Why the “negative” emotions of grief, fear and despair are essential to achieving a positive state of mind.
Miriam Greenspan | Spring 2011 issue
One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light,” said Carl Jung, “but by making the darkness conscious.” Originator of the psychological concept of the shadow—the unwelcome parts of ourselves that we hide from conscious awareness—Jung cleverly added, “This procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not very popular.”
A culture that prescribes the quick fix for any discomfort isn’t likely to find enlightenment through the darkness very appealing. It’s striking, for instance, that as the multitude of 21st-century threats to the planet grow more ominous, positive psychology has risen to the top of the pop psych chart. With its emphasis on the feel-good emotions in an age of skyrocketing epidemics of anxiety, depression, addiction and a host of other emotional ills, positive psychology seems to be good medicine for what ails us. And for milder forms of emotional distress, it often works well.
But there are times when “staying positive” hits a wall, and adversity (the Latin root of which means “to heed or pay attention to”) calls us to attend to darker realities we’d prefer to avoid, ignore or deny. At such times, putting on a happy face merely spreads a thin, fragile patina over our hidden sorrows. The shadow emotions grow rather than diminish with these attempts at suppression. Sooner or later, the feel-bad emotions will have their way with us.
The worst of these feel-bad emotions—the most distressing, the most difficult to experience mindfully, the ones that get us into the most trouble when we can’t bear them—are grief, fear and despair. I call these the dark emotions. Universal markers of our vulnerability to loss, pain, illness, death, uncertainty and violation, the dark emotions are unwelcome guests when they arrive, but they’re as much our human birthright as love, joy and wonder.
We grieve because we’re not alone and what connects us also breaks our hearts. A fully experienced grief brings us the unexpected gift of gratitude for the lost beloved, and for life.
While we think of fear as an obstacle to action, it’s just the opposite: fear alerts us to threat and impels us to act to preserve life. In consciously befriending fear and accepting the sense of vulnerability that comes with it, we expand our capacity for joy.
Despair (a discrete emotion, as opposed to depression, which is a chronic condition of stuck despair) too has a purpose. As a signal of our human hunger for meaning, despair calls us to cut through illusion, repair our souls and find a sense of meaning that will sustain us through hard times. The hard-won gift in this journey through despair’s dark night of the soul is a sturdier, more resilient faith in life.
Of course, this isn’t generally how we experience grief, fear and despair when they befall us. The last time you felt sad, scared or despairing, did you think: How human and courageous of me to make this darkness conscious? Or: Why am I so screwed up, so weak, so sick?
As a culture, we see the dark emotions as symptoms of impairment and pathology, rather than as the darker colors of our rich emotional palette. We call them “negative.” But it’s not really the emotions that are negative—it’s our attitude toward them.
The dread and devaluation of emotions in general, and “negative” emotions in particular, are aspects of what I call emotion-phobia. When we don’t honor the dark emotions, we end up experiencing their powerful energies in displaced, irrational and destructive forms. We become addicted to alcohol, drugs, sex, shopping or the Internet. We get chronically depressed, anxious and phobic, emotionally numb. We’re more prone to self-destructive or violent behavior. These emotional epidemics of our time escalate the more we relegate the dark emotions to the shadow bin of our consciousness.
In the banquet of human emotions, we all want to be selective and eat only the luscious light foods. But life has its ways of serving up our portion of grief, fear and despair from the dark side of the table. The question is: Can we find nourishment in the unpalatable?
The key to whether dark emotion becomes destructive or transformative is whether we can do what Jung says: Make the darkness conscious. Emotional mindfulness—the ability to stay fully attentive and befriend unwelcome emotions where they live, in the body—is essential to emotional alchemy, the process by which the lead of our worst feelings can be transmuted to golden spiritual power and wisdom.
My first child, Aaron, was born unable to suck or swallow and died in my arms 66 days later, never having left the hospital. Nobody, least of all the doctors, understood why. I’d had a gloriously healthy and happy pregnancy. Somehow Aaron had suffered oxygen loss in my womb before his birth. I had anticipated arriving in the serene meadow of new motherhood but the road took an unexpected turn and I found myself in grief’s deep abyss.
Each day Aaron was alive I knew it might be my last day with him. Gradually, I began to understand that I had only this present moment in which to be his mother and to love him. My sorrow and joy in Aaron’s presence were conjoined and inescapable, so to be with him I had to accept both. In this way, Aaron became my Zen master, teaching me how to be mindful in the midst of radical vulnerability.
At the time, I wasn’t a spiritual seeker nor a true believer, but a social activist and agnostic. So what happened on the day of Aaron’s funeral couldn’t have been more unexpected. Throwing handfuls of earth on Aaron’s small casket just after it was lowered into the ground, I heard a voice say: You are looking in the wrong place.
I looked up then, and saw Aaron’s spirit, a magnified and even more radiant version of the light I’d seen in his eyes, telling me he was okay. The devastated landscape of grief opened up into an expansive vista of limitless blue sky.
Aaron taught me all kinds of things I wouldn’t have been open to learning before: that spirit outlives the body, love is stronger than death and the world is charged with the sacred—even in a cemetery while burying your baby. His blessing was the gift of an abiding gratitude for his ongoing presence in my life, and for life itself.
In my 35 years as a psychotherapist, I’ve been privileged to witness and accompany thousands of people as they navigate the rough waters of grief, fear and despair, and to help them discover the surprising gifts in these journeys.
When Diane came for therapy, she was fed up and tired. “My husband treats me like a sex slave,” she told me. “And, believe me, this is not as sexy as it sounds.” For the first several years of her marriage, she was as eager for sex as Dick was, but her desire dimmed the more demanding he became. She was expected to be available whenever he was, regardless of her own needs or feelings.
In 17 years of marriage, Diane had molded herself to be pleasing and put satisfying her husband over everything else that mattered to her. All the while, an internal defiance burrowed deep inside her, saying: I am not here just to please you. I am not here just to serve you. I deserve a relationship in which you care to please me too.
Because she couldn’t utter these words, or even let herself think them, her defiance took the form of not wanting to have sex with him at all. Grudgingly, Dick consented to come with her to couples therapy. But he had little patience for the work. He wanted his wife to be fixed in a hurry. After about six months, he announced, without having discussed this decision with Diane: I’m out of here. It’s divorce time.
From then on, Diane’s therapy consisted largely of grief and despair work for her lost marriage. She saw herself in a dark underground tunnel. With my encouragement, she gave herself permission to get to know the tunnel’s terrain rather than to claw her way out prematurely. Her experience of herself trapped in this dark, narrow place changed over time. From a choking sensation of being buried underground in excrement, she began to see the tunnel widening, like an inverted funnel. From here it became a kind of birth canal.
Diane gave birth to herself through this canal. With her emergence came a change in her self image. The shy, self-negating “mouse” with a compulsion to please everyone metamorphosed into a more true version of who she was: a gentle, compassionate and dignified woman whose yearning for mutuality in relationship reflected her own wisdom.
By consciously surrendering to being in the dark tunnel of her despair, Diane hadn’t been buried but reborn. No longer feeling like her husband’s victim, she began to understand that his departure, with all its agony, allowed her to go through this arduous passage to find an abiding faith in her life and her ability to love.
Jenny was terrified of deep water. The very idea of taking a dip in the ocean filled her with panic—so did delving into the deep waters of her inner life. As we worked in therapy, Jenny discovered the connection between these twin fears and her fear of her father, who led the family the way a drill sergeant leads his platoon. Everyone was expected to keep up the “family name” by being fearless and displaying no visible signs of emotion. Those who couldn’t conform were routinely humiliated, especially Jenny, the family “wimp.”
Jenny told me she needed to “let go” of her fear and wanted me to help her. Okay, I said. The first step in letting go of your fear is letting it be—not judging yourself for it or even trying to change it. Jenny wasn’t keen on the idea. I think she thought I was a bit of a wimp myself.
It took many months before she got to the starting point of emotional alchemy: forming a new intention for her fear. Instead of “I’ll make my fear go away by manning up and wearing a mask of invulnerability,” her intention became, “I’ll let myself feel fear and not run away.” This felt at first like “sinking into” the emotion and drowning. I helped her reframe the drowning metaphor by naming her intention to befriend this emotion an act of courage. Disowning her fear had, in fact, led to Jenny’s phobia. Perhaps she could heal it by learning to swim with fear rather than submerging it.
The second step for Jenny was to affirm the value of this emotion that had been so shunned, shamed and silenced in her family. The affirmation Jenny repeated (though she didn’t at this time really believe it) was that fear is an acceptable human emotion.
Step three was allowing herself to begin to tolerate the feeling of fear rather than to run in a panic the second the feeling arose. I call this step “sensation” to underline the fact that emotions are palpable energies in the body. It’s common for people to mistake their thoughts and ruminations for genuine feelings because we’re unfamiliar with the sensation of emotional energy in the body, much less with allowing it to flow.
Contextualization, the fourth step, required Jenny to widen the focus of her attention from fear in the body to the larger context of fear in her family. The family culture of fear-denial, reinforced every day by her father’s macho take-no-prisoners attitude toward any sign of emotion, had led Jenny to see herself as an irredeemable coward, unworthy of respect or love. With her awareness of this larger context came a revelation: Jenny was the “carrier” of emotion for the family—and punished for it. But she didn’t have to punish herself. She could finally let herself off the hook for being such a “wimp.”
The fifth step was the “way of non-action.” This is what psychologists call building affect tolerance. Jenny had set a goal for herself: to swim across Long Pond on Cape Cod as a final proof that her phobia was “cured.” I taught her to imagine herself swimming in this pond and to breathe through the fear consciously as it arose. It was only after a lot of work with this step that she was ready for step six: the way of action. For Jenny (as is the case with many people suffering from phobias), the action was clear: to do the thing she feared.
Jenny did swim across Long Pond—with fear accompanying her all the way. She worried this meant she hadn’t conquered her phobia and was surprised to hear me say: This is what courage is all about—feeling the fear rather than disowning it, and not letting it stop you. All you need to do now is let yourself continue to swim with your fear and you’ll find that the fear will change, as you will.
A year later, Jenny sent me a note telling me that she had taken my advice. “For the first time, I feel free,” she said, “not only to swim, but to enjoy myself in the deep water and to appreciate who I am.” She signed the card, “No longer a wimp, Jenny.”
Jenny had discovered the seventh step of emotional alchemy: surrender. Swimming with her fear, she had opened to and reclaimed the full range of her emotional sensitivity. The gift in this journey was the joy she found in the water and in herself.
There is nothing so whole as a broken heart,” said Jewish sage Menachem Mendle Schneerson. “The dark has its own light,” wrote poet Theodore Roethke. Albert Camus notes, “In the depth of winter, I found that there was in me an invincible summer.”
The art of emotional alchemy is perhaps best understood through poetry. The dark emotions have an intelligence and transformational potential largely unknown in emotion-phobic culture. Experiencing these alchemies depends on cultivating three basic skills: attending to emotions, befriending emotional energy in the body and consciously surrendering to their flow (even when the flow is so slow it feels static).
Speaking of the seven “steps” of this process in Jenny’s story is a way to systematize an essentially non-linear, often chaotic process. In the throes of grief, fear or despair, the sense of “going nowhere” and the attendant anxiety it raises can abort emotional alchemy. That’s why the capacity to surrender is perhaps the most difficult and critical step of all. This is the sacred or spiritual aspect of the dance of dark emotions: trusting that what feels like emotional chaos has the potential to be creative and purposeful if we’re able to relinquish our need to know how it will all come out.
Creative projects and prayer are two powerful ways of surrender that we can all practice, requiring no particular talent or religious faith. Sing your grief; dance your despair; drum your fear. Chant, write, paint—any open creative channel is a way to surrender beyond the rational mind. It’s here that we discover the vast intuitive gifts of the emotions and learn to trust them, even when they hurt.
As for prayer, anyone can pray in a simple, heart-centered way. The three basic prayers are essentially: help me, thank you and I surrender. You don’t have to believe in a religion to ask for help from a resource or power outside your ordinary ego or to express gratitude for what you have in your life.
Or to practice the art of open-hearted surrender that comes with saying “So be it” when every bone in your body tells you to scream, “No!”
When our hearts are most broken, they’re most open. It’s the openness that makes us whole. This is the way we become enlightened through the darkness.
Or, as Leonard Cohen sang it: “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.”