Let me begin with a story. I had been seeing a client, a young woman about to turn 25, for several months. Each session would begin with her entering the room, dropping her body heavily into the chair and staring at me blankly. I always began sessions with a casual: “So how have you been?” To which she replied each time, without fail, “Miserable.” She often elaborated stating that she felt “stuck” and was approaching her “quarter-life crisis.” Each session included details of events, parties, interactions, etc. that the client described as positive and fun. She often admitted to feeling “happy” when with friends and (certain) family members. After following this script faithfully for several weeks, things took a turn. She entered my office, sat down and stated: “I have figured it out. My happiness comes in flashes and that's not enough. It’s just not okay. I want it to last longer . . . stick around.” I looked her in the eyes and replied: “I agree. I want that, too.”
And I do agree. And I do want that. At least a part of me does. I want happiness to come and never leave me. At the first glimpse of its arrival, I devise ways to hold it, trap it, force it to stay. I was taught from a young age to pursue pleasure, comfort, happiness and avoid pain, discomfort, sadness. I remember my parents often saying of me: “I just want him to be happy.” When asked how I was feeling, it became expected that I answer, “Great” or “Happy” or “Good.” Sadness was to be avoided at all costs and, when present, ignored and unspoken. This was further reinforced by my educational, religious, and peer experiences. Happiness was established as the goal. In hindsight, this created a world that was quite dichotomous - a true either/or situation. I could either experience happiness or its antithesis: sadness. The conditions that I called happiness and sadness became mutually exclusive and, in fact, at odds with one another. So, the good, sane life was one in which I accumulated as much pleasure and happiness as possible while avoiding as much unhappiness as possible.
But can I really go on like this? Is this worldview tenable? To begin to answer this, allow me to present a few ideas about human emotions that I have learned through my work as a therapist and through my own inward experience. 1) I am convinced that I do not have conscious control over my emotional experience. If I did, I would probably choose to feel much less anxiety and sadness. 2) I also have come to understand that emotions are psychosomatic processes that come, peak and inevitably pass. No emotional experience lasts forever. 3) Emotions are emotions. By this, I mean that all emotions are equal in the sense that they are emotions. It is common for me to divide my emotions into positive and negative camps; however, this is a false dichotomy. There are feelings that are comfortable and uncomfortable or ones that I like and ones I don’t. 4) There is no right way to feel in any given circumstance. Should is a dirty word when it comes to emotions. 5) My emotional experience is layered and complex. I often experience a multitude of emotions and have difficulty finding words to adequately describe exactly what I am feeling.
With all of this in mind, let me state for the record that I do like feeling happy. I much prefer it to feeling sad. The difficulty for me arises when happiness is established as a goal and, by default, the avoidance of unhappiness as a second goal. I am not quite convinced that it is possible to separate happiness and sadness in such an absolute manner. I experience a world that is often both sad andhappy. The seeds of happiness are sown in sadness; happiness comes with a sense of inevitable grief/loss/sadness. If I continue to make room for only happiness, I might miss a significant (and vital) part of my own emotional experience - not to mention the emotional experiences of those to whom I am connected. If I can only tolerate happiness in my own experience, then how can I acknowledge, validate, and address the wounds of others?
What if I begin, against many ingrained cultural narratives, to cultivate a both/and world - one in which I can feel any and all emotions that present themselves? Charlotte Joko Beck often spoke of making ourselves into “bigger containers” in order to “hold” increased amounts of experience without becoming dominated and overwhelmed by it. This has always had a ring of truth for me. If we need to use emotional vocabulary to describe this state, the word joy seems appropriate. Rufus Jones, a Quaker theologian, describes joy as such: “True joy is not a thing of moods, not a capricious emotion, tied to fluctuating experiences. It is a state and condition of the soul. It survives through pain and sorrow and, like a subterranean spring, waters the whole of life.” I like that. I am not suggesting that I (or anyone) should seek out sadness or discomfort; it will come - it always does. I am asserting that the most emotionally honest and authentic thing I can do with my feelings is to feel them - all of them, as they manifest. What is more real than what I am feeling at this very moment? Instead of trying to tailor my emotional experiences to my liking, I learn to become emotionally intimate with myself and discover a sense of joy. And this experience of joy can be quite profound. Ironically, when I connect with emotions that I often avoid (i.e. sadness, anxiety), I am better able to feel and savor emotions that are comfortable (i.e. happiness, peace).
Let me return to my client. In moments like the one described earlier, I often make a simple suggestion: Sit with that. In her case, there was no need to do anything except make contact with her frustration and her deep desire to experience a lasting sense of happiness. Acting on her emotional content might lead to further frustration; denying the presence of her emotional content might lead to further frustration. Sitting with the frustration (including the accompanying thoughts and physical sensations) might produce a sense of joy. This doesn’t mean that joy is always fun or comfortable. It’s not. But it’s honest and grounded in my own emotional reality.
As I reach some sort of end (certainly not a conclusion), allow me to make a suggestion: Sit with that. If you feel frustrated: Sit with that. If you feel at peace: Sit with that. If you think that this is all nonsense: Sit with that. If you feel confused: Sit with that. If this resonates with you: Sit with that. If you don’t want to sit with that: Sit with that.