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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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This book is part of a larger cultural conversation about the critical importance of emotion to individual and collective well-being. More and more, as a society, we have come to comprehend that the ability to feel, understand, and manage our emotions, especially those we call “negative,” is a vital aspect of overall intelligence and essential to living a good life.
While millions of people who have worked on their feelings in psychotherapy may not find this idea new or surprising, it is an idea whose time has come in popular culture. It took off after the 1995 publication of Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman. This landmark book put the subject of emotions at the forefront of our national awareness. Subordinating the “feeling brain” to the “thinking brain,” Goleman argued, is essential to emotional intelligence. To succeed at this, we must cultivate certain basic emotional skills, including self-awareness, mood-management, empathy, and impulse control. Of these, the “master aptitude” is knowing how to control the flow of negative emotions.
Since then, dozens of books on emotional literacy and healing have flooded the marketplace. Many of these have been geared toward helping the reader master negative emotions and avoid their potential harm to body, mind, and spirit. Books about guilt, shame, anger, grief, depression, and anxiety continue to have a wide readership.
So why yet another book on emotions? The latest neuroscience research on emotions makes headline news these days and appears on TV specials. Psychotherapy, recovery programs, and emotional healing methods of all kinds have been de-stigmatized and popularized. Dozens of systems of emotional healing abound. “Emotional intelligence” has become a popular phrase. It would seem that we know all we need to know about how to manage our negative emotions and raise our emotional literacy.
A quick look at the world stage reveals another picture altogether. The images of grief, terror, and despair around the globe affect us all, whether we dwell on them or not. Random acts of terror; national, ethnic, religious, and regional wars in which long-standing antagonisms erupt in horrific bouts of rageful vengeance; and the mounting violence of everyday life assault our sense of safety and erode our confidence in the world at this dawning of the twenty-first century. The seething emotions at the core of these human-made infernos pollute our psychological, moral, and spiritual environment. Emotional intelligence and healing, in these contexts, seems remote indeed.
If negative emotions are so harmful, why can’t we seem to tame their ferocious energies? If we know so much more about them now than ever before, why are we humans so embroiled in them? If, as the Dalai Lama tells us, the basic wish of all human beings is to be happy and the very purpose of human existence is happiness, then why do we humans seem so intent on creating misery for ourselves and each other? The fact is that while books about emotional intelligence may have hit the New York Times bestseller list, true emotional wisdom, for human beings as a whole, remains a distant dream. The world has a long journey ahead before anything resembling emotional healing takes place on a global scale.
This book will argue that our emotional illiteracy as a species has less to do with our inability to subdue negative emotions than it does with our inability to authentically and mindfully feel them. What looks like a problem with emotional control actually has its source in a widespread ignorance about how to tolerate painful emotional energies and use these energies for emotional, spiritual, and social transformation. And while emotional control certainly has its uses, it is transformation that our anguished world so urgently calls for. In particular, we need to honor three basic emotions that are an inevitable part of every life: grief, fear, and despair.
These are the “dark” emotions and their healing wisdom is the subject of this book.
Why grief, fear, and despair? Certainly there are other emotions we call “negative.” Envy, guilt, shame, and anger, among others, account for a great deal of human suffering. But in my thirty years as a psychotherapist, I’ve come to believe that the inability to bear the core triad of grief, fear, and despair is the source of much of our individual and collective emotional ills. These are the emotions we most avoid and that we most need to attend to in our time. Suppressed grief often turns into depression, anxiety, or addiction. Benumbed fear can easily lead to irrational prejudice, toxic rage, and acts of violence. Overwhelming or unconscious despair often leads to severe psychic numbing or expresses itself through destructive acts to oneself and others. As we shall see, intolerable despair is also a core ingredient of the increasing incidence of chronic depression worldwide. The inability to tolerate grief, fear, and despair, as most any psychotherapist knows, is a major feature of the epidemic of addictions to alcohol, drugs, technology, entertainment, work, sex, etc., that afflict our civilization.
In short, aborted grief, fear, and despair are at the root of the characteristic psychological “disorders” of our time —depression, anxiety, addiction, irrational violence, and psychic numbing. Sadly, these destructive patterns play themselves out on the world stage as much as in the individual psyche.
Copyright 2003 by Miriam Greenspan