‘The man with insight enough to accept his limitations comes closest to perfection.’
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Imagine walking around for days with a serious injury and not even noticing it. There is a rare genetic disorder called congenital insensitivity to pain, where this is exactly what happens. People with this disorder don’t feel physical pain, which sounds wonderful at first, but is actually extremely dangerous. As children, they may chew off most of their tongue, constantly get injured without learning from the pain, and spend a lot of time in hospital. Throughout their lives, they don’t know if they’re getting appendicitis or some other internal disease. People with this condition tend to die young, with their bodies in a terrible state after years of broken bones and other injuries.
Our challenging emotions are the psychological equivalent of the physical pain we experience – often unpleasant, sometimes so excruciating we feel we cannot bear it, yet on the other hand they are like a bell which alert us to what’s actually going on in our lives. If we try to simply ignore them, we’re like the person with severe chest pain who refuses to call for an ambulance and dies of a heart attack. Yet if we investigate our emotions, like a doctor who examines a patient with a set of symptoms, we can learn a lot about ourselves.
In order to investigate the emotions, we first need to have some space around them, which is where the practices of recognition, acceptance and investigation we talked about in the previous two reflections are important. It can also be helpful to talk to others, or seek some counselling. Once we gain a wider perspective, we can then ask ourselves – what can this emotion tell me about my life?
Sometimes there is an immediate, obvious answer – ‘I’m resentful because a colleague got credit for one of my ideas’ – and a deeper, underlying one – ‘I’ve always found it hard to assert myself’. We might notice certain emotional patterns, or over-reactions to current events, which stem from experiences in the past. In mindfulness, we try not to judge ourselves for having these emotions, but rather learn from them. We all have our vulnerable places, where something affects us more than we think it ‘should’. This is just part of our common humanity, and rather than judging ourselves harshly, we can use the insight we gain from understanding our emotional ‘symptoms’ to grow and develop.
Weekly practice idea:
Write down one challenging emotion you experience regularly. Then write about the ‘story’ behind this emotion. What can you learn from this story to help you in the present and the future?