I often hear people say they are afraid of “going there” in their anger, or “going back there” in their depression. It makes it clear to me that folks often find something very unapproachable about these emotions. Yes, feelings of anger, sadness, or fear are unpleasant, but that doesn’t have to make them unapproachable… just unpleasant, as things in life can be sometimes. So, to understand why we work so hard to avoid negative emotions, we should start by learning how we perceive them.
Let’s start with anger, sadness, or fear… pick one that feels most relevant in your life:
If you think of your depression, is it like a dark cloud that follows you around? Is it like those giant stone blocks in Mario video games that stomp you flat? Is it like a deep pit you fall into and can’t get out of? If you think of your anger, is it like the red character in Inside Out who shoots fire out of his head? Is it like a closed fist? If you think of your anxiety, is it like a knot in your stomach?
What would it feel like if you touched it?
If you had to give it a color, what color would it be?
How much space does it take up?
How heavy is it?
Once you give your feelings shape, texture, color, volume, etc., you’ve already taken a significant first step towards approaching them. You’ve given them form, and with form comes possibilities…
If your depression is like clouds, clouds move and part with bursts of light interjecting. If it is like a Mario block stomping down on you, have you forgotten how they quickly lift and and you inflate back to size? We can build steps in your pit, and we can unclench your fist and loosen knots. The point is to break down this giant, amorphous, monolith of a thing that makes things feel unapproachable.
A key to experiencing emotions in a healthy way is knowing they contain more possibilities than you think. This includes the possibility that they can be survived without devouring you and everyone you love. You will continue a life controlled by avoidance of difficult emotions if this belief goes unchallenged. No matter the negative feeling, they are not just a concrete block of a thing that plops down and squashes everything you ever cared about for a forever time. Every emotion you’ve ever felt came and also went. And life continues while they exist, which means times of intermittent activity, energy, connecting conversation, lessons, and joy. Colors can change, space expands and contracts, and objects can be taken with you. This is not the whole solution, but being able to name and describe your emotions are the first steps.