The Transformative Power of Difficult Emotions

by Janet Arnold-Grych

I am charmed by Ria, the 78-year-old Dutch grandmother captured on video taking her first airplane flight with 71-year-old An. An’s paralyzing fear of flying had kept her grounded. Ria hadn’t flown because her deceased husband had been afraid as well. In the end, both women have the trip of a lifetime. I applaud An’s white-knuckled bravery in confronting her fears, but it is Ria’s joyous gusto and hearty laugh that captivates me. I want to have coffee with Ria. I want to laugh about life with Ria. I want to be less like An and more like Ria.

Most of us prefer to tiptoe around fear, sadness, and anger. Rather than directly explore these emotions, we avoid the situations that awaken them. We don’t fly. We don’t grieve a loss. We don’t confront a conflict. We label those prickly emotions as the enemy, employing mental barricades or even destructive physical behaviors to keep them at bay.

The truth is those difficult emotions have a purpose. According to Miriam Greenspan, MEd, LMHC—a leading psychotherapist, public speaker, workshop facilitator, and author of Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair—emotions, both light and dark, exist not to weaken us but to wake us up.

“Emotions are natural, universal energies and are critical to our development,” says Miriam. “They are an essential part of the body’s intelligence and they have their own wisdom. At one side of the table are the luscious emotions: joy, love, wonder. At the other side are the emotions we consider indigestible: fear, sorrow, grief, despair. The whole banquet is part of our humanity. The darker emotions are as human and inevitable, and often have more to teach us.”

But what do we really learn from fear or sorrow—that life is painful or scary? That we are vulnerable? There’s no escaping that life comes packaged with suffering. Buddhism spells that out as the first Noble Truth. Miriam maintains that difficult emotions are spiritual teachers, which help us cultivate compassion for ourselves and others.

“The origin of the word compassion is ‘to suffer with,’ says Miriam. “The capacity for compassion is empathic and only happens when you know how to face your own suffering. What connects us can also break our hearts. But if we didn’t experience sorrow, we wouldn’t experience joy.”

When we allow ourselves to feel the dark emotions, we open to the possibility of “emotional alchemy,” a process that moves us from a place of suffering to a place of spiritual power. However, in what Miriam calls an “emotion-phobic culture,” it is common to devalue emotions like grief or fear. We label them as signs of weakness or pathology and see ourselves as weak for giving in to them.

“The key to what makes dark emotions like grief, fear, and despair useful, rather than destructive, is mindfulness of emotion in the body,” explains Miriam. “It’s our negative attitudes toward emotions and our negative thoughts about them that make them toxic. Mindfulness—the awareness or witness consciousness of what we are feeling—allows us to use the energy of emotion wisely rather than act out the energy. In this way, the dark emotions can become transformative.”

Miriam advises a three-pronged approach to so-called negative emotions: attend, befriend, and surrender. Attending to the emotion means acknowledging it and noticing it in the body. Befriending means expanding our capacity to tolerate emotion and be curious about it. Surrendering is the process of letting go of our ego’s demands about what we should be feeling and allowing emotional energy to flow.

Miriam says heart-centered breathing, awareness practices, and body-oriented emotional exercises can help. “Being with your emotions is a skill that can be developed,” says Miriam. “Emotions are energy and energy moves. When you can be with your emotions in a friendly way, that’s what allows them to move. We prevent that movement when we suppress, deny, numb, and avoid emotions through, for example, addiction. These maneuvers end in stuck emotions and destructive behaviors. In befriending and moving through emotion, we open ourselves to experiencing the alchemies of grief to gratitude, fear to joy, and despair to faith.”

If we do not meet our emotions, they meet us, again and again, and in broader, more destructive arenas. I can’t help but wonder if An’s fearfulness extended to other areas of her life as well. Exploring and learning from prickly emotions isn’t easy, but redefining our relationship to them offers more than just the dissipation of difficult feelings. Learning to address our emotions helps us to wake up and embrace life—all of it—with gusto and laughter.

Janet Arnold-Grych is a yoga teacher and writer whose work has been published in Elephant Journal, Huffington Post, Third Coast Digest, and other outlets. She’s also a marketing manager for a Fortune 200 company.

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