For a long time I’ve felt like unpleasant feelings — anger, irritability, anxiety, shame, regret, sadness, stress — are like a fart in a business meeting. At best, a faux pas, and at worst, utterly distasteful.
Deep down, I think I really believed that if I lived my life right, I could avoid those unpleasant feelings. I feel dumb typing that, but it’s the truth: I was on a personal project to eradicate unpleasant feelings. To find a self unblemished by them. Unfortunately (and unsurprisingly), my project was a failure. And when I failed (and failed and failed), I’d get frustrated with myself for having those negative feelings, THEN I’d get frustrated at myself for getting frustrated. You can see the problem.
To be fair, like any good Millennial, I did ask Google what I should do. Luckily (or not I suppose), I’m not the first person to have this problem. Buddhists call the pain we inflict on ourselves by our poor reactions to life’s unpleasantness the “second arrow.” Buddhists and the rest of Google seem to recommend the same thing: Accept the feelings, and they will pass. If you ask Google too, you’ll probably also encounter the in vogue fact that each individual emotion last just 90 seconds. 90! Didn’t the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt tell us that we could stand just about anything for 10 seconds? If we string together 9 of those puppies, we’re free!
Unfortunately, like many Internet “facts,” this isn’t strictly true according to science. It’s also not particularly useful according to life. If I am angry for longer than 90 seconds, is it my own fault for making the feeling linger? Are we really supposed to act if if there are no problems “out there,” only “in here?” I feel like there are things that are legitimately sad outside of my own head. For instance (bummer alert!), my best friend died when we were 7. It was sad then, and it’s sad now, and I don’t think it’s just me. These are relatively easy points to make. But I want to make another, more difficult one. Accepting feelings so that they will pass hinges on something problematic. This conventional wisdom implies that our ultimate goal should be to spend as few seconds as possible in negative emotional states. Not more than 90, if you must.
On the one hand, this makes sense. I have been calling negative emotional states “unpleasant,” after all. They are the opposite of pleasant. This is probably why our culture largely prefers not to acknowledge them. The answer to “Hi, how are you?” is “I’m fine, thanks.” But a thought occurred to me: Perhaps these feelings are unpleasant in order to get our attention. We are attuned to negative stimuli as a species, probably because these are the most salient to our survival (see: lion chasing you on the savannah). In a similar way, these negative emotions are giving us an important alert.
So I have experimented with greeting these feelings with a more neutral stance — less like a fart in a business meeting and more like a notification from the Me App. After all, feelings are just feedback. Feelings tell me about how the sum of my senses and spirit is experiencing this particular moment. I started considering the radical possibility that, for instance, if I was angry for more than 90 seconds it was not because I was broken, but because I had something to be angry about. Sometimes the something is that I haven’t fed my body enough recently and my blood sugar is disregulated. Sometimes, it’s that I haven’t communicated my needs clearly in my marriage so they’re not being met. Sometimes it’s personal and political concerns that aren’t so easily solved. But every time, it’s not for nothing.
The efforts I was making to dismiss undesirable feelings as quickly as possible meant I was turning off all of the alerts of the Me App. I had forgotten why I installed the Me App in the first place. That we only get one shot at this. That it’s my responsibility to use this brain and body the best I can as long as I am here, and I need my whole system online to do it.
To extend the digital metaphor beyond the breaking point, unpleasant feelings are not a bug, they are feature. And the solution isn’t to power the whole thing off. It’s to #readthemanual and figure out how to use the darn thing properly.