Recently I watched a YouTube video of comedian Louis CK being interviewed by Conan O’Brien in which he was discussing his reasons for not allowing his kids have cell phones. It was really funny but also quite profound. He talked about how cell phones (and other gadgets) prevent us from feeling sadness. He described an experience he had while driving down the road listening to the radio. He said a song came on that reminded him of his past and made him sad. He noticed the urge to pick up his phone and text his friends in an effort to derail the emotion. Instead, he decided to let the emotion come. He said he pulled over on the side of the road and cried, then felt a surge of happiness afterward, which he explained as gratitude for his ability to feel. He pointed out how when we cut off our ability to feel sad, we cut off our ability to feel happy, too. We coast along in an emotionally dulled state, not feeling too much of anything.
How often we distract ourselves with technology, eating, substances, sex, shopping—and the list goes on—when we feel a pang of sadness heading toward us. It’s understandable; sadness doesn’t feel especially good. But there is a price to avoiding it. When we don’t allow ourselves to feel sad, we stunt the intensity of our other emotions (including joy and happiness) as well. It’s impossible to selectively repress an emotion, so when we limit one, we limit them all. Also, by dodging sadness, we may lose confidence in our ability to handle difficulty. We may start to think sadness is too much for us to deal with, and facing it becomes an overwhelming proposition. However, when we allow ourselves to move toward difficult emotions, we are reminded that we can handle it, and that it usually isn’t as bad as we expected. In my experience as a chronic sadness avoider, I find that when I move toward the emotion instead of running as fast as I can away from it, I’m often surprised by how quickly the sadness comes and goes. I’m reminded that emotions are like waves; they start small, build, crest, then begin to subside. Of course, some waves are bigger than others and go on for longer, and they may return over and over again; but they are usually less difficult to navigate than I expected.
I’ve also come to believe that by avoiding sadness, we stunt our ability to connect with others. In times of profound sadness, I’m reminded of the commonalities of the human experience. It is something we feel physically in a similar way. The throat feels restricted and sometimes painful; there is a pressured feeling in the chest; an empty feeling in the stomach; sometimes we cry. By allowing myself to experience sadness, I’m able to feel more compassion for others. From this compassion comes a sense of gratitude and equanimity. When we move through life emotionally numbed out, we are likely to feel disconnected and alone. Western culture makes it really hard not to avoid emotions. There are so many enticing distractions immediately available and pushed on us every day. Attending to emotion is definitely moving against the cultural current.inner wisdom that informs us about who we are and what we need. For example, recently a client in my practice felt a wave of sadness and allowed herself to explore it in the session. Through this process, she identified her feelings of loss around a disappointing relationship with a parent. As she sat with this emotion and allowed it to run its full course, she uncovered a need to accept this reality—that her parent couldn’t and would never be the ideal parent she had always wanted. Even though this was a tough realization, it allowed her to move forward exploring ways she could parent herself as an adult rather than being paralyzed by a desire for what was not possible.
As an experiment, consider intentionally focusing on your emotional “waves” for a few days. See if you can identify your urge to avoid or distract (whether you choose to distract or not), and if a good moment presents itself, spend some time sitting with it, observing what it is like for you to feel this and reflecting on what information or insights you glean from it. You may benefit from journaling about these experiences as well.
Practically speaking, most of us won’t be able to be mindful of every emotion that comes our way. The realities of our lives interfere with that. Maybe we feel a wave of sadness coming during the middle of a business meeting or in a conversation with our boss when it would be to our detriment to allow the feeling to take hold. Also, emotions are always present and quickly shift and change, so to be constantly mindful would be a full-time job. There are as many ways of practicing emotional mindfulness as there are people, but I can tell you how I do it. When I notice a particularly strong emotion present at a time when it isn’t in my best interests to fully allow it, I make some time later to recall the incident that triggered it and allow the emotion to come forward again. Though it isn’t “in the moment,” I’m often able to recreate it in a context that works better for me. Also, at times when I start to feel sad and there is an opportunity to allow the feeling, I create some space for it by minimizing distractions and choosing not to pick up my cell phone or look up something random on the Internet (my frequent go-to escapes). I also work on not judging myself harshly when I avoid emotions; after all, I am human, and humans by nature don’t like to feel pain.
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