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Dealing with Difficult Emotions

In the past several months, upsetting stories in breaking news have seemed ubiquitous, chaotic, and panicked — fraught with vitriol and anxiety. Perhaps it is always this way or perhaps it’s the U.S. election. I was making some tentative plans for next winter the other day with friends, and when I said, “the inauguration is January 20” a friend from Argentina said, “Which inauguration?” The Americans at the table just stared at him as in, “Why haven’t you been thinking about this every minute of every day?!”
The most obvious anxiety, of course, is about who will win. Putting politics aside (or trying to), there is so much fear from the mere uncertainty about how the next president will handle the most pressing issues in this country — from the epidemic of tragic killings of unarmed black men by the police to gun control to wage reform and beyond. I for one believe elections are very consequential, and if you feel they only make a difference on the margins, think of the many people who live on the margins!
Fear, like most uncomfortable emotions, has a biological opponent. When something scares us, we limit our perspective in an attempt to simplify the situation at hand and protect ourselves: do I go this way or that way? Do I close my eyes or leave them open? Fear keeps us from having too many options, and we adhere to our limited options as a result. In more extreme cases of fear, this tunnel vision is known as “fight or flight.”
I say often that the most toxic element of fear is hopelessness. Hopelessness happens when we feel our perspective become limited, but we decide to dismiss the limited options we’ve given ourselves. We get anxious every time we read election coverage, so we shut down and decide to slink back into apathy. We fear for our child’s social circle, so we rest numbly in a state of denial. These are permutations of hopelessness.
But when we think of the biological foundation of fear, it reminds us that it’s a call for us to do something. Our discomfort about politics can drive us to alchemize our anxiety into activism. What if we became involved in causes we cared about, rather than shutting down? What if we confronted our child and the repercussions of a difficult conversation, rather than allow our actions (or lack thereof) to be fueled by hopelessness?
Certainly we are able to paint a fuller and more whole picture of ourselves if we are willing to look clearly and directly at our emotions and thoughts in a connected, complex way. Whenever I encounter emotional pain that feels insurmountable today, I feel a visceral reminder of my childhood or young adulthood — the times, for example, when my father had gone missing from the psychiatric hospital; the feeling of relief I would experience when the police would find him; the corresponding anxiety I felt that he might run away from the hospital again. Since these memories (and all memories) are associative, I am also instructed by these memories of suffering: they allow me to recognize the parts of myself that are regenerative and resilient. I see that my past and present pain can coexist with relief and self-acceptance.
It occurs to me that any discomfort any of us may feel about the election is an opportunity. Whether you’re feeling fear, anger, anxiety, despair (or a combination!), this is a good example of needing to take action. Don’t just vote. Register people to vote. Involve yourself in causes you believe in. Unfortunately, blocking a friend on Facebook whose opinions aggravate you isn’t making you feel free from the negativity that brought you there.
In our book Love Your Enemies, my colleague Robert Thurman wrote:

“Critical wisdom is fierce… yet at the same time subtle and tender.”

And this critical wisdom can, and often does, stem from dealing head-on with “negative” emotions. When we recognize that we can take action regarding something that disturbs us from a place of love and strength, we begin to live in a place of greater freedom, and recognize our choice in doing so. We don’t need to shut down and avoid fear, or clench our fists to fight against despair. We can look inward, and learn to pay attention to the validity of our own experiences — with compassion.
Taking action rather than sinking into hopelessness requires faith. Having faith, or even trying to have hope in the face of despair, doesn’t mean we’ve extinguished fear or whatever else we’re feeling. It means that we choose to go on in the face of it; we can feel discomfort while also being in touch with other parts of ourselves and our experiences. We don’t let despair, anger, whatever it is, define our entire world.
There is always a mystery before us, and that will always bring up difficult emotions. But we can recognize this and choose to step out of the dichotomy of hope/fear, and realize the real wonder of possibilities.

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