With the new Marvel comics Avengers release, now is a good time to check in on our emotional health.
Do we have an inner Hulk that needs some love?
Our emotional health is the quality of our relationship with our feelings—how we react to them, how we communicate with them, how they affect our behavior. And I don’t just mean our happy-joy feelings; I mean the sad-angry-scared ones, too.
In my practice as a hypnotherapist and life coach, I often see people in emotional crisis, struggling to relate to their emotional experience or equally trying to ignore it. But when we try to ignore or suppress feelings, they find expression anyway, often in distorted, self-destructive, reactive and sometimes very “Hulk” like behavior. Is that you or somebody you know?
“Why can’t I just get rid of my negative feelings and be happy?” asked one client, summing up what so many have asked before.
And the answer is: the way to happiness is not by trying to avoid those so called “negative” feelings but by embracing them as valid parts of the greater experience of being alive.
The idea of negative feelings has become so much a part of our way of thinking and speaking that we rarely, if ever, question it. Anger, sadness, pain, loneliness, depression and fear are all pretty universally seen in the Western world as bad or negative. A recent client expressed this common prejudice when I asked her about anger: “I don’t do negative emotions like anger. I simply rise above them,” she told me.
This client, like most of us, learned at a young age from her parents, society, religion and culture about which feelings are “good” and which feelings are “bad” or unacceptable. Statements like “boys don’t cry” and “good girls don’t get angry” or “don’t be mad” are common examples of how we teach these ideas. As little children, we learn quickly to shut away these “bad” feelings so that we are more acceptable to the world around us. And that’s how many of us end up having disconnected, strained, or even downright hostile relationships with our feelings.
Historically, there have been differing views of what feelings are, but it was the Christian theologians like Thomas Aquinas who first separated feelings into virtuous feelings, such as love and compassion, versus evil feelings like anger and lust. This moralistic viewpoint is now deeply embedded in our culture. But morality has nothing to do with feelings.
What are feelings, anyway? Feelings are information. Think of them as a guidance system that gives us information about our fundamental needs and what we can do to fulfill them. For example, we experience disconnection and isolation and we feel lonely. Loneliness informs us that we need connection(s) in our life. We experience insecurity and we feel fear, which informs us that we have a need for security.
Feelings are a part of us from birth. We say “I am sad” or “I am happy” because we identify with the feeling. The feeling is a part of us and defines our experience of ourselves in that moment. When we belittle, deny or ignore certain emotions, we are in essence belittling, denying and ignoring a part of ourselves.
That’s how we get an inner Hulk.
The denial creates an “other” or “bad self” within us that we now struggle to keep locked away. Those feelings don’t disappear. They get exiled, to the unconscious, which puts them outside our control while they wreak havoc in various ways. Just like the Hulk, those unaccepted feelings can take on a life of their own, manifesting in dysfunctional and self-destructive behaviors like uncontrolled emotional outbursts, eating disorders, addictions, anxiety, physical pain, inflammation, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and low self-esteem—to name just a few.
Ignoring or fighting our own inner Hulks doesn’t bring any resolution. We simply continue the unhealthy cycle, unable to experience ourselves as a whole being.
Imagine that we are painters and feelings are the colors that we use to give depth and expression to our experiences. If we cut ourselves off from any feeling that is deemed less than “positive” we have very few colors to express the complex subtleties of life, leaving our life landscape deadened and flat.
At what point does painting only with pink and yellow become not only boring but exhausting? Or put another way, can we truly experience and express a bitter-sweet moment without the bitter and the sweet?
If we want to be present, we need to let go of the idea of good versus bad feelings and start embracing the blues, browns and grays along with the pinks and yellows. Emotional health isn’t about always being happy or positive. It is about embracing our feeling self and learning to accept all our feelings as valid. With time, we’ll be rejoicing in the depth, texture and many shades they bring into our existence.
Author: Alexcis Spencer Lopez
Editor: Caroline Beaton
Photo: Google images for reuse