Updated: May 2
We’ve all been there, keeping a lid on anger, frustration or hurt until we explode. But repressing difficult feelings limits our emotional experiences and makes us more miserable.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but when we don’t fully engage with emotions that are uncomfortable or painful, we prolong our suffering rather than avoid it. Author Sharon Salzberg was reminded of this after her close friend committed suicide. During a meditation retreat, Salzberg downplayed the depth of her grief because she was reluctant to engage with it. The monk leading the retreat was shocked by this, encouraging her to release her feelings by crying wholeheartedly. When she found the courage to do this, Salzberg no longer felt imprisoned by her sadness.
It wasn’t just Salzberg’s grief that stopped her from openly sharing her feelings at the retreat. She was ashamed to admit her sadness to a role model she admired. Like Salzberg, when we experience difficult emotions such as shame, we often end up isolated because we feel too vulnerable to share our stories. The voice in our head tells us that we’re unworthy of love because we’re defined only by the source of our shame. Even when that source is beyond our control, shame can still dominate our lives.
For example, as a child, Patty developed feelings of worthlessness that became central to her identity. She lived in fear that her classmates would find out her parents were alcoholics and then bully or shun her as a result. Keeping this secret was a terrible burden that damaged Patty’s self-esteem, even though she was a good student and loyal to her friends.
It isn’t easy, but we can move beyond difficult feelings by acknowledging and exploring them rather than pushing ourselves to “forgive and forget.” Through meditation and mindfulness practices, we can connect with our emotional wounds – a crucial milestone on the journey to forgiveness. Once we’ve arrived at forgiveness, we will be free to experience love and joy once more, despite the scars we bear.
For instance, Salzberg accumulated many emotional scars during childhood. By the time she was nine, Salzberg had lost both parents to death and absence. This made her feel abandoned. One day as she was meditating, her childhood loneliness flooded her. But instead of repressing it, she acknowledged that this single feeling didn’t define her because she was still capable of immense love. That understanding helped her view her parents with compassion and forgiveness.
Difficult emotions are an inevitable part of the human experience. When we accept and embrace this, we can reconnect with others and foster self-love.
The Art of Mindful Connection
By: Sharon Salzberg