Dolphins are beautiful, playful and intelligent creatures. People who have had the chance to swim with dolphins often describe it as an experience of spiritual communion. Some have commented on how harmoniously a pod of dolphins lives together, and wished humans could get along so well.
But dolphins have a dark side. They don’t exactly follow a vegan or macrobiotic diet. In fact, they don’t eat veggies at all. They’re carnivorous predators, and they have sophisticated techniques for rounding up, and gobbling up, big groups of fish at a time.
Dolphins Have a What?
Did it sound silly to you when I said “dolphins have a dark side”? It sure did to me. After all, dolphins don’t choose to be carnivores. That’s how they’re designed (or, I guess, how they randomly came to be, depending on what you believe). There’s nothing “dark” or “evil” about one animal eating another.
So, for me, that raises the question: why do we tend to see humans as having a “dark side”? Why do we tend to cast emotions like anger, sadness, and envy — feelings humans seem to be designed to experience — as “negative,” “evil,” or “bad”?
Why Believing In “Negative Feelings” Creates “Negativity”
I think the idea of “negative emotions” is one of our culture’s most crazy-making notions. This is especially clear in the way parents relate to their kids.
We often see a parent thinking this way: I felt angry when my child did X; anger is a “bad” emotion I’m not supposed to feel; my child is “to blame” for my anger; thus, I will hit or demean my child to take revenge for how they “made me feel.”
I think there’s a good chance that, if we stopped seeing anger as a “negative emotion,” there would be a big shift in how parents relate to their children. Instead of trying to “hurt their children back” when they felt angry, perhaps parents would become able to simply tell their children how they were feeling.
Please Just Drop The “Shark Grin”
And how about sadness? So often, I meet people who are forcing their faces into a rigid grin to hide how sad they feel, because they think it’s weak, inappropriate, or an imposition on me to show what’s really going on for them.
When I’m with a person who seems to be trying really hard to hold back their sadness, I’ve taken to simply asking them if they’re feeling sad. If they’re willing to drop the smile and admit it, both of us usually feel so much more relaxed.
I think learning to accept that we’re all going to feel angry, sad, envious, and so on from time to time, and that we can’t, and don’t need to, “get rid” of those feelings, is such a key part of our growth. Just as dolphins are designed to eat fish, humans are designed to experience “dark emotions” once in a while.
Oh, and I’ve got some more Johnny Signs videos to share with you. Some people have asked whether it’s okay to laugh at these, and my response is: you have my blessing. Enjoy! (Again, if you like them, I’d appreciate a “Like” on YouTube.)
A common idea in personal development circles is that “what you focus on expands.” For instance, if you’re feeling sad, focusing your attention on your sadness will only make you sadder. Instead, you need to distract yourself from your sadness by visualizing rainbows, playing with your cat, or doing something else to take your mind off what you’re feeling.
In my experience, the opposite is actually true. I’ve found that, when I turn my attention toward an uncomfortable emotion, or a place in my body that’s tense, I actually find myself relaxing, and starting to put the discomfort into perspective.
Getting To Know My Back Pain
For example, as with many people, my lower back sometimes tightens up. I used to buy the conventional wisdom that people just get “back pain” from time to time, and nothing much can be done about it short of taking medication.
Today, however, I have a practice for dealing with tension in my lower back that’s worked wonders. I just focus my attention on the discomfort. I get familiar with where it is, whether it’s sharp or dull, whether the painful area has a shape, and so on. You could say I get intimate with it.
Does this practice “attract” more pain? Not at all. Instead, I usually find that the sensation I’m feeling begins to shift, and the tight spot begins to loosen. By probing around in that area with my awareness, I get a sense of how I’m creating the tension, and often that’s enough to have the discomfort fall away.
Feeling Into “Bad Feelings”
I’ve had the same kind of experience when it comes to “negative” or “uncomfortable” emotions. In our culture, we’re conditioned to think that, when we’re “feeling bad,” we should do something to push the feeling away — taking a warm bath, drinking alcohol, saying affirmations, or something else.
The trouble with running from an emotion we don’t like, in my experience, is that pushing it away actually puts it in control of our lives. The “bad” emotion, not us, ends up in the driver’s seat.
Why? Take boredom, for example. When we’re working on a task and we start feeling the discomfort we call boredom, many of us are in the habit of automatically doing something to “take the edge off” — playing Solitaire on the computer, Twittering, or something else.
But here’s the problem: if we, like Pavlov’s dogs, automatically surf the web every time we feel bored, that means our boredom gets to control our work schedule. If we don’t have the ability to keep making progress in our work, even when boredom is coming up, we’re basically slaves to our boredom.
The solution for me has been, instead of turning my attention away from boredom, to turn toward it. Just as I do with back pain, I get conscious of where the boredom is in my body, what it feels like (perhaps aching, itching, or tightness), and so on.
The more familiar I get with my boredom, the more comfortable I become with it. It no longer feels so weird and disturbing — instead, it’s just another sensation I feel in my body from time to time. And the more comfortable I get with being bored, the more I can choose to move forward in my work, even when boredom is arising.
I think it’s amazing how much we can do just by shifting the focus of our attention.
(This piece is an “unofficial sequel” to my last post, “Why I Don’t Force Myself To Be Happy.”)
Do you feel like you’re only creative in certain moments? I’ve worked with several people who said they only produce decent work at specific times of day, or when they’re in particular moods. The rest of the time, they told me, their thoughts and feelings get in the way, and the work that comes out of them just isn’t good enough.
One woman I worked with, who I’ll call Kelly, was a painter. Kelly had one hour each day that she called her “Magic Hour.” During the Magic Hour, she’d feel totally focused and inspired, and her ideas would naturally, effortlessly flow onto the canvas. The rest of the time, she didn’t feel capable of much more than touching up her Magic Hour work. She came to me hoping I could help her experience more Magic Hours.
“Bad” Feelings, Great Art
As we talked, one thing Kelly said jumped out at me—“I don’t work well when I feel bad.” When I asked what she meant, she explained that she “felt bad” when she was angry or afraid. When she felt those emotions, her art “turned ugly,” taking on a dark and disturbing quality. Looking at these paintings, she thought, would probably make others “feel bad” too.
As we explored Kelly’s belief that “it’s not okay to make people feel bad with my art,” what she began to see was that a lot of timeless art expresses the emotions she was talking about. Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” is a good example most of us are familiar with. The terrified figure and blood-red sky in the painting don’t exactly have us feel warm and fuzzy inside. Still, the painting conveys the artist’s feeling of fear so masterfully that it’s admired worldwide.
Kelly also started to see that, like Munch, she could use her “negative emotions” as fuel for her creativity, and that people appreciate art that skillfully conveys what the artist is feeling—even if those emotions are the kind Kelly saw as “bad.” With this in mind, she started more fully exploring the ideas that came up when it wasn’t “Magic Hour.” The art she’s been creating has been different, but definitely interesting.
As it turned out, Kelly didn’t actually need to experience more Magic Hours—she needed to be more accepting of the ideas that came up at other times of day.
Notice Your Self-Limitations
This story is a good illustration of how I see creativity. I think developing creativity has a lot to do with letting go of the artificial limits we put on our expression. When we’re feeling creatively blocked, often the problem isn’t that our minds are empty of ideas, but that we’re judging and pushing away the ideas that are coming up in the moment. In other words, we’re really just “blocking” ourselves.
The next time you’re feeling like you’re “uncreative” or you’ve “run out of ideas,” I invite you to try this exercise. Ask yourself: is it really true that you’re totally out of ideas? Or are you just rejecting a lot of possible ways to do the task you’re doing? And if you are pushing away a lot of possibilities, why?
This inquiry can teach you a lot about the places where you aren’t fully comfortable with yourself. Maybe, like Kelly, you think it’s not okay to create when you’re angry. Or perhaps you assume what you have to say is too controversial, and people will dislike you for saying it. Or maybe the ideas coming up for you seem too simple, because you feel a need to be complex or profound. If a belief like these comes up, ask yourself: how does it serve me to limit my creativity in this way?
Notice how just becoming aware of how you’re limiting your expression can increase your sense of freedom. When you let go of the belief that your creative work has to look a certain way, amazing new possibilities can open up.
Link Love: AlienBaby is a great example of a writer who really makes despair and frustration work for her, in a tragicomic sort of way. She denies that she’s piecing together a novel or autobiography from her blog posts, but I don’t believe her. Enjoy!
The most effective inner work I’ve done on myself has been in the form of what’s often called “conscious suffering.” This term comes from early twentieth-century mystic G.I. Gurdjieff, who “distinguished between unconscious suffering, which is without value, and conscious suffering, sometimes termed ‘voluntary’ or ‘deliberate’ suffering, through which we can self-perfect.”
By this, I mean simply letting myself fully experience emotions I haven’t allowed myself to feel in the past. When a sensation I used to avoid—whether it’s intense anxiety, anger or sadness—arises, I find a quiet place without distractions, breathe deeply and hold my attention on the sensation. I empty my mind of stray thoughts and explanations for how I’m feeling, and place my awareness completely on how the emotion manifests in my body.
This kind of experience is rarely pleasant, but I find more calm and focus in my life—and the sensation I let myself experience becomes less agonizing—every time I do it. It’s as if there is a reservoir of difficult emotion stored in my body, and each time I experience that feeling without distracting myself or forcing it down, some of that reservoir drains away.
In other words, each time I’m completely willing to feel my pain, I’m also able to truly heal. As Eckhart Tolle puts it in A New Earth, “eventually suffering destroys the ego—but not until you suffer consciously. . . . In the midst of conscious suffering, there is already a transmutation. The fire of suffering becomes the light of consciousness.”
I want to share the peace this approach has brought me with others. Thus, in this article, I’m going to describe the process of conscious suffering as I understand it. I hope it’s as helpful and transformative for you as it’s been for me.
As I said earlier, when you start experiencing an intense, uncomfortable emotion, if you have the time and space, find a place to sit alone and undistracted. Begin to breathe rhythmically and deeply as the sensation moves through you. If this process is frightening and painful, as it may be if you haven’t been through it before, keep your mind focused on the four guideposts I discuss below. These are intended to give you comfort and perspective as you immerse yourself fully in your experience.
1. Your suffering is finite. One of the reasons we’ll usually do anything to avoid intense feeling is the worry that, if we fully allow it to be, the feeling will never end. We may be entirely consumed by our rage or fear, and lose control of our actions or permanently curl up into a whimpering fetal position. Thus, when strong sensations arise in our bodies, we tend to numb ourselves with distracting activities like watching TV or diving headlong into our work.
The process of conscious suffering requires a leap of faith. It requires the belief that there is a finite amount of pain, or difficult emotion, trapped in your body, and that you can draw nearer to the end of suffering by letting yourself fully experience your pain. There’s no way, in all honesty, to know in advance that your anguish won’t last forever. All you can do is look to the experience of others who have transcended their pain through conscious suffering, and trust that you can bring yourself closer to the same peace.
2. Remove your labels. Much of the suffering we experience around “difficult emotions” occurs because we label those emotions as negative or unwanted. We learn early in life that the tension and heat in our bodies we call “anger,” “anxiety” and so on are bad things we should avoid if possible. Thus, when those sensations come up, we tend to fight them, whether by tightening parts of our bodies to choke off the feelings, shaming ourselves for “getting too emotional,” or distracting ourselves from our experience. This resistance can be physically painful and add to our discomfort.
To release our resistance and let our sensations be, it’s helpful to peel off the labels we put on our emotions and simply view them as forms of energy arising in our bodies. There’s nothing good or bad about this energy—it’s just a substance that moves through us and passes away. When we let go of our judgments about the way we feel, it’s easier to allow our emotions to arise and subside.
3. Let go of the need to explain. When we experience intense sensation, often our first impulse is to look for a reason—whether in ourselves or the world—for the feeling’s existence. From a young age, we’re conditioned to believe we must be able to justify or explain our feelings. Otherwise, we must repress our emotions. For example, some of us learn early on that, if we can’t convincingly explain why we’re angry, we have “no right to be angry,” or that we aren’t allowed to “bother” our parents by crying unless there’s a real emergency.
Our search for an explanation for our feelings usually takes the form of looking for someone to blame. If we’re “feeling bad,” our instincts tell us, someone or something must be responsible. Some of us blame ourselves—perhaps calling ourselves weak if we feel afraid, or overly irritable if we’re angry. Others blame the outside world—for instance, perhaps they blame their parents for doing an inadequate job of raising them and saddling them with rage and guilt; or maybe they blame their spouses or children for being too demanding.
Ultimately, the only thing blame accomplishes, other than creating more conflict in the world, is to divert your attention from what you’re experiencing. When you become lost in thought about who is responsible for your suffering, your attention drifts into the past—to what others may have done to “make” you feel this way—and you lose consciousness of your experience in the present.
I suspect, and others have suggested, that this urge to search our memories for “responsible parties” really stems from a desire to avoid what we’re feeling. Spiritual teacher Richard Moss writes compellingly about the need to avoid this blaming mindset to transcend our suffering:
We have to wake up out of the dream created when our awareness buries itself in our stories or roles, and particularly the dream created when we flee difficult feelings. The path to awakening consciousness is a path of conscious relationship to everything we think and feel. It is ceaseless inquiry and necessary, conscious suffering, which must continue until more and more easefully we can rest in the fullness of being.
Simply put, your suffering doesn’t need to be “about” or “because of” anything, and you don’t need to convince anyone of your “right” to experience it. If you catch yourself coming up with stories about who’s at fault for how you feel, gently return your attention to your breathing. Focusing on your breathing helps bring your awareness back into your body and what is arising there.
4. Your sensations can’t kill you. Particularly in our early journeys into conscious suffering, we tend to worry that fully experiencing what’s going on in our bodies may harm or even destroy us. This is one reason many of us rush to the doctor or psychiatrist to medicate our strong emotions away—we worry that our bodies can’t survive that sort of intensity and will fall apart under the strain.
However, on an unconscious level, we’re already experiencing the sensations we’re afraid of. Conscious suffering, as its name suggests, only brings those unpleasant sensations into your conscious awareness. We’re only unaware of what we’re feeling most of the time because we spend much of our lives looking for ways to divert our attention from our experience. If the energy flowing through our bodies could kill us, it would have done so long ago.
In reality, focusing our attention on the uncomfortable sensations in our bodies, and allowing them to pass away, doesn’t hurt us—in fact, it leads to a richer experience of life. As we release our pain through conscious suffering, we become more open to and able to appreciate the rich and varied sensations life offers us.
(This article appeared in the Carnival of Healing, located at http://therapeuticreiki.com/blog/2008/06/141-june-7-2008-carnival-of-healing/.)
Most of us look to the outside world to “give” us pleasure. We believe that earning more money, having relationships with more attractive partners, watching more entertaining movies, and other similar activities would make us happy. By the same token, we tend to assume events in the outside world “hurt us” or make us unhappy. Significant others we argue with, difficult coworkers, mechanics who don’t fix our cars properly, and so on, we believe, cause us to experience pain.
Because we have this outlook, we’re often angry at the world. We feel the world hasn’t given us our “fair share” of pleasure, or that it’s saddled us with more than our fair share of pain. We envy others who are taller, have more money, are members of happier-looking families, and so forth, believing the world shouldn’t have given them more pleasure than it’s bestowed on us. We become distressed when our loved ones and friends “make us unhappy” by not treating us the way we’d like.
As we so often overlook, the idea that events out in the world “make” us feel certain ways is untrue. Pleasure, pain and other emotions are sensations we feel in our bodies, created by the release of chemicals called neurotransmitters in our brains. In other words, other people don’t create our pleasure and pain—our own bodies do. When we keep this fact in mind, we start to doubt the idea that the universe is unfair or that we’ve received the “short end of the stick” in life.
But at a deeper level, “pleasure,” “pain” and the names of other emotions are just labels we slap on the sensations we experience. Whether a sensation in our bodies is “positive” or “negative” depends on how we interpret it. For example, to some people, the idea of jumping off a cliff or from a plane is terrifying, but to bungee jumpers and skydivers it’s the ultimate rush. As psychologist Chris Johnstone says in Find Your Power: Boost Your Inner Strengths, Break Through Blocks And Achieve Inspired Action, “facing fear is so thrilling that some people do it as a sport. The attraction behind bungee jumping is that there are two sides to fear: one is terror, the other is excitement.”
As is often said, it’s best to think of the word “emotion” as short for “energy in motion.” Our various emotions are simply different ways we experience the movement of biochemical energy in our bodies. That energy is neither good nor bad—it’s simply an aspect of how our bodies work. Calling some manifestations of this energy “negative” and others “positive” would be like saying our hearts were “good” but our lungs were “bad.” Michael Sky expresses this point nicely in The Power Of Emotion: Using Your Emotional Energy To Transform Your Life:
All of our emotions manifest as moving (arising, vibrating, gathering, flowing, expanding, boiling) energy. When we have a feeling—any feeling—we experience a tangible movement of vital energy. The energy moving through us comprises the feeling; such energy-in-motion is emotion.
When we learn to see our feelings as nothing more than forms of energy we experience in our bodies, our perspective on emotions shifts. The feelings we used to see as “bad” no longer seem so problematic and threatening. We no longer need to go to great lengths to dodge “negative emotions” by holding back from taking risks, avoiding interactions with “difficult people,” and keeping our minds constantly occupied to distract ourselves from how we’re really feeling.
Of course, it’s hard to experience this shift in perspective just by thinking of emotions as energy patterns—understanding this at an intellectual level isn’t enough. But I’ve found that, with a simple practice, it’s possible to really experience this fact in your body. To do this, the next time you feel an emotion you’d usually think of as “bad” and want to avoid, such as anger, fear or sadness, pause for a moment, take a few deep breaths and allow the sensations to be there.
Next, take your attention off the labels you usually put on the sensations, like “happiness” and “despair,” and focus instead on the location of the sensations in your body. For instance, do you feel them in your chest? Your neck? Your shoulders? Notice what the sensations feel like—for instance, do you feel a tingling, numbness, warmth, heaviness, or something else? Keep your attention on your direct experience of what you’re feeling, rather than what you’ve learned to call it and the ways you usually distract yourself from it.
As I and others who have done this exercise have found, shifting your focus in this way creates a sense of calm and acceptance around your emotions. Every sensation we call an “emotion” is just a natural part of the human experience, there’s nothing wrong with it, and it won’t harm or destroy you. You don’t have to spend your life stressfully and frantically chasing certain kinds of sensation and running away from others.
We feel more free to pursue our goals when we see our fear as just another form of energy moving through us, instead of a threat to our existence. We feel less distress when we don’t get something we want, because we can accept the sensations that come with the loss without judging or rejecting them. Seeing our emotions for what they really are helps us live more peacefully and courageously.
Many of us see the unpredictable and sometimes dramatic changes in our moods as a problem. I, for one, used to get frustrated when a grumpy or lethargic feeling would overtake me at work and hamper my productivity. “Why can’t my body understand that I’m trying to work?” I’d wonder. “Can’t I wait until the evening to start getting emotional?” I would try to resist the mood I was in—for instance, if I were feeling sad, I’d try to think happy, inspiring thoughts—but this only seemed to create more discomfort.
I certainly wasn’t the only one with an attitude of resistance toward my emotions. Many of us perceive certain feelings as “negative” and unwanted, and spend much time and effort finding ways to avoid experiencing them. Maybe this involves staying constantly busy, forcing ourselves to think happy thoughts, “drowning out” our emotions with television and loud music, using drugs and alcohol, or something else. Whatever strategies we use, many of us spend most of our lives trying—without much success—to fight off “difficult” emotional experiences.
My relationship with my “painful” moods changed when I realized how much my fluctuating emotions could teach me about myself, and how much inner peace those learnings could create for me. A while back, as an experiment, I decided to spend almost all of one Sunday meditating. I started at sunrise and finished in the evening, stopping only for brief periods to drink water and stretch.
Like many people, my mood tends to vary based on the time of day. My pattern is fairly predictable—when I first wake up I feel a sense of peace and clarity; in the mid-afternoon I get into a more driven, self-critical state; by the late afternoon there is a mild to moderate sense of frustration; and by nighttime my sense of peace returns. Thus, when I spent the whole day meditating, I experienced my full emotional cycle. The difference was that I wasn’t distracting myself with all my usual activities—through all my mood changes, I just sat there and focused on my breathing.
As I meditated, I had a simple but profound realization: no matter where I was in my daily emotional cycle, I remained the same person. No matter whether I felt peaceful, excited, sad, or upset, I was still myself. My moods didn’t, and couldn’t, change who I was in my deepest essence. Feeling sad didn’t take anything away from me, nor did feeling happy add anything to me—neither emotion had any effect on me at my core.
In that moment, I also understood the reason I tended to resist so-called “negative” feelings like anger and grief. It was because I saw those emotions as somehow threatening—as if allowing myself to fully experience them could actually hurt or destroy me. But my meditation experience showed me this wasn’t true. Although I simply sat there, breathed, and allowed my usual spectrum of emotions to wash over me, I came out of the experience alive and unharmed, and exactly the same person I was when I started.
If I didn’t have anything to fear from my moods, I recognized, I didn’t need to spend so much time and effort trying to escape and suppress them. Thus, this realization had me remove much of the clutter and distraction from my life. I reduced my intake of alcohol and mild stimulants like caffeine to the point where I hardly ever use them. I once listened to loud music as I worked to drown out my “negative thinking,” but now I felt more centered and productive in silence. I sold my radio and TV, as I no longer needed them to distract me when I started feeling boredom or malaise.
I’d often read in books on psychology and spirituality that it takes more pain and effort to repress our “negative” emotions than it does to simply allow them. Now, I had firsthand evidence of this in my own life. But at a deeper level, I began to recognize that there really is no such thing as a negative emotion. We simply call feelings like anger and sadness “negative” because we’ve grown so accustomed to resisting them, and the stress we create by resisting—not the emotions themselves—has us see them as painful and difficult.
I’m not, of course, the first to take the view that no emotion is truly “negative” unless we try to fight it—health researchers have come to similar conclusions in exploring the connection between repressed emotions and physical illness. As psychologist Sandy Jost puts it in Your Body, Your Mind & Their Link To Your Health, “[t]here is no such thing as a ‘negative emotion’ when it comes to the healthy expression of the bodymind. It is the suppression, denying, pushing away, or avoidance of these emotions that causes a physical response that can lead to health problems.”
As others have recognized, a key benefit of meditation is that it gives us firsthand evidence that our thoughts and emotions can’t hurt us or make us less than what we are. When we allow our emotions to occur without resisting them, and realize we’re still whole after the experience, we come to recognize at a deep level that all the effort we put into distracting ourselves from our feelings is unnecessary. As psychologist Stephen Wolinsky says in Trances People Live: Healing Approaches In Quantum Psychology, meditation is an experience where “emotions pass through the person without the ordinary damper of judgments or labels,” and its goal is to help the meditator “lose all tendencies to become identified with the contents of the mind.”
If you’re new to experiences like the one I described, and you’re interested in deepening your understanding of your relationship to your emotions, you don’t need to spend days meditating. Instead, you can try simply keeping your attention on your breathing as you go through your daily activities. Just remain aware of the constant rise and fall of your chest as your day progresses.
Notice as you do this that, no matter what moods you get into, your breathing continues in much the same way—just as you, the being perceiving your thoughts and emotions, remain essentially the same regardless of how you’re feeling. And because you continue to be yourself, and be complete, no matter what you think or feel, there’s no need to push aside or resist any sensations that arise. You can simply let go of anything you used to do to distract yourself from how you feel. This experience will likely bring you a deep sense of wholeness and relief.
(This article appeared in the Carnival of Healing, located at http://www.debramoorhead.com/blog/index.php/carnival-of-healing-137-education-at-its-best/.)
A little while back, I wrote an article on the function guilt performs in our lives and the limiting ways we tend to perceive it. Today, I want to expand on a particular point I made in that piece, which is that the amount of guilt we feel seems to depend on the time of day. For instance, I’ve observed that, right after I wake up in the morning, my conscience seems to be spotlessly clean. However, at around 10:00 a.m., I start shaming myself about things I did or failed to do in the past. The volume of my self-blaming reaches a crescendo at around 1:00 p.m., after which it tapers off again.
In my earlier article, I suggested that, if guilt were actually your conscience condemning you for your past wrongs, you wouldn’t expect the degree of your suffering to depend on the time of day. After all, the amount of scolding you deserve from your conscience shouldn’t vary based on what time it is. Instead, you’d think your conscience would keep up a steady level of punishment throughout the day, until you’d suffered enough and “served your sentence” for the wrongs you’d done.
I want to take the inquiry I began with these comments a bit deeper. Perhaps the fact the severity of our guilt depends on the time of day suggests that guilt is not simply what we experience when our consciences reprimand us. But what does that fact say about what guilt really is? To my mind, it suggests that guilt, like hunger and fatigue, is a natural, regularly occurring biological process.
In other words, just as you get hungry at around your regular mealtimes, and you get tired at around your regular bedtime, your body has regular times of day when it naturally feels most guilty. One way to put this is that, just as we have mealtimes and bedtimes, we also have “guilt-times.” The main difference between guilt and other regularly occurring physical sensations like hunger and fatigue lies in the way we perceive guilt. We take our feelings of guilt as a sign that there’s something wrong with us, but we don’t interpret hunger and fatigue that way.
Put differently, when our stomachs growl, we interpret it to mean we need more food in our stomachs. But we don’t view our need for food as proof that there’s something wrong with us. We don’t perceive ourselves as bad people because we happen not to have enough in our stomachs. By contrast, when we start ruminating on painful past events from our lives, we do tend to interpret it to mean there’s something wrong with us—that we are bad people. Or, perhaps, we spend time and energy defending ourselves against our guilt, devising reasons why we aren’t so bad after all to try to make the unpleasant sensations go away. Either way, our interpretation of guilt causes us to suffer, while our interpretation of hunger does not.
I’ve come to believe we can transform our experience of guilt by treating it more like hunger and fatigue. The next time you feel guilt, try saying to yourself “oh, it’s guilt-time again”—just as you might think “oh, I guess it’s time for lunch” when your stomach growls or “it’s time for bed” when your eyelids start feeling heavy. Try perceiving guilt as a routine bodily function that, regardless of what you do or think, will recur again and again. Recognize also that, in a sense, guilt is easier to deal with than hunger and fatigue, because you don’t have to do any activity—such as eating or sleeping—to cause your guilt to pass away. Instead, guilt simply arises at certain times of day, and subsides during others.
This practice has changed the way guilt occurs to me. Before, when my mind would dwell on the ways I felt I’d screwed up in the past, I would feel ugly sensations in my body. My upper back would tense up, and a prickly feeling would creep across my skin. My perspective on guilt—my view that my guilty feelings proved I was a bad person—was actually causing those physical sensations. When I changed my perspective, and started to view guilt as a natural biological process, those painful feelings began fading away.
I haven’t addressed one question that may be on your mind, which is: what is the function of guilt? It may be a natural process of the body that occurs at certain times of day, but why does it need to occur?
I don’t know for sure. I certainly have theories, but they’re not important for the purposes of this article. The important point is that the fact that we don’t know what guilt is for doesn’t set it apart from other body functions like sleep. Scientists still don’t fully understand why we need sleep, but the fact remains that we do, and no one questions that our need for sleep is part of our bodies’ recurring daily cycle. We don’t need to know exactly what function guilt performs to understand that it’s a routine aspect of the human experience.
The perspective I’m suggesting here has implications that aren’t limited to guilt. When you experience a “negative emotion,” or an emotion you’d rather not be feeling, take a look at the way you’re interpreting that feeling. If you’re taking the feeling as a sign that something is wrong with you, I invite you to experiment with a different view. Try saying to yourself “oh, it’s time for this emotion,” just as you’d think to yourself it was time for lunch in response to a noisy stomach. You might say, for instance, “oh, it’s anger-time again,” or “oh, it’s sadness-time.”
With this way of thinking comes an acceptance of the emotion that’s arising in you as a natural part of human life. When you simply accept the emotion and allow it to move through you, without shaming or judging yourself, you eliminate the suffering the emotion used to create. This acceptance is key to changing your emotional life for the better.