Have you ever heard about acceptance of difficult emotions? The concept became recently quite popular in psychology. However, this coping strategy may easily be misinterpreted.
Why do we have bad feelings?
Our feelings are not a kind of internal entertainment system from the pre-TV era. They are not here to please us. “Difficult” emotions are not broken radio channels in our heads that distract us from doing things. Either pleasant or unpleasant, we have them for a purpose. Emotions are a part of our adaptation system that developed in the course of the evolution. If any of our emotions were unnecessary or wrong, we wouldn’t have them. In fact, they let us survive by helping quickly recognize what is good and what is bad for us, and by mobilizing us to adequate actions.
Should we just follow emotions?
Our emotional responses may be more or less adequate to what’s really going on around us. So, they are sometimes more and sometimes less adaptive. In other words, our emotional system may take things wrong and guide us in a wrong direction. But even when emotions are wrong, it doesn’t mean they are unimportant.
When emotions are adequate, they say a lot about your current circumstances and hint at what you may do about it. When emotions are misplaced, they say a lot about you.
You shouldn’t always act from emotions, but you should always listen to them because they tell you important things, either about you or about things around you, or about both.
How to read emotions?
It’s not always easy, but it’s doable. Anger may tell you that someone is crossing your “red lines” and threatening your vital interests. But sometimes it tells you that you permanently lack confidence and feel threatened in neutral situations.
Jealousy tells you that you really care about your relationship AND that you feel insecure about it. It may indicate that your partner does something that makes you feel insecure. But it may indicate that your history is haunting you and trying to wreak havoc your current intimate life.
How to deal with misplaced difficult emotions?
You might have heard that the best way is to accept, but not follow them. It is true only to some extent. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to confuse “acceptance” with “ignoring” or “tolerating” your emotions.
Would you just “tolerate” a serious diagnosis from your doctor? No, you would respond to it. You would do something about it, whether it is correct or wrong. If you just tolerate (ignore) right diagnosis you may die. But if you tolerate having a doctor who gives you wrong diagnoses, you’re at the risk of dying, as well. So, in both cases you have to do something – either about your health (when the diagnosis is correct) or about your doctor (when it is wrong).
Unpleasant emotions usually hint at problems that have to be solved – either in your life or in the way you relate to it. If something is wrong in your situation, change it. But if difficult emotions signalize that you persistently attach wrong meaning to events, you have to do something about that, as well.
Acceptance never means passivity. It means making space for feelings as a gateway to finding solutions – either in your circumstances or within yourself. The opposite of acceptance is avoidance – it’s like running away from the messenger before you got the message. You deprive yourself of the chance to know what the message was about.
Feeling bad? Good! Don’t turn your back to that feeling. Ask yourself “what’s going on?”. And then: “Where?”. And do something about it.
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