In today’s fast-paced, technologically-driven world, it is far too easy to get caught up in external distractions and, as a result, become desensitized to our emotions. But regardless of the nonstop change that may swirl around us, one thing remains constant: each of us is a sentient being. Having emotions is part of the human experience; you’re not just a doer and a thinker. Despite this fact, we often suppress our emotions, particularly when what we may be feeling is unpleasant. So-called “negative” emotions, however, can be valuable sources of information and creative power. So what might your emotions have to offer you – especially the ones you’d rather avoid? Let’s look at three in particular.
Anger. When I first begin working with a client, we do a lot of digging into what is most important to her. Sometimes when the obvious questions – “What is important to you?” “What do you love”? “What gives you energy?” – turn up few or no answers, I’ll switch gears and ask, “What makes you MAD?” Anger is often a sign that one or more of our values are being dishonored. Maybe rude people piss you off; that’s a sign you may value kindness and consideration. Perhaps you grit your teeth every time your boss gives you directions for your work, which could point to your need for more autonomy and creative freedom. Or, if you’re like me, you want to throw things when someone lies to you, or says one thing but does another – which suggests honesty and integrity are among your values. Anger can be an illuminating emotion if you’re willing to pay attention to it.
Jealousy. Also expressed as resentment, jealousy points us to something we are wanting. Think about the last time you were jealous of someone. Maybe it was a coworker who got promoted (when you didn’t), your best friend who landed a big-time gig or a sibling who embarked on a 3-month trek around the world. What did that person get or do that stirred your inner green-eyed monster? Chances are, that thing is something that you – consciously or not – have been wanting for yourself. It may seem obvious, but often we’re oblivious to not only our jealousy but also what is at the heart of it. In The Artist’s Way, author Julia Cameron suggests a clarifying exercise called the “jealousy map” for pinpointing unarticulated desires:
- Draw 3 columns on a sheet of paper.
- In the first column, list people you are jealous of.
- in the second column beside each person’s name, give the reason why you’re jealous of that person.
- in the third column, name one action you can take per item to minimize the jealousy.
This activity takes an otherwise crippling emotion and transforms it into creative power, moving you from victimhood toward victory. The green-eyed monster suddenly becomes a green light.
Fear. When you’re seeking to live more fully, fear can be an obstacle to overcome. But it can also be used advantageously. First, the degree to which we’re afraid of something can be an indicator of how much we desire it. (My own coach told me recently, “Often when we are really wanting something, our fear screams the loudest.”) Our yearning to make that particular move – quit the job to start your own business, move overseas, ask someone on a date – is echoed in equal measure by the trepidation that paralyzes us. But fear can serve as a motivator if we grab onto it, flip it over and play with its opposite – desire. Shift your focus from fear of failure to desire to serve others, from fear of the unknown to desire for adventure, from fear of rejection to desire to connect. Fear can also be pitted against itself to jumpstart you into action: are you more afraid of failing at your own business, or of the depression you’ll fall into if you stay another year at your job? Are you more afraid of being turned down for a date, or kicking yourself for the rest of your life wondering what could have been had you made your move? When I was 27, I left North Carolina – where I had lived my entire life – for New York City with no job lined up or direction for my career. People asked me, “Weren’t you afraid?” I told them yes, very much – I was afraid of what would have happened to me if I’d had stayed in the life I’d been living. I amplified that fear until it became fuel for me to move. Fear can send us running away from what we want – or in the direction toward it. You get to decide.
Practice befriending unpleasant emotions. They’re often allies pointing the way to greater fulfillment, authenticity and aliveness – but only if we pay attention to them.