“Most of the shadows in life are caused by standing in our own sunshine.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson
How many times have you heard “Follow your heart” or “Let emotion be your guide”?
Too many to count, I’d bet.
It’s generally good advice; it’s certainly wiser to follow your own feelings than to blindly do what other people think you should do.
But reading into your emotions can also lead you astray.
You see, you are always feeling your thinking. You are not necessarily always feeling “the truth,” or even your own personal truth.
Every emotion, feeling, or mood you experience follows directly from the thinking you are experiencing. That thinking is not always accurate or important. It does not always indicate what’s best for you.
In reality, your feelings are nothing more than feedback about your thinking.
Feelings are not feedback about your mental health, the state of your life, or whether you have the “right” job, partner, or dietary habits.
I used to think they were. When something in my environment seemingly aroused negative emotion in me, I’d jump into action. Life became a game of adding in the “right stuff” and subtracting out the “wrong stuff” in order to feel as good as possible.
I thought this was very enlightened; after all, I was no longer willing to put up with what didn’t feel good and I was consciously choosing more of what did.
I’d notice some negative feelings about my job and immediately start looking for a new one. Clearly, my job wasn’t a good fit. I deserved a job where I could be nearly-always happy, I reasoned.
Predictably (in hindsight), the moment I decided the job wasn’t a good fit, a million examples of how it wasn’t perfect would show up—things I had never noticed before. I took those as “signs”—further evidence that I had better focus on that exit strategy, and fast.
Since I decided that my job was the cause of my distress and that I’d feel much better when I found a new one, that naturally led to the conclusion that that I wouldn’t feel better until I was in that new job.
I innocently set things up so that I couldn’t possibly be happy until I made the change that was supposed to fix everything.
I also did this in reverse, by the way, adding in more of the good-feeling “stuff” that I thought were the source of the positive emotions I craved.
Although I thought this an enlightened way to be, hunting and gathering good-feeling “stuff” and playing whack-a-mole with bad-feeling “stuff,” it was based on the gigantic illusion that my feelings were based on my surroundings.
In truth, my feelings were simply feedback about my thinking, and my thinking was not dictated by my job or anything else outside of myself.
Thinking isn’t dictated by anything. It just arises, with emotion tagging along, and we hold on to it and tell stories about it.
Or we don’t.
Nothing needs to be done.
Rather than jumping into addition or subtraction action, relax. There is nothing to do with or about bad feelings. Because thoughts are transitory, impersonal, and always in motion, feelings are too.
The word emotion means in motion, as in always moving.
From the time you woke up this morning to right now, you’ve probably had a few hundred thousand thoughts and feelings to which you paid virtually no attention. Paid no attention, they promptly floated away—in motion—and were replaced by new thoughts and feelings.
Each time your mind drifts from the morning staff meeting to your lunch plans and back to the meeting again, it’s happening. Each time you cycle through, “I’m having a fantastic hair day” to “Did I clean the cat hair off this jacket?” to “I hope it’s warm enough to go without a jacket tonight,” it’s happening.
Thoughts and feelings change all day every day with absolutely no effort or fanfare.
This would be true of all thoughts and feelings if you treated them all the way you treat the ones about meetings, lunch, and hair.
But since you’re human, you don’t treat them all the same. You hold on to some thoughts and spin them around in your mind. You give them importance and meaning. You imbue them with emotion and attention, which are the equivalent of mental superglue.
Thoughts are like breath—when you stop holding your breath, new breath rushes in. When you stop holding your thoughts, new ones rush in, bringing new feelings in tow.
All you ever have “to do” is nothing. The only position you ever have to take is of non-interference.
Nearly everyone I talk to wants bad feelings to go away. Even when they intellectually understand that bad feelings aren’t meaningful or harmful, and even when they intellectually get that feelings are always in motion, they feel down and instantly try to feel better.
They think I’m naive or unrealistically spiritual when I tell them that bad feelings don’t have to be a big deal. They don’t have to feel so “bad.”
“You don’t understand my emotions,” they say. “Mine hit harder than others’.”
Or, “But everyone knows shame is the hardest to handle,” or “I’ve had these since birth, so they’re more real than most.”
I still say they don’t have to be so bad.
The more you understand that your experience of life is entirely thought-created and that “you” aren’t what you think you are, your attachment to feelings—good and bad—begins to shift.
You connect and identify with something deeper, something beyond fleeting feelings.
It becomes obvious that bad feelings are only your surface psychology; they can’t touch who you truly are. You can rest in your true self which is always stable and always there.
As it turns out, much of the negative experience of emotions is the cover-up. It’s when you resist, hide, or try to change those emotions that you experience them as painful.
When you do that, you’re playing with mental superglue again. You’re putting so much pressure and focus on those emotions that they are held in place. Remember, when you don’t hold on to thought and emotion, new thought and emotion rushes in.
I can honestly say that my experience of bad feelings is drastically different than it once was. This may sound insane, but I don’t mind feeling “bad” so much anymore.
In fact, sometimes it’s kind of nice to settle into a bad mood. It’s a little like the comfort you might find in a rainy day once you accept that the rain is a reality and stop wanting it to change.
I find myself deciding to just lay low and ride out the mood, just like I would the rain. I know it will change. Paradoxically, when I approach bad moods in this way they end up changing before I have a chance to experience them as “bad.”
Emotions are naturally in motion. There is an awareness and distance that prevents me from being taken down by them.
This is completely possible for anyone, even you.
About Amy Johnson
Dr. Amy Johnson is the author of several books, including The Little Book of Big Change: The No-Willpower Approach to Breaking Any Habit. She is also the creator of The Little School of Big Change, an online school that helps people find lasting freedom from habits and anxiety. Please go here to get a free sneak preview of the school.