The Extraordinary Benefits of Wallowing in our Emotions
August 02, 2023
Far too often, we are led to believe that our inner vulnerabilities are to be conquered and suppressed. By prioritising our so-called ‘positive’ emotions, we can carve a path through life where joy, gratitude, satisfaction, excitement, compassion and confidence are the dominating figures. A utopian vision, where sadness, anger, fear, anxiety, shame and envy are but distant memories.
If we’re not being told to merely focus on positivity, then it’s also possible we’re urged to avoid feeling anything at all. Modernity may have brought us better food, effective transport systems and healthier teeth, but it comes with a dedication to ‘busyness’. The continuous distraction of work and devices can mean we sacrifice the quieter moment of reflection and catharsis.
This blog will examine the various mechanisms in the world that inhibit us from giving the proper time and attention to our negative emotions. Moreover, it will explore practical steps you can take to reinstate an emotional intelligence and consolation.
First then, how does the modern world shield us away from a greater connection to our suffering?
The endless blogging of life’s most pleasurable moments can be entertaining and fun, but it can begin to paint an unrealistic picture. Life, after all, is not just hanging out with friends, going on holiday and eating at restaurants. As the more mundane or upsetting moments tend not to be documented and showcased, we are fed a fantastical vision of what life perhaps could be like, if only things went a little more to plan tomorrow.
Overly positive workplaces
Workplaces may contribute to an obsessive nature of positivity. We might hear things like ‘good vibes only’ or we’re told ‘not to be negative’. We encounter attitudes of sheer determination that refuse to see problems or obstacles for what they are. And while inspiring motivation is of course desirable, being told unwaveringly that your manager believes you have the capabilities to exceed in every expectation, can be an overwhelmingly heavy load to bear.
We might also find our culture prioritises a ‘stiff upper lip’ attitude in the face of adversity. Vulnerability equates to weakness, leading us to maintain a stony faced exterior and a dutiful continuation of life’s activities.
In a competitive and individualistic landscape, we are subject to constant reminders that success doesn’t come through inactivity. No, if we want to make it, we must continue to strive even when the going gets tough. We should work late to get a one up on our rivals, make sure we’re the first in the office the next morning, and of course, ensure free time is filled with ‘continuous learning’ or networking that will enhance our output.
Unrepentant digital stimulation
Though our devices offer tremendous capabilities, they have all but made extinct moments of nothingness. Where we might have sat and allowed our minds to wander, perhaps in a waiting room or bus stop, we can instead access an unending stimulation; whether it be in short videos or the latest news articles.
We may find ourselves absent from the more measured middleground, of being both productive and mindful. Instead, we are lurched in obsessing over the former, overwhelmed in a state of constant distraction. The result is deep separation from our conscious minds to our feelings. It might manifest in a deep confusion over what you actually are feeling. You may harbour an awareness of a deeper issue, but find yourself stuck in cyclical trains of thought that only push it away temporarily.
For millennia, human beings have grappled with the problem of how to deal with our suffering. One particular approach doesn’t involve denial or distraction as our modern world so often pushes, rather it suggests us to envelop ourselves in our emotions, welcoming deeper reflection on them.
This process is often termed as catharsis, coming from the Greek word "κάθαρσις" (katharsis); it originally meant ‘purification’ or ‘cleansing.’ The most famous example from this time period was in the tragic plays people of all measures would flock to. By witnessing stories of suffering, they would experience an emotional release and gain clarity of their own vulnerabilities. Here are three practical steps you can take to seek out more catharsis.
Tragedy, or ‘sad’ art, extends well beyond the plays of ancient Greece. Many of us will be familiar with the seemingly unusual draw towards things like sad films or music when we are feeling blue. Drawing ourselves out emotionally in this manner should be done with care, as for example, constantly bringing up feelings of despair may indeed be counter productive. But our inner longing for emotional release through art remains a deeply effective tool that should be nurtured.
As sensory creatures, the discovery and awareness of ourselves often requires more than logical insight. By utilising the power of art, the tapestry of our psyches can be better illuminated. Take a sentence like the following: ‘sometimes we cover our true emotions from others’. Sure, this sentence seems true and imparts information. But then take the following, from The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby: ‘Eleanor Rigby…waits at the window, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door’. By delivering the same idea but with artistic finesse, its real veracity is communicated. Our eyes light up in genuine recognition of what this feeling is truly like.
When done in this way, a reflection of the suffering of others can make us feel less alone on our own. Where we see our own pains and misfortunes in the words of a book or song, our suffering is validated and acknowledged, reducing the isolation that can come with it. When we are struggling to articulate a feeling, we get the help of others to do so for us. It might even offer new perspectives and inspire us to be more open with our own vulnerabilities.
Mindful reflection, journaling and creative pursuits
Actually picking apart the various emotions flying around can take quite a lot of energy. It can often be difficult to isolate exactly what is the cause of certain emotions. This can be remediated through focussed time where the nature of them is better explored. It might come through dimming the lights, sitting on your bed and letting thoughts and feelings echo more freely. This blog provides more in depth guidance on going about this. For some, journaling offers a more practical method of mindfulness, where simply descriptive and free flowing written articulation of thoughts and feelings enables greater insight.
For those drawn to creative practices, these could take the form of things like stories, pictures or music. It’s key to remind oneself that it’s nonsense that the aim of this exercise is to achieve what might be considered ‘good’ art. The true value of this exercise is its therapeutic nature, a process open to anyone.
Speaking to good listeners
Being generally open with friends and family about emotional issues if of course encouraged, but what is particularly effective, is speaking to someone who we might call a ‘good listener’. A therapist is essentially trained in being a good listener, but we may find others in our daily lives that we should try and benefit from.
A good listener is someone skilled at recognising and directing the conversation towards the more concise and emotionally alive part of speech. They see past the surface level details and focus on the driving motivation that’s desperate to emerge. They might ask questions like - how did that particular experience make you feel? They keep an open mind and allow for you to express yourself without fear of judgement, making sure to not close off opportunities where there may be a disclosure of an inner vulnerability.
As a mutually beneficial act, good listening provides a far deeper pool of reflection, and allows us to see ourselves in each other. The speaker is led more directly to emotional awareness and reconciliation, while lighting up the nodes of empathy in the other.
A good listener can also be a qualified mental health professional. You can find your match through Mindsum.