Ever had that creeping feeling where an emotion slowly but surely builds in intensity until your head feels totally scrambled?
What about the feeling where, seemingly out of nowhere, you feel pickled with the feeling of hot rage, cold disappointment or icy fear?
Of course you have, because the experience of negative emotions like fear, anger or disappointment can at times creep up on us, or at times can suddenly appear from nowhere like an unwelcome visitor that’s popped over without bothering to call first (if you’re unlucky enough you might even have a weird relation or neighbour who does actually pop over unannounced – and always when you’re just about to sit down or get into the bath…)
For some of us even, there are feelings of fear or anger that are always there pacing at the door of our waking consciousness, waiting for a tiny trigger or event to open the door just wide enough that the wolf can break in.
Feeling the fear
In my day to day experience, unexpected events tend to make me feel fearful; for example a car pulling out in front of me on the motorway without warning which makes the skin all over my body dance with fire in an unpleasant mexican wave, my heart quicken and my mouth go immediately dry.
It is the events that have already happened, that tend to start as fear or disappointment which develop into anger. Re-living, re-playing or fantasising about retorts I’ll never actually deliver are usually what churn up a negative feeling into a molten pot of irritation and annoyance. For me, this is much more often in response to something which feels personal, like a cross word from a family member, or a poorly delivered comment from someone at work.
We know that negative emotions have an evolutionary and social benefit; we need to feel negatively about something in order to avoid it in the future, and we need to know what ‘not good’ feels like in order to really understand what ‘good’ feels like, no? Every one of us probably knows someone who lives their life in a largely irritated or pessimistic state. And probably (hopefully) we also know someone who’s glass is almost always half full. Which one has more happiness, less anxiety, more openness?
We cannot eliminate negative feelings or emotions altogether, nor do I think we should, but how can we respond to them in a way that doesn’t give them more air time than they deserve? And in a way that allows us to return to the present moment – the only moment in which we can actually live life – without simply repressing the bad stuff so that it lurks ready to pounce at a later date when we’re tired or run down?
A few weeks ago I was gifted a book called Fear, written by Thich Nhat Hahn – a wise and inspiring man who has been one of the key players in bringing mindfulness and meditation to the West. In these pages I have been given more than a glimpse of the answer to that question, and in the four steps below I give you my take…
Inviting the wolf in
The first step is all about acknowledging the emotion. By pushing fear, anger or disappointment away, we move it into a little box of storage so that it is ready to reappear at a later date. But by acknowledging the emotion, we are actually opening the door to it. Once we have seen it for what it is, the feeling itself becomes smaller, less scary and more understood.
So instead of trying to overwrite negative feelings by immediately blocking them out with TV, gaming, or alcohol [insert your distraction/vice of choice], we can ask ourselves ‘what is the emotion I am feeling?’. The answer might be fear, disappointment, or anger. This is the first step.
Looking at his pearly whites
Knowing what the emotion is, we can invite it a little closer and start to be curious about its shape and form. Essentially, we can start to ask ourselves ‘why’?
Why did the event, the comment, the action of the other person trigger this?
Why did it create such a strong response in me?
Maybe it’s something that reminded you of a previous hurtful event, and you’ve re-lived those painful emotions. Maybe you’ve asked for something in your relationship and your needs haven’t been met so you feel unheard, or unimportant?
Whatever it might be, asking ‘why?’ helps us to see what has drawn the wolf to our door in the first place.
The wolf’s tale
Yes I’m really running with the analogy and yes I unashamedly exchanged tail for tale! Cuff me.
Once we’ve asked ourselves the ‘why’, it is time to ask the other person – if there is one (there almost always is) and if we can. If the other person was a passerby on the street or a maniacal driver with zero road etiquette then we’re unlikely to get the chance. If they are someone we love or someone we have regular contact with, then it is all the more important to understand their take. In asking the question about why they said X or did Y – we get the chance to hear their side of the story.
See we each move about the world wearing our own bespoke pair of glasses. The lenses are shaped by past experiences and the state we are currently in (tired, hungry, stressed, hormonal). They are not the same as other people’s lenses. So, there is every chance that our interpretation of the situation is not the same as the other persons, and every chance that it is inaccurate. Asking for their take presents an opportunity to understand their lens, and to learn a bit more about our own in the process.
Once we’ve asked [insert name of family member, friend, colleague, irritating neighbour] for their take, we then actually have to listen. Not the sort of listening I’ve done so many times – which is essentially looking interested but really waiting for your chance to comment again – but really listening. Listening in a way that will actually allow you to absorb their words and understand them. Maybe you’ll have to ask some clarifying questions, maybe you’ll have to say ‘okay I wasn’t expecting you to say that so I’m going to think for a minute before I say anything’, maybe you’ll say ‘I’m glad I understand that now’. Either way, the process of open conversation will lead to a place where you can deal with the situation properly.
With this knowledge comes compassion for the other person’s position and their feelings. And our negative emotions, well they start to retreat in the presence of compassion, beginning to take their leave without any additional conscious effort. It’s like light and dark – a room cannot be both light and dark in the same moment. In the same way, we cannot feel compassion and fierce hatred towards the same person or thing at once. One makes the other skulk away, tail between snowy white legs.
A wave goodbye
Once a situation has been acknowledged, understood and resolved, it needs to go to its final resting place – the past. We have all been in situations where we’ve tucked things away and used it as ammunition in the next argument. Driving home after a family meal one night my mum accidentally mounted the curb coming round a sharp bend. My dad, obviously feeling brave in the front passenger seat said “I can’t believe you’ve just done that, you hit that same bit of curb back when we were driving back from so and so’s that night!” Turns out it was TEN YEARS prior! Naturally this was hilarious and everyone just laughed at him, but it pissed my mum off and I get it. No one likes to be reminded of things you thought you’d moved on from – it’s like reliving a negative experience all over again when you’ve already got a fresh one to deal with.
In our house we have started saying “shall we put this one to bed now?” at the end of one of these conversations. It means it’s done, done for good, and we can be confident the other one won’t be storing it away for a future argument.
A perfect paradox
I love a good paradox, something about the way they don’t make obvious sense thrills me. The delightful paradox here is that when we feel a negative emotion and we try to immediately push it away, we actually end up holding it close to us. It sticks in our minds and hearts, infecting our thoughts with cruel remarks or cartoon sketches where someone that’s annoyed us gets flattened by a film set (Looney Tunes style). We end up acting with it by virtue of the fact that we’ve hurriedly tried to ignore it and get rid of it.
When, instead, we move into hard emotions through acknowledgement, curiosity and conversation, we dispel their power and give ourselves true distance from them.
It’s the difference between barricading the door from the wolf – keeping him pacing outside, threatening to come in and take over – and opening the door widely to his surprise and welcoming him in for a drink and a chat.
What I understand is that if we hold onto anger or hatred or fear, in reality they are no longer the cause of our suffering. We have allowed them to maintain their strength, their attachment to us, and in doing so have kept them in the present moment rather than where they belong – in the past. The only person that has control over the way we respond in the present is us.
And, if we can make this a regular practice then the wolf at the door is no longer a wolf. He is something much softer, much less threatening, and much more relatable.
For the photos in this article, shout out to our late dog Jack – our very own white wolf and gorgeously handsome best friend.