“How can I get rid of those negative feelings and just be happy?” I have often heard this question asked by clients. We live in a culture that tells everyone to pursue happiness by eliminating negative feelings, staying positive. If you feel depressed, society will see you as somehow defective or weak. In fact, each emotion is a very useful signal, especially those negative emotions, because they send us information and try to tell us what we really desire. Anxiety and anger are only the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface is the core need that wants to be heard. For example, if you feel angry, maybe someone has encroached on your boundaries. Anger helps you to fight for yourself or others. If you feel guilty it might mean that you have done something wrong and you want to correct your behaviours. If you feel fear, it’s warning you to look for danger and activates a fight or flight response to deal with the threats. If you feel sad, it tells you that you might lose something very important in your life and you need support and understanding from others. If you feel bored, maybe it’s because you are not getting the challenges and stimulation you need. All the negative emotions are our protectors, giving us clues to pay attention to what is important in our lives and the things we need to change.
Sometimes people might say that if we don’t feel any emotions then we won’t have any painful feelings. However, numbing your emotions might allow one to block out the pain, but it also disconnects you from joy and love. The reality is that all the things that make life meaningful come with pain. For example, in a relationship, you will enjoy wonderful feelings like excitement and joy and you will also experience disappointment as well as frustration. There is no such thing as the perfect relationship and life always gives us things that we don’t want, such as illnesses and injuries. The aim of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is to help people effectively handle the inevitable pain while living a rich and meaningful life.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy describe thoughts and emotions with weather metaphors and the self as a sky. The weather changes constantly, but no matter how bad the weather is, even the most destructive tornado can not hurt the sky in any way and the sky always has room for it. Sometimes we can’t see the sky because it’s shrouded by the darkest clouds. But if we rise high enough above those clouds, sooner or later we will reach a clear sky. However, when emotional storms come, people tend to adopt an autopilot mode. For example, when anger shows up, people might yell or lash out, say hurtful things or storm out of the room, but feel guilty after the emotional storm has passed. Those people are allowing anger to push them around like a puppet on a string. Self-awareness is the first step to switching off the autopilot. Next time, when any of the difficult thoughts and feelings come up, just take a moment to acknowledge, to accept, and make room for them, say to yourself, “here is anger” or “I am having thoughts that I am not good enough”. By labelling thoughts and feelings, it can help to switch from autopilot mode and consciously choose how one would like to respond to the challenges of that situation. Anxiety or anger may still persist but the emotional storm is no longer in control.
If you look for changes in your life, start with welcoming and accepting all the parts in you including the darker parts you always try to avoid. Carl Rogers, one of the most influential psychologists in the 20th century, once said, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change”.
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By Cecilia Yu
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