Learning From Emotions
I’ve been doing some supplemental training for the Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating program, and in a recent session, Dr. Michelle May, founder of the program, commented that she doesn’t like to think of emotions as good or bad, since we can learn from all emotions.
This particularly struck me because it rang very true for me, even though it’s not what we’re usually taught. Often we’re encouraged to always be “up” and happy, similar to the character of Joy in the movie Inside Out. If we feel something that could be considered negative – stress, anger, loneliness, sadness, grief, etc. – societal norms tell us we should shut it away, not let ourselves get “down”. Small wonder, then, that so many of us turn to eating in times of emotional turmoil.
And yet, I’ve learned the hard way how damaging this is, as well as pointless. After all, the emotion doesn’t go away simply because we ignore it. It’s still there, lurking, and maybe even getting stronger.
One time when this became painfully obvious to me was in the fall of 2008. I had just returned from a wonderful eight-day trip to the Galapagos Islands, where I had amazing experiences and took ridiculous numbers of photos. (Thank goodness for digital cameras!) And yet, once home, I didn’t feel quite right. I had a hard time focusing or feeling very engaged in what was going on around me.
At first, I chalked it up to the adjustment of getting back to reality. But the feeling didn’t go away. Part of me knew what it was; I just didn’t want to admit it because doing so would be hard. When I found myself on the verge of tears a couple of times for no apparent reason, though, I realized I had to open the door and let myself experience and acknowledge the emotion.
It was loneliness, specifically loneliness for my mom, even though it was almost nine years after losing her. It had started when one of the other travelers in the Galapagos commented on how many photos we were all taking, and how no one but our “mums” (he was English) would be interested. Except I didn’t have a mum to be interested. Sure, my dad and a few others liked seeing some pictures, but not the way my mom would have.
And then, something surprising and wonderful happened: I began to feel better. I still missed my mom, but by acknowledging what was going on, and giving myself permission to experience that “negative” emotion, it lost it’s hold on me, and I healed.
What did I learn? That loneliness can be for a specific person, but also that it is not the enemy. It’s okay to be lonely sometimes, and by allowing it a place, it will not stay as long. And I even got a nice poem out of it.
So when you have those moments of feeling some strong emotion that might be considered “bad”, it might be worth accepting and sitting with it instead – you never know what you might learn.