In a 2021 Psychology Today column, Dr. Steven C. Hayes compares emotions to the signals we receive from a car’s dashboard. Feeling joy is like seeing that you have a full tank of gas, whereas feeling fear is like seeing an engine warning light.
Hayes suggests that we sometimes misuse these signals. When our emotional dashboard indicates a full tank, we might want to re-wire it, so it always tells us the tank is full. And when we see an engine warning light, we might want to disable it, so the annoying warning goes away. In other words, we may want to hold on to positive emotions and ignore the difficult ones.
Instead of these unhelpful responses, Hayes tells us that
“Allowing emotions to be there when they occur, to listen closely to their message, to feel them fully with neither clinging nor needless defense, allows them to serve their proper role.”
I can often apply this advice. But sometimes I experience emotions that are stubborn.
For decades, I carried resentments that dated back to high school. And I don’t think I’m unique. We have all met people who are trapped by unresolved resentment, anger, or sadness. Most likely, at least to some extent, we are those people.
Deep emotional wounds, whether they show up as sadness, grief, resentment, anger, shame, or something else, can become entrenched.
When emotional wounds are deep, paying attention to their message as Hayes suggests may be a good first step. But when I find myself stuck in an emotional cul-de-sac, I need a different strategy. I need to trace the emotions to their root.
I experience grief, anger, resentment, sorrow, or shame because something occurred that I wish had not happened. And that “something” hurt me.
I didn’t want the painful experience to have occurred. I want the world to have been different. And because the world is the way it is, rather than how I want it to be, I experienced the loss of something important.
If nothing was lost, or if the loss wasn’t important to me, that loss wouldn’t have the power to make me unhappy. And if that unhappiness lingers, it’s because the experience of loss continues to be real, even if it first showed up long ago.
The loss is experienced as painful because deep inside, I care about this person who has experienced unhappiness. This precious being (me) was hurt by something that happened. And because I care, because I am important to myself, I experience a strong emotional response.
Powerful entrenched emotions occur because we love ourselves. It may be counter-intuitive, but grief, depression, anger, shame, and resentment are expressions of love.
Even self-hatred, which is seemingly the opposite of self-love, arises from love. Hatred is a strong emotion. We only hate if we care.
Grief doesn’t cure grief; depression doesn’t cure depression; anger doesn’t cure anger; shame doesn’t cure shame. To heal from these powerful emotions, it’s not always enough to feel them and attend to their message. We need to connect to their source. We need to connect to the love and care we have for the tender heart of the wounded.
If we stay attached to the surface emotions of grief, anger, shame, etc. we may get stuck in questions like “Why did this happen to me?” or “How can people be so cruel and insensitive?” These questions lock us in an endless replay of emotional hurt. They distract us from the love we have for ourselves. And this love is the fuel for emotional healing.
If you didn’t love yourself, if you didn’t care about yourself, you wouldn’t be upset. If you have rage, it’s because you care about yourself. If you harbor an old sadness, it’s because you care about yourself. If you are carrying shame, it’s because you care about yourself.
Once you tap into that deep caring, healing can begin. From within that place of care, you can open to an intimate connection to your own beautiful, vulnerable, and tender heart. And this is where you will find the love that can heal.
I often stay with the discomfort of difficult emotions rather than connect to the love and tenderness I feel towards myself. When I connect to that love, I feel vulnerable. And sometimes the pain of the difficult emotion intensifies as I recognize just what has been lost. But if I’m not willing to experience the pain and vulnerability that arises from my self-love, I don’t heal.
If we are emotionally wounded and express it outwardly, it may show up as anger. If we express it inwardly, it may show up as sadness or depression. When we are caught in anger, depression, or sadness, we may feel as if self-love doesn’t exist. But these difficult emotions are an indication that it does.
Building a bridge from difficult emotions to the love and care we have for ourselves is the secret ingredient for emotional healing.
Dan Ehrenkrantz was ranked one of the 50 most-influential American rabbis by Newsweek magazine. He has been featured on radio and TV programs such as the PBS television series Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, the public radio program Weekend America, and the Montel Across America Show with Montel Williams. Ehrenkrantz is the author of Where Are You? A Beginner’s Guide to Advanced Spirituality, which is available wherever books are sold. Learn more at danehrenkrantz.com