. Always shifting to something else.

And thank goodness. This business of being human certainly offers its share of pain, though I also know (and remember) that delight will not be far behind.

Irisanya Moon is an author of four books: “Pagan Portals: Reclaiming Witchcraft,” “Pagan Portals: Aphrodite, Goddess of Love & Beauty & Initiation,” “Practically Pagan: An Alternative Guide to Health & Well-being,” and the upcoming “Pagan Portals: Iris, Goddess of the Rainbow and Messenger of the Godds.” She is also a blogger at Patheos Pagan and teacher and priestess in the Reclaiming Tradition of Witchcraft.


Thinking about feeling

If you just give your emotions the steering wheel every time they surface, you’ll be at their mercy. You may even be confused by your own responses to things and you will likely feel out of control. It can seem like our immediate emotional reactions are the most authentic ones, but, I don’t think this is true.

Why we feel as we do is a complicated mix of things. Our personal histories are in there, and so are the stories our families tell, or the stories we tell about them. Our culture is in there, our class background, educational experiences, previous relationships… and much of this is simply stuff that happened to us, it isn’t who we are.

If, for example you’ve grown up being told that being queer is disgusting and a choice, you may well not feel good about any queer feelings you have, and you may feel that you should be able to make yourself be not-queer. This way lies a great deal of pain. Finding your authentic self means getting rid of the things you’ve been taught to feel.

When you think about your feelings it becomes possible to question where they come from. Are they really yours? Is this what you’ve been taught to think and feel? For anyone unpicking trauma or trying to deal with depression, anxiety, abuse legacies, ancestral wounding and the like, these questions open the door to changing things. Once you know where a feeling comes from you can start to change your relationship with it.

This is a slow, often arduous process. Things you’ve been taught to feel from an early age aren’t easily pulled out of you, but it can be done. Once you start to loosen their grip, there is more room to find out what your own feelings might be. When you’ve found your own feelings are, life gets easier, there’s more room. It is exhausting and demoralising fighting yourself because what you’ve been taught to feel isn’t right for you. It’s not an unusual experience for people coming out of religious backgrounds they found oppressive and into Paganism.

Powerful emotions are persuasive. They seem like they must be authentic, but we can be trained to feel in certain ways, and that training can be undone and sometimes needs to be.


Processing Emotions

When we deal with emotions at the time of the experience that prompts them, it all makes a fair amount of sense. We grieve the dead, and other heartbreaking losses. We work through the fear in the aftermath of whatever scared us. We get angry and protect ourselves from threats. These feelings seldom do anything that complicated to a person.

However, if you don’t have the time, resources, space or safety to deal with emotions at the time, this gets complicated. It is an issue for people who have suffered bullying and abuse. It is often an issue for people who have dealt with situations that were stressful over extended periods. When you have to hold together and keep going, the feelings you didn’t have time to process don’t really go away.

Eventually, they come back. When they come back, there’s no context to help you make sense of them. It isn’t always obvious what the original source was. So there you are, sobbing inexplicably, or full of rage but with nothing to rage at, and it is deeply confusing. This is hard stuff to deal with.

One possible way of dealing with it is to seek fiction that allows a context for the feelings. A film you can cry over, a story you can get angry about. It gives your body chance to work the emotions through in a way that makes some kind of sense. Sometimes, along the way, the original source becomes obvious and you find you’re crying for someone who died years ago, or for that summer when you had to be strong and do all the things and there wasn’t time to deal with how afraid you really were…

Emotions can be strange things to deal with, they seem to have their own rules and ways of manifesting, and there is only so long you can deny them for before they will rip through you and find a way to manifest. Best to deal with them when they come up, but if that hasn’t been possible, be patient with yourself and try to be kind as they come through in all their chaos.


How to change everything

Our thoughts and feelings are malleable. Given  enough time and effort, anyone can change any aspect of how they think and feel. It is my considered opinion that our first responses are most likely to be what we’ve absorbed unconsciously, and that your most authentic self is the person you deliberately choose to be. So, some notes on doing that. This isn’t in depth, it’s just an attempt to lay out the territory.

Firstly you have to notice what you are thinking and feeling. This is easier said than done. Check in with yourself, ask how you feel, pay attention. Try and notice your thoughts and responses. Focus on areas of your life where you aren’t happy about how things go for you.

Secondly, interrogate those responses. Sit down with them, examine them and ask where they come from. Why do you think as you do? Whose voice is that in your head? Where do those emotions come from?

This is also the work that allows us to identify where our cultures have fed us racism, sexism and other prejudices. This is how we find what privilege is telling us, or where we carry ancestral wounds.  This is not easy work.

Changing how you think is fairly easy. We can add new ideas to the mix. We can even break out of long held patterns of thought if we try to. There are tools for this – CBT is relevant here. Changing how we feel tends to be slower, and harder. It’s best to tackle the thinking and let that shift the emotions over time. You can practice thinking differently – write yourself affirmations, or little mantras, or statements of intent. Do some spells. If your thinking isn’t helping you, it can be changed. You can go to a therapist, or a mutual support group or find resources online. You can take control of your thoughts.

When we start acting on these changes, we build feedback loops and after the first few rounds it starts to get easier. It’s a process and it takes time to change yourself.

If you do this work, beware of toxic positivity. Learning to be more loving and patient is not the answer if you are being abused. Gratitude over things that are harming you, is not a terribly good thing. There’s a lot to be said for having people to talk to about what you experience and the changes you want to make. If your circumstances are awful, there is only so much you can do by changing your thinking – really what you need to do is change your circumstances. If you can’t do that – as is often the way with illness, you are allowed to be angry about it. Hold whatever headspace really works for you.

This week, in the midst of falling apart, it became apparent to me that I have some unhealthy ideas around the reasonableness of people punishing me, and how I should respond to being punished. I’m going to need some time to unpick that. But, I’ve seen it in action, I’ve seen what it does to me, and I’ve seen how I can change. Now, I just have to do the work.


Emotional Processing

I’ve noticed in recent months that there are some emotions I don’t process quickly. This has been true for some time – years certainly. Before that, I think I just didn’t get round to feeling them at all. I don’t tend to become cross or upset in the situation causing it. I can have a rapid response with a panic trigger, but often in the short term with those I just freeze.

It can take me a few days to work out that I feel cross, hurt, upset, unfairly treated, let down and things of that ilk. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with the realisation – I suspect the unconscious parts of my mind are better at processing this. During the figuring out process, I have tended to spend time asking if my response is fair and reasonable. Am I over-reacting? Should I be more understanding of the situation? Is it ok, and is it safe, to express distress?

I’m now questioning that fundamental issue of whether my responses are justifiable. I recognise it comes from times when I would have to justify my emotional responses – usually to someone who was not going to be persuaded of the validity of my feelings.

It’s a significant thing for me to have got to the point of saying I do not have to justify how I feel. I don’t have to explain myself to anyone and I do not need anyone’s permission for my emotional responses. I may need space and distance to feel safe with my own emotions, I’ll give that whatever room it needs. I don’t have to make sense to anyone else. I don’t have to be reasonable. If I feel something as a consequence of my history, it is valid, even if it makes little sense in the context.

With hindsight I can see that not being allowed my own emotional responses cost me a great deal in terms of sense of self. It cost me self-esteem, confidence and feelings of personhood. These experiences taught me to mistrust myself, and to surrender authority to others. To be the kind of person whose emotional responses are preposterous, unfounded, and who needs putting straight about it is to be treated as immature and childish. It is to be invalidated. I would not, I realise, even treat the emotions of a very small child having a tantrum with the same disregard and belittling that’s been shown me in the past.

To feel on your own terms is to be properly a person. To be able to express something of those feelings is a measure of being safe. To have those feelings taken seriously is a measure of being loved, respected and valued.


Hormones, feelings and identity

In recent years I’ve been making space for feelings as they happen within my body. I’ve paid more attention to my emotions and not tried to suppress them, and I’ve started to explore how to better embody and express those feelings. And then there’s the hormones…

I’ve spent the majority of my life inhabiting the hormonal shifts of my menstrual cycle. In the days before I bleed, I tend towards melancholy. When I’m bleeding, if anything is wrong in my life it will become much harder to ignore. I listen to the wisdom of my angry blood these days, and I deal with whatever comes out of that time. I get a few days off before the reproductive urges kick in, and a quieter patch after that. I know my cycle well and I know who I am within it, and I identify with those emotions. Who and how I am shifts during the month and I experience all of it as being intrinsically me.

Now, peri-menopausal, or as I prefer to call it, living with the menoporpoise, everything has changed. Hormones turn up as late night tsunamis that I can drown in, that sweep all before them, and wash away my brain and sense of self. I think things I wouldn’t normally think – levels of anxiety and despair and pointlessness that just don’t fit with who I am the rest of the time. There’s no rhythm to it, so I can’t adapt. Even as I pay attention to my emotions I’m in the uneasy position of having to acknowledge that this is happening in my body, but I can’t own it as part of how I feel. It is both me, and not me, and that’s quite challenging.

When the menoporpoise hormone tsunami hits, I can tell what it is. How I experience it is more in line with how I experience having taking something that impacts on me. Only what I’m taking here isn’t pain relief or alcohol, or a sugar high. It’s a wash of misery and horribleness. I can see how easy it would be to become this, to be persuaded by the bodily experience that these are my feelings and experiences.

In some ways I am advantaged by years of body ambivalence because I don’t assume that if I feel it, it must be me. I’ve dealt with physical pain and emotional trauma acting on my body, and I have a sense of self that holds those as part of it, but doesn’t give them the steering wheel. My identity is not entirely formed by my experiences, but also shaped by my deliberate choices. I’ve had to learn how to chose my way around damage inflicted, and intrinsic issues that I don’t want to be dominated by. This is another round of things happening in my body that I can’t do much about, but aren’t of my choosing. I experience them, but I do not become the experience. It makes me realise that there is always this potential – to embrace or reject making an experience a part of your identity.

 


Attachment and the Druid

It finally dawned on me that part of what bothers me with non-attachment/mindfulness thinking is how simple a narrative it gives us about our own feelings and needs. By avoiding attachment to our own feelings we avoid creating drama, we live more peacefully and we’re able to be more compassionate. This is the description of mindfulness given by many websites, and while it might not be the only understanding out there, it’s clearly one a lot of people are working with.

There’s an assumption that our first response is ego-led, in the sense of being driven by our fragility and self importance. If our first emotional impulse was towards care, compassion, patience, generosity or motivated by deep love, there would be no need to retrain ourselves. Certainly, some people’s experience of growing up and living will have encouraged them towards less benevolent impulses, but I think most people are basically ok and well meaning, and that the first feeling is not necessarily the worst feeling.

Are we better people if we don’t get too attached to our own feelings? We may be calmer people, but is calmer actually better? Is it better for all of us? The question is, what do your emotions do in your life? If your own emotional responses lead you to act in ways you don’t like, clearly you need to make changes. If you mostly suffer as a consequence of how you feel, then again you might want to change things. But what if your emotional life feels like something rich and blessed in the first place? What if you bubble up with love and joy, what if you see your grief as a measure of your love and experience anger protectively and in productive ways? What happens if you have a good relationship with your emotions? And then what happens if you practice stepping back from those emotions and seeing them as something that passes through and not an intrinsic part of who you are? Are you better off?

If you think that life is illusion, and that self is illusion, a path that helps you see this more clearly is obviously what you want. But what if that isn’t your perspective? What if you see yourself as a distinct entity and at the same time part of the network of all existence? For an animist, this separate togetherness is a possibility for understanding your place in the world.

Are you worse off if you want to identify with your own emotions? Are you less enlightened if you want a path of involvement with your own feelings, building a sense of self out of your emotional responses to life? For me, Druidry has always been about deep immersion – identifying as a feeling and living being in a world that is alive with intelligence and feeling. My feelings are my response to life, and also part of what I give back. I do my best everything when I give a lot of space to my emotions, take them seriously and invest in what they show me about what’s happening. I’ve started to consider the idea that I may be practicing attachment.

What you need from life depends on who you are and what you want. There’s scope for great diversity here and many different ways of being. For some people, mindfulness and non-attachment makes perfect sense. I have no doubt that for many people it is a rewarding path. What bothers me is the narrative that comes with it about what it means to be human, and a very few options about how to relate to ourselves and live well. It may well be that for those who dig deeper it is more complex, but what’s floating around increasingly in mainstream awareness is painfully narrow.


Landscapes of the mind

The way in which we use the language of ‘up’ to express positivity has been on my mind since I read Ecolinguistics (review here). Moving forward, going up, rising – these are all presented as good things both in mental health, and in other aspects of western, capitalist society. Growth has to go up to be good. Sales going up are good – and no matter the reason or the cost.

I can experience entering a state of depression as a sinking feeling or a fall – there is a bodily sensation I associate with it that has a definite trajectory. However, that’s just the beginning, and it is normal for me to stop falling. Once I’m in depression, I may experience it as being more like a confined space that I don’t know how to leave, or a plateau in a landscape where all the colour is washed out.

Imagine only seeking an upward trajectory. That means constantly seeking a new high, and when we use that language, what is evoked is not bliss, but addiction. If you are always trying for a bigger high, you’re probably using substances, or addicted to adrenaline. In the landscape of the mind, always going higher isn’t a good thing, but we don’t talk about the process of feeling good as much as we talk about depression, so beyond the uplift of recovery, it’s not really explored.

Our natural emotional states fluctuate. Our inner landscapes tend to be like physical landscapes that have some diversity in them. We go up and down. We have awkward bits and easy bits, fertile bits and arid bits. In a physical landscape, the highest places you can go are mountains, and it is worth noting that people don’t tend to live on the tops of mountains because while they may be exciting, they are neither safe nor sustaining for us.

In a physical landscape, the furthest down you can go is into cave systems – which can be dangerous, but people have lived in caves. Down at the lowest level on the ground tends to be where you find the most fertile soils and the river valleys that have supported human civilizations for a very long time. Low ground tends to be suitable for us, sustaining and inhabitable. Has the metaphor broken down now, or is there more to it?

We use ‘high’ and ‘low’ to describe power, status and value. High is always good, low is always bad. Even when we’re talking low cost to the buyer, we all know that it means a lack of quality, it’s the crappy stuff for the poorer people. In terms of our inner states, high and low are both problematic. Most of us do not thrive when living at emotional extremes.

Sometimes, the dark journeys through the cave systems of our mind are necessary. The Dark Night of the Soul is a spiritual experience. Sometimes we have to break down to break through. Our ‘negative’ emotions are part of a healthy and engaged response to life. Grief, fear, pain and anger aren’t things to reject, but to acknowledge as part of what it means to be human. If you care, you will also worry, and hurt and grieve. We would be better off if we did not treat our own ‘low’ places as states to avoid, but were able to make room for them.


Emotion and responsibility

How much should we hold people responsible for our emotions? And how responsible should we be for other people’s emotional responses to us? This is a question that is so often relevant in situations of bullying. Bullies often treat their victims as responsible for how the bully feels, and for what they do, while taking no responsibility for how their behaviour impacts on the other person. “You made me do it” is a really problematic thought, an act of victim blaming. Equally I’ve seen memes suggesting that no one else can make us feel anything and how we feel is totally our own responsibility and I find that unhelpful, too.

We all have feelings, and we all respond to what we encounter. We all hold responsibility for ourselves, and some degree of responsibility for how what we do impacts on others. I think the first question to ask here, is whether the person being blamed can choose to do differently. For example, if someone in your household is loud when you need to sleep, they probably don’t need to be loud and it may be fair to expect they can stop being loud. Their loudness isn’t necessary to them, your sleep is necessary to you. At the same time, your need for sleep is not something you have control over, nor is how you feel when sleep deprived.

However, sometimes we may make people responsible for things they have no power over. If I find you very attractive, and I make you responsible for that feeling and act like because of it, you owe me love, or sex, this is not ok. Whether or not you find me attractive in turn is not something you can choose. How your face is, does not make you responsible for how I feel about your face.

It is fair to ask a person to take responsibility for the feelings they cause in some contexts. If you shout abuse at a person, you are responsible for making them feel like shit, for example. It is not usually fair to make someone else responsible for how you behave in response to your feelings. If your feelings lead to violent responses for example, the violence is your responsibility, not caused by the other person. If your feelings leave you needing to act protectively, it’s worth remembering that this is your choice because if you feel like you’re just reacting, that can leave you feeling powerless.

Power and responsibility are very much linked to each other. The person who takes no responsibility will likely feel they have no power in a situation. This may encourage them to keep making other people responsible, and to be angry about how powerless they feel, without having looked at how they are giving power away. Most of the time, most of us have choices about how to respond. If you don’t, then that’s a serious red flag. If you don’t feel safe about responding by changing things so that they would be better for you, look carefully at what’s going on. If you feel so obliged to humour another person that you regularly do so at the cost of not meeting your own most basic needs, there is a problem. Not wanting to choose differently is not the same as not being able to, although we may tell ourselves otherwise.

When it comes to behaviour, you should feel free and able to choose how to react, respond and express yourself. If you feel someone else is ‘making’ you behave in certain ways, look hard at this. If they have that much power over you and you have no scope to choose, you should seek help, because that level of control is abusive. If you’re making someone else responsible for your actions because you feel like it’s their job to take your emotional backlashes and answer your every need, then the problem is you, and you may need help to change.

One way or another, if you cannot control your own behaviour in a situation, seek help, and if you cannot tell if you are the bully or the victim, get professional advice. A belief that you have no power doesn’t always mean that you are the victim. Some of the most bullying people I’ve encountered had stories about how it was other people ‘making’ them act in certain ways. It can be really convenient to cast yourself as powerless if you want to spend time hurting people. It can be an easy way to control well-meaning people, who will try harder to make you feel better every time you tell them they are responsible for what you do. It’s a hard thing to deal with, and no doubt a hard thing to see in yourself and undertake to change.

If you’re seeing this from the outside and cannot tell if a person is a victim or a perpetrator, encourage them to seek professional help – either way, they need it.