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Renowned Psychotherapist and author of A New Approach to Women and Therapy (bio)
Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair
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“Heal us, oh Lord, that we may be healed,” prays Tevye the milkman in Fiddler on the Roof. “In other words,” he adds, with his knack for humor in the face of misery, “God, send us the cure. The sickness we’ve got already.”
Like Tevye, we all suffer and search for the remedy. We turn to gods and men, doctors and priests, gurus and talk-show hosts. Searching for relief, recovery, redemption, oblivion—anything that will put an end to our emotional pain. We pay psychotherapists to cure it, take Prozac to mute it, seek counsel from religions that exhort us to rise above it, read inspirational books to overcome it, join recovery programs and self-help groups to cope with it, spend millions of dollars to escape it, use alcohol, drugs, food, work, possessions, sex, entertainment, and all the techno-toys we can get to distract ourselves from it.
When it comes to the dark emotions, we are all experienced sufferers: grief, despair, and fear are our human birthright as much as joy, wonder, and love. There is no life without loss and therefore no life without grief. There is no life without vulnerability and therefore no life without fear. So long as we live in a world where terror, violence, environmental degradation, injustice, and scarcity exist, despair will find its unwelcome way into our hearts and souls.
These are our worst feelings, and they are part of every life. When I call them dark, I don’t mean that they are bad, unwholesome, or pathological. I mean that as a culture we have kept these emotions in the dark—shameful, secret, and unseen. As a result, we tend, for the most part, to shun them. But the emotions that we reject and suppress can become dark in an altogether different sense: like a rich, fertile soil from which unexpected flowers can bloom.
In the throes of grief, fear, or despair, we generally believe that giving feelings like these too much space in our psyches is a sign of emotional weakness or breakdown. We turn away, not toward them. The enlightened Buddha saw that such aversion to suffering only worsens it. Still, for those of us who are not yet enlightened, when things go wrong, we want out. When we are besieged by afflictive emotions, we try to find a way around them. The last thing we want to do is go through them—even if doing so would lead us to unimaginable gifts on the other side.
In my work as a psychotherapist, I once saw a client who was on the verge of divorce from his second wife. His wife was fed up with his almost total lack of emotion and responsiveness. She told him: “I have no husband, I have only a shell of a husband.” She was ready to throw him out. This man’s first wife had died of breast cancer while still a young woman. He had no children from his first marriage, and his second wife was infertile. He had never grieved the loss of his first wife or of his dream of progeny.
“All I have is this relationship, and I don’t want to lose it. Please help me,” he begged. “Tell me what I can do.”
I told him that I thought I could help him if he was willing to befriend his grief. “What do you mean?” he asked, looking frantic at the suggestion.
“I mean letting yourself grieve your losses.”
His response was swift and unambiguous: “I can’t imagine anything I’d want to do less. Isn’t there another way?”
I told him that if there was, I didn’t know of it. His wife wanted a man who could feel, and he had stopped feeling after his first wife died. I asked him: “Why would you rather deaden yourself to your emotions than feel your way through them?”
“Because,” he said with finality, “I’m sure that I couldn’t survive it.”
Dread of the dark emotions is not always this extreme or so openly acknowledged. But it is always a force to be reckoned with. The fear of falling into the darkness, of going down and not being able to come up, lurks right at the edge of our ability to feel at all. Like a child who locks the closet door in terror of the monster inside, the more we lock up our dark emotions, the more we fear that they’ll jump out of the closet and devour us. Our culture reinforces this fear, which I call “emotion-phobia.”
As a result, when we are deluged by dark emotions, we are rarely in shape for dealing with them. We find ourselves adrift in a sea of overwhelming feelings without the ability to swim—and no life raft in sight. Just when we think we need the biggest painkiller we can get, we find out that even Prozac won’t simply remove our suffering.
Distracting ourselves from emotional pain may work well enough for most of our garden-variety displeasures, so long as life doesn’t slam us on the head. But sooner or later, we all get slammed. Your wife dies of cancer. Your husband at midlife runs off with a younger woman. You lose your job. Your child becomes ill. You are assaulted or raped. Memories surface of being sexually abused as a child. You are diagnosed with a serious disease. Your mother dies. Your father dies. Your cat dies.
Or perhaps it’s none of these. Perhaps, like many people today, you are deeply aware of living in a world that is both dangerous and endangered—an environment that triggers the dark emotions on a daily basis. Perhaps not personal adversity but awareness of the enormity of pain in the world, and of danger to our planet itself, is the source of your grief, fear, or despair. Or perhaps you feel these emotions and don’t know what to connect them to or how to cope with them.
Our culture exhibits a curious ambivalence toward such emotional pain. On the one hand, it teaches us to control our pain or medicate it; on the other hand, we are urged to feel, express, and release our emotions. “Get ahold of yourself.” “Get a grip.” “Stay in charge.” These metaphors of management and control illustrate what we believe to be the “positive” way to deal with “negative” emotions. We must manage feelings that would otherwise be destructive.
Our distrust of the dark emotions has been heightened by recent mind-body research that concludes that negative emotions are bad for you, contributing to life threatening illnesses from asthma to cancer, cardiovascular disease to immune system disorders. By and large, this research neglects to distinguish between emotions that are experienced mindfully—that is, fully experienced in the body in a direct and open way, as they occur—and those that are not mindfully experienced or have become “stuck” in the body.
At the same time, the explosion of healing modalities in the psychotherapy, New Age, and recovery movements in the past several decades has heralded a new epoch of “getting in touch with your feelings.” It is now hip to be in therapy, where it was once a stigma. It seems that everyone is in some kind of therapy, recovery program, or healing path. Or on Prozac, Zoloft, or Paxil. As a nation, we seem to believe that, with the right effort, we can completely eradicate emotional suffering. In either case, whether it’s control or catharsis we seek, we regard negative emotions as a dangerous hindrance to the good life. The focus is on dispelling such feelings, not learning from them.
Copyright 2003 by Miriam Greenspan