When it comes right down to it, there are only two kinds of feelings: the love kind and the non-love kind. Love feelings, those like compassion, peace, wellbeing, and freedom, feel good. While non-love feelings, like anger, depression, grief, and jealousy feel bad.
Feelings are just energy. And only love energy can convert non-love energy. Every spiritual tradition says so. Quantum physics says so too.
So how do we love that which we don't find lovable - that which we typically try to suppress, deny, or analyze our way out of? By trying to force ourselves to be loving? By trying to convince ourselves that we love that which we do not? No. Anything forced speaks of effort and control. Effort and control are not love.
Sometimes the closest we can come to loving our negative feelings, is simply allowing them to be there, acknowledging their presence. And if we find that too difficult, if self-judgement is in the way, we can simply notice it and make a space for that to be there too.
Perhaps, this won't fix our negative feelings right away. But, with practice, we can learn how to make a big enough, safe enough space to accommodate all the parts of ourselves. Doing so creates the optimum environment for their healing and deepens our capacity for self-love and compassion in the process.
When animals are faced with a threat, one that is life-threatening, their bodies experience a flood of chemicals, like cortisol and adrenaline, that throw their bodies temporarily out of whack. Once the threat has passed, their bodies discharge the survival stress energy, in the form of shaking or stretching, allowing them to move on with their lives as if nothing ever happened.
For us humans, it's not so simple. After stressful events, whether it's a single event or cumulative "mini traumas", whether it's actual or perceived, whether it's remembered or repressed, our bodies often do not have ways to effectively clear the arousal chemicals produced. This residual energy tends to store in our bodies resulting in PTSD, depression, anxiety, muscle aches and pains, irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive issues, insomnia, and autoimmune disorders.
In his revolutionary book, The Body Keeps the Score, Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, trauma therapist and researcher, draws on 30 years of experience to argue powerfully that trauma is one of the West's most urgent public health issues. He explains how its stressful impact can predispose us to everything from diabetes to heart disease, maybe even cancer.
Van Der Kolk and other innovative researchers say that while traditional "talk therapy" may be helpful to a degree, working with the body to locate the source of the trauma and having a way release it safely, is the key to lasting resolution of the psychological and physiological effects of trauma.
While popular as a concept, positive thinking has its limitations. It is based on the idea that our thinking controls how we feel. But in my experience, the reverse is also true. Our feelings control our thinking.
You may have noticed that when you are in love or in a new relationship, you tend to think how wonderful life is. You may have also noticed that when you're sad or depressed, you tend to think how awful it is.
Thinking happens in the frontal cortex of the brain. Feelings happen in the body. We say that we have a lump in our throats or butterflies in our stomachs. We say that we feel weak in the knees, or feel something in our guts, or feel heartbroken. You are able to distinguish one feeling from another because it is a felt, in-your-body experience.
We have inherited a cultural bias that our thinking is superior and more evolved than our feelings and that we can and should use our thinking brains to tame, subdue, or control our emotions. And while self-control is something all children must learn, we tend to grow up with a habit of analyzing, pushing down on, pushing away, and judging our emotions. It becomes so second nature that we don't even realize we're doing it. It's this unconscious resistance to our feelings, not the feelings themselves, that's negatively impacting our health and driving our behavior behind-the-scenes. And it is this negative attitude toward our emotions that we must undo.
Not only is this habit of trying to suppress our emotions unhealthy, it requires a lot of effort and is ultimately ineffective. Take an Iraqi war vet for example. Intellectually he knows full- well that he is safe at home, but whenever he hears a car backfire he hits the ground. All the positive self-talk in the world will not convince the feelings, beliefs and memories in his bodymind, to react any differently. (Read more about trauma and the body here).
While not all of us have experienced trauma to this degree, we've all had traumatic experiences. Things that happened to us when we were little may seem inconsequential as seen through our adult eyes, but your child-self might have perceived that her/his very life was at stake. These memories are stored as energy in the body and can be activated by current events and experienced as "over reactions."
As long as we treat our emotions and emotional reactions like embarrassing relatives we don't want to own up to or as unruly children we need to quiet, they will continue to make trouble and "act out" as soon as we let down our guard.
But if we can learn instead to listen to our emotions, hear what they have to say, and learn how to work with them with compassion, they will release. Then, not only will we feel better, but we'll develop an empowering and collaborative relationship with an inescapable aspect of our humanness. We will grow in love for what we once deemed unlovable and will naturally become more understanding of the hurt feelings that drive the behaviors of others.
So instead of trying to think positively in an effort to control how we feel, we learn how to change how we feel so that our thinking improves. Then, instead of trying to think positive, we will simply be positive - naturally.