Fostering a Nonjudgmental Attitude-The Lie of Positive and Negative Emotions 2/30 Depression Anxiety
The Farmer whose horse ran away
Once there was a farmer whose only horse ran away. Now he could not plow. His neighbors came to him and said, “How horrible for you! This is terrible. This is awful! You lost your horse! ” The farmer replied, “I don’t know. We’ll see.”
The farmer’s son went to find the horse. Not only did he find the horse, but two additional stray horses followed them home. The neighbors came over and said, “This is wonderful for you! This is so good! You found your horse and got two new ones!” The farmer replied, “I don’t know. We’ll see.”
The farmer’s son decided to break in one of the new horses. A few days in, he got thrown from the horse and broke his leg. He had to get a cast and stay off the leg, so he couldn’t work on the farm. Once again the neighbors came over and proclaimed, “How horrible! This is so bad! This is awful! Your son broke his leg!” The farmer replied, “I don’t know. We’ll see.” One of the neighbors insisted, “How can you be so relaxed about this? Without your son’s help, you’ll have to work long into the night to get all the work done. You don’t seem to understand that this is a catastrophe!” The farmer calmly replied, “We’ll see.”
The next day, the Emperor decided to implement a draft for a war that was starting. All eligible men were dragged off to war. Because of his broken leg, the farmer’s son was spared from the draft. All the neighbors came over and told the farmer- “you’re so lucky, you’re so fortunate, this is so good for you!. And the farmer just replied “I don’t know, we’ll see”
No one likes to think of themselves as judgmental. You probably don’t think that you are. But let me ask you a question? Do you label emotions as good or bad? Do you often tell yourself “I shouldn’t be feeling this way” “Suck it up buttercup” or apologize for crying? Boys have been taught to never cry, girls have been taught to never feel angry. A lot of us have been taught to just be positive all the time and to never make anyone else feel bad either. In this video you’re going to learn how to get better at feeling by learning to describe instead of judge our emotions.
One of the main reasons why most people aren’t good at processing their emotions is because of how our culture has trained us to think.
In western society we have been trained to think of “positive” and “negative” emotions. I just got a chart in the mail the other day- it’s got so-called “positive emotions” on one side and “negative emotions” on the other. This is a super common approach to thinking about emotions. It partly stems from the ideas of a popular theorist Paul Ekman. He labeled the 6 primary emotions as anger, happiness, surprise, disgust, sadness, and fear. People took it a step further and divided them into groups. You've got your bad emotions “like anger, sadness, fear, disgust” and your good emotions “happiness”.
Out of the 6 primary emotions 5 of them would traditionally be considered negative. The only emotion we are supposed to approve of is happiness. This is a setup for failure! It’s just not helpful to think this way. When we label the majority of our emotions as “bad” we end up putting tons of energy into trying to shut down the other 5 emotions. This usually leads to people feeling miserable. And it’s a waste of energy. This is the first real obstacle to working through emotions, to processing them. If we judge emotions as “Bad” just because they’re uncomfortable- this limits our options for how we can respond.
It’s not that we want to feel bad, or that I’m encouraging you to feel sad all the time, but that judging your emotions just isn’t helpful.
Generally when people think of “negative emotions” or “Bad feelings” then their automatic response is trying to not feel them. In trying to suppress them.
I call this the Suppress-React habit. You push down your tender feelings, the ones that hurt or make you vulnerable. You try not to feel sad or disappointed. But the more we suppress, the more pressure there is to explode. The more we explode, the more pressure to suppress.
Then we get trapped, we think that if we just had more willpower, or more mental strength, that we could somehow balance between denying our emotions and acting on them. Unfortunately this reaction doesn’t work well.
I’m asking you to step off the teeter totter of fighting your emotions, and to instead focus on acknowledging them, developing emotional muscles to experience them more fully and deeply, and then to make a conscious choice about what to do about them. When you get better at feeling, you’re going to be more likely to feel peace and calm and happiness more of the time.
One of the ways we do this is by developing a Non-Judgmental attitude about emotions. Instead of labeling emotions as good or bad, should or should-not, we will instead focus our energy on acknowledging them for what they are. Noticing them as they exist, and letting go of the battle with them in order to put all that energy towards living the life you want to live.
In the next section we’re going to talk more about how so called “negative emotions” can actually be really helpful- but let me give you a quick example of how negative emotions could have been helpful by telling you a story from Humans of New York:
“I smoked dope every day for twenty years. I thought I was pretty slick. I could smoke while working. I could get high and still run my company. I could pour concrete. I could roof a building. I felt like I could do anything. But it ruined my marriage. I didn’t even realize it until years after my wife left me. But the dope ruined my marriage because it made me content. Nothing could bother me. Her feelings didn’t bother me. Her needs didn’t bother me. The dope put an emotional cover over what should have been obvious. I told myself that if I didn’t see the problem, then it didn’t qualify as a problem. All I ever did was give her advice. I never asked for it. I never once felt the inspiration to say: ‘Darling, I know there’s something wrong. What can I do differently?’”
In this story- Because the man suppressed his uncomfortable emotions with drugs, the man felt great all the time, nothing bothered him. He didn’t feel sad or stressed or upset when his wife was bothered. But because he didn’t feel worried about her, or worried with her, or he just felt great all the time, and it ruined his marriage-which he obviously feels bad about now.
Instead of judging emotions, Describe them.
Uncomfortable emotions like worry, disappointment, guilt or fear can serve a really important function. And labeling them as “Bad” or Negative emotions- limits our ability to live a full and productive life. There are not good and bad emotions, there are comfortable and uncomfortable emotions, there are exaggerated emotions, there are distorted emotions, there are emotions built on falsehoods, but there aren’t fundamentally “bad” core emotions.
So instead of saying “This is bad” or “this is negative” say “this is uncomfortable, this is painful, this is difficult” While this may seem like just a technicality- it really matters, because when we label or judge something as “Bad” then we limit our options to respond to just a few tools like “Avoid, cope, distract” which you’re going to learn later- make things worse in the long run.
If instead, we describe a feeling as uncomfortable, or difficult- it opens up space to do something with it- you could ask yourself Is there something I may need to change? How can I build my resilience to hard things? It makes room to develop your emotional capacity and gives you time to breathe and calm yourself and make a conscious choice instead of reactively suppressing your emotions.
Instead of suppressing emotions, be curious about them. Sometimes it helps to slow down and imagine yourself as a curious scientist describing a new species- What does anger feel like. Where do you feel it in your body? What do you notice about it? The more you can describe it, the more power you’ll have to act. And you may be surprised to find that many intense emotions are really just asking to be noticed and acknowledged. And then they dissipate on their own. This is the crucial first step of processing emotions.
People who focus their lives on avoiding sadness and feeling happy tend to be miserable, people who focus their lives on their life purposeful action tend to be happy. Research shows over and over that people who judge their emotions as bad, make themselves feel worse.
This does not mean that you let your emotions control your behaviors. This does not mean that I’m saying it’s OK to fly off the handle with anger-obviously that is not going to make you a better life. We’re also going to work through the process of having overall happier, more peaceful emotions, and less intense, less painful emotions in the big picture. But the process of getting there is a paradox. People who struggle to suppress their negative emotions usually feel worse in the long run. People who learn to process through painful emotions, tend to feel more relaxed and joyful day to day. And people who learn to work through their emotions are generally better at controlling their behaviors than people who focus on controlling their emotions.
Instead of fighting our emotions, we will increase our ability to say “This is what I’m experiencing, and that’s OK. Because this is what I’m going to choose to do about it”.
Noticing and naming emotions is the first step to resolving them. We often interfere with this process by reacting to, judging or suppressing our emotions. In this course you’ll learn to develop the emotional muscles to sit with your emotions long enough to choose purposeful action. You’re not going to just learn to feel better. You're also going to learn how to get better at feeling.
Your Homework for today is to write in your workbook (or write in the comments below or in your journal)-
Write about which emotions you tend to believe are good and which emotions you tend to believe are bad. Where were you taught that you need to be positive all the time or that anger is unacceptable to feel. Which emotions were you not allowed to feel?
When you do your emotion check in today take a moment to carefully describe an emotion. What does it feel like to feel this way? Where do you feel it in your body? What thoughts come with this emotion? Pretend like you are the first person in humanity to feel this way and you want to describe it to someone who has never felt this- how would you tell them what it is like?
In the next couple of videos you’re going to learn about how to stop struggling with your emotions- and what to do instead. You’ll learn some practical exercises for calming yourself down and going through the “Pause and Calm down” step of the emotion process. Thanks for joining me and see you soon.
This post is sponsored by BetterHelp, where you can get a professional licensed counselor who can help you learn skills to improve your mental health for around $65 a month. Click here for 10% off your first month.