Are pain and anger in themselves toxic forces or violent acts, that negate the love we feel for those who are close to us? Does this uneasy sense of contradiction cause us to hold those ‘negative’ emotions inside ourselves?
As I see clients every day in my practice, I notice certain themes seem to emerge at specific times. Suddenly a topic seems to be everywhere, which had not been present for a long time. This may of course be due to my own attention homing in on certain topics of relevance to myself. It does strike me as somewhat uncannily organised, though, and even more strikingly, new people often contact me (quite independently and individually) in a given week, in a kind of ‘batch’, or family group, with the same kind of characteristics and problems.
I have given up wondering why this happens, and just note it as a kind of natural phenomenon, which could also be seen as a free personal and professional development program. The lesson for this week seems to be holding contradictions.
A major hook that keeps people suspended, unable to shift certain dynamics in their relationships or come to peace within themselves and relax, seems to be the inability to allow themselves to feel ‘negative emotions’ towards people they love.
For a start, I put ‘negative emotions’ in quotation marks because there is no such thing as an emotion which is in itself negative — positive and negative are judgements made about the feeling. (I use the words emotion and feeling interchangeably; I am aware that there is quite an extensive literature about the difference between the two, but somehow it has never elucidated very much for me.) So what people often refer to as ‘negative’ emotions means the ones which are unpleasant to feel, and we don’t generally judge it a good idea to pass this unpleasantness on to others.
So can I love you and be furious with you at the same time? This scenario seems generally acceptable only when in the throes of passion, and less acceptable when directed to, say, a parent. Here it can often seem that anger, even the rationally justifiable kind, is a dangerous betrayal, one terrifying step too far, bringing up so much guilt and so much sadness that it appears to be better to just ‘not go there’.
We can choose not to go there, but something of the feeling remains, whether on the level of a bad mood, not being entirely present, a bit distracted, irritable, sad, anxious; or on the level of muscular tension, aches and pains or a full blown migraine. We may just not feel right, or as if we can’t quite communicate with others in the way we’d like to. This is often a sure sign that the lines of communication aren’t really open within ourselves.
The communication can be blocked both by the fear of ‘going there’ I just mentioned, and by our minds getting in the way by ‘helpfully’ providing erroneous analysis that is just not suited to the emotional world, analysis such as:
- ‘If you feel really deeply hurt by your mother and angry with her, that means you don’t love her’. Or…
- ‘You understand exactly why she did as she did and you don’t think it was her fault any more than it was yours. So…you must be a nasty person to feel as you do’.
In fact, there is no right or wrong where feelings are concerned. They just come through, giving you valuable data about what is going on in your life as they pass. What we do with our feelings is another matter. To go back to our example, it is perfectly possible to understand on an adult level why your mother did what she did and to feel genuine compassion for her. But this in itself will not remove the pain and anger you feel, unless — and it’s a big unless — you also extend that understanding and compassion to yourself. Pain and anger are not in themselves toxic forces or violent acts. And they so often co-exist with love.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on January 21, 2018.
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