Much of life has meaning in relevant opposites. Anger has kindness. Cafeteria food has gastropubs. The corpo zombie shuffle has blinding benders in Vegas. Everything has its inverse mate, is my point. It’s opposite, not necessarily, like, an evil version, just a matching reflection.1
We understandably assign real value to these differences. I don’t want the soggy, bland food from the cafeteria which somehow you can feel the absence of taste and love. It’s objectively worse than a gourmet smash burger dripping with beef tallow flanked by an army of fresh cut fries misted with an airdrop of parsley and salt. Sweet Jesus, I need a towel.
This relevancy matters! Without it, nothing would have any value. Without a corresponding opposite energy (to offer a blanket summary) nothing would exist or have meaning. Life must have death. Incredible feasts must have impermissible food crimes. The mirage of Vegas must have the desert of spreadsheets and conference calls.
While good reminder, I understand it’s barely insightful. How we relate this idea to our emotions is much more interesting.
The Cult of Self-Love
Much of the merchandising of self-help is geared toward ‘wellness’. Phrases like self-care, self-love, and ‘treat yo self’ litter the landscape of the personal growth industry. Self-compassion is the underlying concept behind this wave of love, and with good reason – self-compassion, the ability to interact kindly and fairly with ourselves, is something an insane amount of us struggle with. Some psychologists and therapists believe this is the most common struggle they see among all their patients.2
On the other side healthy wellness is the vilification of negative emotions. Emotions are very tricky things. The gap between feeling something and then deciding how to manifest that emotion (if at all) is an endless struggle. It’s a skillset. And like any other skill or any muscle, it must be worked to be strengthened. Practicing at this feels insane. At a certain point you seem to constantly babble to yourself. It’s as though your skull is housing an active hurricane.
The struggle to improve our interaction with our emotions, creates a perfect storm for the unwanted emotions to become the villains of our stories. Anger is what’s keeping us from being kinder at the coffee shop. A hatred for life or the people we envy is what’s keeping us from being able to love. The tragedy of existence is what’s keeping us from experiencing joy.
Even as I edit this, I realize this very concept was the crux of that Pixar movie Inside Out. You know the one, remember that somber little blue bitch? For the whole movie she seemed useless and insufferable.
As we demonize the dark half of the emotional spectrum, a silent transition can occur. We can switch from working to effectively cohabitate with the spectrum of emotions, to seeking to eradicate anything that creates inner discomfort. In the quest for self-compassion – inner peace – we wage war on emotions we think stand in our way.
The way out is to be kind. To be kind, is the opposite of our experience now. The avoid these experiences, we must avoid the negative emotions. Desperately seeking a better way, we get lost in practicing the new approach. Meditation, catching our inner narrative, journaling – whatever we can do to build a new way to interact with ourselves.
An obsession grows. We want to fix the problems. Learning to see emotions and interact with them is challenging, annihilation is a much more familiar path. “I will destroy the thing that is hurting me, and then that’s it, I can finally rest.” Well, Thanos, there is no snap here. I sure do wish there was.
A festering obsession with self-love easily spirals into replacing once form of self-abuse for another. Now when anger arises, we catch ourselves. We try to stop it. But it’s like quicksand. The more we struggle away from anxiety, sadness, and anger, the more we get sucked in. We get angry because we’re angry. We worry more for having started to worry.
Quickly we fall into the Alan Watts spiral. We try to smooth rough water with a flat iron, and simply disturb it even more.
We think we simply want control over our emotions, but we truly want tyranny over the one’s we don’t approve of. The more we try to control them, the more they slip through our fingers and taunt us.
Worse yet, this unhealthy perspective on our own mind and range of emotions, deprives us both seeing the whole picture, and being a more complete version of ourselves.
Channeling Dark Energy
A growing obsession to feel better can quickly become a compulsion to never feel bad. If the idea of self-love is manifested in an incomplete or unhealthy way, the cycle of unrealistic and unhelpful interactions may have a nobler goal and healthier perspective, but we’ll still be at the mercy of our thoughts. We’ll still be obsessed with “reaching” a state of finality that simply doesn’t exist.
We lose out on two critical things in losing ourselves to the altar of self-love:
- The ability to work toward something more than simply achieving a healthier relationship with ourselves in life
- The insight and information from the signals which our negative emotions, and therefore, the full inner picture our mind can create
It’s good practice in investing, starting a business, and virtually all other projects and hobbies to use all the information at your disposal, so why is this any different?
Of course, emotions are like little Jokers. They’re impulsive and deceptive, often seeking the easiest path to satiate some hedonistic tendency. But there can be more there than the negative association between a gray matter signal and our behavior. If we simply say, “oh that stuff is bad”, it’s a wildly simple dismissal of what your brain produces as signals of information, and then we lose half the picture.
Yes, emotions like anxiety, anger, and fear are dark and scary, but they are also incredible vessels of information and insight. Why are we angry? Anxious? What’s wrong in the specific situation or even our lives that we want to change? How can we both respond in a healthier way to the emotion but interact with it to understand the root cause of the dark energy – the signal in the noise. Then we can go off on an emotional expedition and use the thinking brain to help solve the problem.
An overdose on any emotion is unhealthy. Anger, anxiety, and hopelessness get the spotlight because, well, they’re difficult to control and the downside is very hard to come back from. And very messy. There’s a reason Jedi’s get red lightsabers and shoot electricity out of their hands when they choose the dark side.4 But is it that much worse than some insufferable dolt that thinks everything happens for a reason and all of life is love? No Amanda, you didn’t lose the house because of the universe, you lost the house because you sell crystals on Etsy and bet on the track ponies. Amanda needs more fear and anxiety, which I’m sure her impending homelessness will teach her.
The irony is, we have a self-help culture that detests over-indulgence, except with self-compassion. Just because there is a deficit of self-compassion, does not mean that we should be mainlining it. More importantly, it doesn’t mean the darker and more negative corners of our mind have nothing to offer.
Quite the contrary. Show me a fantastic artist that isn’t using a broader emotional spectrum to fuel them. The darkness has an immense array of knowledge and riches to share with us, it’s just a much harder excursion to navigate and make it back from. It’s an energy that needs to be channeled in alignment with our goals, not exterminated.
These signals of information matter. They can create the whole picture and help us better understand ourselves. After all, how can you begin to escape hell without first being able to recognize that you’re in hell?5
2 – A therapist I spoke to in Chicago said exactly this. I know, I know – sample size
3 – While this is funny, it’s much more about commentary on our own capabilities and pushing our potential than some bozo out in the wild
4 – Star Wars obviously. And I know that it’s a bleeding Kyber crystal and not necessarily a new saber, relax
5 – Believe this is a Jordan Peterson idea