“The most solid advice … for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep, really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell, and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.” ~William Saroyan
Although this quote is ostensibly advice for writers, it is equally good advice for anyone. We will all be “dead soon enough,” as he puts it.
What captured my attention is that he took this advice about being fully alive and present in the moment beyond our common cultural preferences for only applying this to the “positive” parts of life.
I see plenty of exhortations to pay attention to the good things and the positive emotions that result, but that is only part of our experience of being alive. Authentic living includes the positive and what we often call “negative” together. Saroyan equally emphasizes laughing fully and experiencing our anger fully in his advice for being wholly alive.
Truly mindful living in the moment means fully experiencing all of it—the pleasant, the comfortable, the positive, the mundane, the sublime, the unpleasant, the uncomfortable, and the painful.
Our natural tendency to avoid pain and discomfort coupled with the cultural messages that tell us that negative emotions are something shameful to be hidden make it very difficult for us to be fully present to a significant portion of our experience. This hampers our ability to live our lives our wholly and fully as possible, and it also diminishes our ability to be honestly and authentically present to one another because we are so often hiding so much of ourselves.
To be fair, I understand where the emphasis on the positive comes from. It is true that our experience of our lives is shaped by what we focus on. Most situations are a mix of positive and negative and focusing on the things that are positive shapes our experience of the situation as a whole in ways that not only make life more enjoyable, but also tend to bring more positive outcomes for ourselves and those around us as we move forward.
Being sure to notice and appreciate those things for which I am grateful in my life has pulled me through some very challenging times, and it’s a practice I highly recommend.
The problem comes when we take that helpful habit of focusing on the positive to the unhelpful extreme of avoiding experiencing or acknowledging the negative. Dwelling on the painful and difficult parts of life is not helpful, but refusing to acknowledge and experience them actually prolongs them in rather unfortunate ways while also blocking us from a full experience of life and authentic relationships with others.
For example, when something happens that injures me in some way, my natural tendency is to become angry. It is my emotional body’s way of letting me know that there is a problem to be addressed. But I grew up with the cultural conditioning that good girls (particularly good Christian girls) do not get angry. Ever.
So I would try not to experience that emotion. I would suppress it, ignore it, deny it because it wasn’t acceptable. But by not allowing myself to experience it and investigate it, I denied myself the opportunity to deal with the anger, the injury, and the situation that caused it. I could not do anything to improve the situation or to heal from the injury because I was too busy denying that it existed.
But the anger and the injury continued to simmer below the surface. Because the situation that caused it was not dealt with, it often continued to cause injury and increased anger (which was likewise denied). In the meantime, that suppressed anger would leak out in other ways, damaging relationships with the person who caused the initial injury and with many others who became collateral damage as they experienced the lash of my misdirected anger that was now out of my control because I refused to deal with it.
At the same time, my relationships often suffered because people could see (and feel) that pent-up anger that I was denying, but my refusal to experience it and deal with it created an inauthenticity in their dealings with me. I claimed to be one way while acting in another way, which kept people at a distance.
It also made depression a significant issue for me because all of that unresolved anger and pain was continually festering beneath the surface dragging down my ability to experience of life and interfering with my ability to live fully. That anger that I refused to acknowledge feel and deal with turned inward instead.
I’ve worked very hard over the last year or so to change my relationship with anger and other “negative” emotions. I’m learning that acknowledging them and allowing myself to experience them fully gives me much more control over how I express them.
When I allow myself to acknowledge and feel them, I have the ability to question the emotions, investigate the situation that caused them, look deeply into what is happening for me (is my anger appropriate? is this something from my past acting as a trigger?), and then choose an appropriate response to what I am feeling. That ability to choose my response means that my anger actually does less damage when I allow myself to feel it fully and deal with it than when I avoided it!
I’m learning to build relationships with people who can hold space for all of my emotions and experiences to be processed and acknowledged, which is creating healthier, more authentic relationships that deeply enrich my life.
My increasing ability to experience all of life fully and to engage with all of it—the positive and the negative—has made my life much more positive and enjoyable overall. That’s not the result I would have expected, but I’m finding it a very rewarding way to live life to its fullest.
How do you deal with your “negative” emotions? What does it mean to you to live life fully?
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