Shooting the messenger

We all have emotions we’d rather do without – fear, shame, anger, resentment. Often there seems to be no good reason for having these emotions except to make our lives, and the lives of those around us, a misery. Yet if we look at these ‘negative’ emotions more closely, we can see they actually have a story to tell us. It may not be a story we want to hear, but just like the king who shoots the messenger because he doesn’t like the message, we’d be foolish to reject our emotions just because they’re telling us a truth we may not be comfortable with.

When we see how much harm is caused in the world by negative mind states, it’s easy to confuse the expression of the emotion with the emotion itself. Anger is the classic example – retaliating out of anger never brings out the best in us, and can cause terrible harm. Yet if we imagine anger as a messenger standing before us, passing on a message, what is this message actually about? In the case of anger, it usually arises because our boundary has been crossed in some way. It might be a gross violation, such as abuse or discrimination, or it may be more subtle. But in one way or another, our boundary has been violated, and if we want to act with wisdom, it’s worth knowing the full story of what that was about.

Once we explore this story, we may find that a person in our life has been taking advantage of us for a while, and it’s time to have an honest conversation with them and be clearer about your boundaries. Or we may realise that yes, what this person did wasn’t nice, but that our anger is in fact an over-reaction, based perhaps more on past experiences than the current situation, and this realisation can allow us to let the anger go.

At other times, our anger might propel us to protect someone who is vulnerable; or to take a stance against injustice, joining a campaign or starting your own. The great movements for social change, such as the abolition of slavery or the end of apartheid, didn’t begin with people sitting about feeling happy and content. This is why we admire people like Nelson Mandela so much, because he acted out of a sense of righting an injustice, but wasn’t consumed by his anger despite everything he had suffered.

Of course, managing emotions such as anger, resentment, shame is not easy, as is summed up beautifully in this quote by Aristotle:

‘Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.’

Over the next few weeks, we will look at a range of mindfulness approaches to working more skillfully with some of our challenging emotions.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, if you feel yourself experiencing an unpleasant emotion, take the time to pause and ask yourself – what is the story behind this emotion? What message may it be telling me? Notice if this approach changes your experience of the emotion in some way.

 

Anja Tanhane