From the therapy room: Beyond bad feelings

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In my previous blog ‘What scripts are running us’ I invited you to challenge your conceptions of how things should be. We have so many firm ideas about all kinds of things! Yet so many of them are not our original thoughts, but have been ‘downloaded’ from our society – through parents, school, mass media, church, books, traditions, etc. Some of these ideas may align with your deeper feelings and experiences and some not, but how can we tell one from the other without questioning them?

Questioning old ideas and our habitual approaches to life is a big part of my therapy work. I challenge my clients and my clients challenge me. That’s why it never gets boring! And today I want to share with you one such conversation that I had with my client Guy (the name has been changed for the sake of confidentiality). It began during a session and continued via emails. Hope you will find it as interesting and stimulating as I did.

G. I have been feeling kind of flat this week. And I also feel strange now, a bit panicky… It worries me a little… I thought I was making good progress and was getting better, and then it got worse again.

L. You know, somehow the words ‘progress’ and ‘getting better’ jar my ear… It sounds like you are constantly measuring where you are, according to a certain scale, instead of simply living and taking each experience on its own…

G. Well we’re taught from an early age to strive to be ‘better’ always, to ‘improve…’ like we’re on a mountain relentlessly moving to the summit… that’s where our eyes always are, rather than on the ground beneath our feet! We need more flexible criteria. Maybe we could spiral around the mountain, or perhaps head downwards to the base if we want more stability, or even stop in the middle somewhere for a balance and different views. All places have their advantage!

L. Well – if we think about it – ‘better’ or ‘worse’ is a convention, a relative thing, just as what we designate as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ feelings. Why, for instance, feeling sad is ‘bad,’ while feeling ‘joyful’ is ‘good’? Feeling sad may be uncomfortable and heavy, true, but is it ‘bad’? When we apply labels they obscure the experience itself, stop us from exploring it and from seeing its value.

G. I think the whole structure of the way we see the world as adults is based on our attempt to hold on to ideas or concepts we have been taught are ‘good.’ And we try to get away from those we have been taught are ‘bad.’ Out of which emerges a corresponding struggle with our feelings. This is simply conditioning and represents a movement away from the experience itself. As small children we saw the world as flowing and whole… I think we need to try and somehow return to this state, coming through all we’ve learnt back to a new balance.

L. Yes! In a way it’s like going back to a pre-verbal stage where we experience things immediately. Marking things as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ only comes with the acquisition of language, which is a conventional structure – limited and limiting (while also useful and necessary). I believe we need to become really clear that ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘better’ or ‘worse’ are just labels belonging to a particular framework of references. We tend to associate comfortable feelings with ‘good,’ and uncomfortable with ‘bad,’ but this is totally arbitrary!

G. Can we regard our state in any moment like an interesting natural phenomenon such as the weather, and become really fascinated by all its manifestations, and unexpected changes, or even unexpected stability at times… because really there’s no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ weather… those notions always depend on your viewpoint… for example dark clouds and heavy rain might be ‘bad’ for a tourist, but very ‘good’ for the plants in your garden!

L. My favourite analogy is the sea: it can be rough and wavy or still and translucent. But we don’t talk about it as being ‘better’ in one state than in the other. (Unless we are fishermen for whom ‘good’ sea would mean ‘easy for navigation’/’favourable for fishing’ or whatever term they use.)

G. When we truly integrate the feeling that ‘there’s no better or worse’ it actually frees us to have criteria for ‘better or worse’ when required – as is sometimes necessary to live in the world.

L. It is a valid point: we need to have a ‘better or worse’ criterion to get by in daily life.

G. But to integrate (or live) the feeling that ‘there’s no better or worse’ this feeling itself has to be ‘no better or worse’ than anything else.

L. I am not sure I understand you here…

G. It’s difficult to express… let’s take ‘acceptance.’ We can say we’re going to accept everything about ourselves but to really do that we also have to accept our own feelings or emotions of ‘non-acceptance’ about ourselves. We can say that everything we feel is necessary and fitting but we only fully do that by somehow also seeing as fitting our feelings or emotions of things being wrong and not fitting! This is important, otherwise we can get hooked into yet another ‘better’ way of being, that of ‘accepting’, and be back in a rut again.

L. Yes, I see what you mean now: we need to also embrace our own feelings of non-acceptance as they too are integral part of our existence and experience. From what I know about Buddhism, it encourages precisely this kind of approach: accepting or rather witnessing without rejection any state in which we find ourselves. Even if it is uncomfortable and difficult. Allowing it to be and being ok with it.

G. Yes .. but even if we think we’ve got really good at this ‘non-rejection’ thing, but suddenly find ourselves back again vehemently rejecting something, that’s exactly the point where, instead of hopelessness, if we’re really living this dialogue, we don’t reject that very ‘rejection’!

L. You are totally right and – well, yes – it is a challenge! And we can only meet it by learning to be compassionate towards ourselves.

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