We say “no” all the time. Sometimes we do so subtly, as a way to deny an emotion, swallow our words, or feel the disgust of “Ugh! Not that again!”
I don’ think I’m alone in this. No one likes to feel things which are uncomfortable…especially negative emotions.
I was reminded of this recently when I made a humiliating mistake at work.
But before I share the gory details, let’s take a closer look at negative emotions—where they come from, why we have them, and how to productively manage them (Hint: meditation can really help!).
We Had Really Good Reasons To Say No
We have strong cultural, biological, and evolutionary conditioning to say “no” to things we don’t like.
We are alive today because our ancestors said “no” to discomfort. As in “No, that sound doesn’t indicate safety. Let’s go the other way.”
This protective negativity bias was vitally important to our survival as a species, as we avoided perilous threats from nature.
But for most of us, we don’t live in a world where our survival is threatened on a regular basis.
Our entire food supply isn’t going to be threatened by a flood, nor are there man-eating predators with fangs and claws lurking around our neighborhood.
Catching Up With Cultural Evolution
Yet our biological evolution hasn’t kept pace with our cultural evolution. So when we encounter things we consider threats in today’s world, we respond in the same manner as our ancestors did.
Instead of saying no to the danger of a tiger lurking in the bush, we say no to the “dangerous” feelings of shame, or insecurity, or fear. We run from embarrassment, insecurity, and grief, treating these with the same intensity as we would tigers and bears.
As these “dangerous” things are actually non-fatal, we have the ability to override our limbic brain’s fears with rational thought. We can say YES to this discomfort rather than running from it.
When we say “Yes” to these things that we find uncomfortable which we normally push away, we open substantial doors to inner peace and personal empowerment.
No one likes to feel embarrassment, shame, fear, or pain, and saying “Yes” to experiencing these feelings won’t necessarily be a fun experience. But when we do open ourselves to feeling these things, a few things happen.
1. We Can Manage Fear
First, we will see that we are able to handle these feelings that we have feared for so long. We will see that they are not so bad after all. They are not the monsters under the bed ready to swallow us whole that we considered them to be.
These things we have been denying for so long are suddenly recategorized as annoying rather than perilous, and we simultaneously recognize we are stronger than we had imagined for being able to face that which we fear.
2. Finding Peace With What Is
Secondly, we are able to find peace with what is. We cannot eliminate grief, fear, frustration, shame, embarrassment, or any other negative emotions from our lives. We are human after all, and feeling those things is part of our journey.
How we relate to these uncomfortable feelings dictates our level of peace. Peace is not the absence of discomfort. Peace is being able to handle discomfort with acceptance and grace.
3. Partnering With Discomfort
Lastly, when we say yes to discomfort, we partner with it. We are able to work with it, like a friend, and help it move on.
It is not common to ask, “Why is this happening to me?” when we are having fun. We let feelings of joy flow through us, as we all know that “time flies when you’re having fun.”
We can have the same ease of experience with unpleasant emotions as we do with the pleasant ones. When we learn to say yes to them we allow ourselves to fully experience what is here and can move forward with ease.
What It Looks Like
I am an acupuncturist, and I see clients by appointment only. Not too long ago, I received a text from a coworker saying, “Your client is here at the office.”
That would be great, except I was at home. I thought my client’s session was scheduled for an hour later than when it actually was.
I was mortified, fearful, angry at myself, and filled with anxiety.
I jumped into my car and rushed to my office. As I was on the road, my mind was racing: “Holy crap, how could I do this? I’m so embarrassed. How soon will I get there? How can I get there faster? Did I just lose this client? How so unprofessional. I can’t believe I did this…”
After a few minutes trying to determine how I could speed my way to the office and get there faster than normal, I realized all that effort would be in vain.
If I were to speed to get to the office, maybe I’d shave off one or two minutes from the entire trip. I’d still be 15 minutes late to the session, and in the meantime, I would be risking driving dangerously, getting a ticket (making me even later), getting angry with the other drivers on the road, and increasing my own anxiety.
So I relaxed.
I was still embarrassed—and annoyed at my lack of punctuality—and fearful of losing this client, but I was no longer in a rush to get to the office. In essence, I said “Yes” to being late and embarrassed and appearing unprofessional.
This allowed me to sit with those negative emotions, and do so in a more peaceful, more graceful way.
The feelings did not disappear, but my resistance to them did. So while I was still feeling incredibly embarrassed, I was not fighting the embarrassment. I was not trying to outrun it, or deny it.
As a result, I got that 15 minutes of my life back. I didn’t lose them to resistance and tension. I was not feeling great, but I wasn’t lost in a sea of stress and tension.
Meditation Is Saying Yes To Whatever Shows Up
There is nothing we can do to eliminate negative emotions in life. However, if we are able to say yes to them when they arise, we free these emotions to move through us, and not get stuck in the world of tension and denial.
In meditation, we practice noticing whatever shows up and treating it with ease and gentle acceptance. This is another way of saying, Yes, this is here. Yes, there is a noise. Yes, my foot itches.
This practice of noticing and allowing whatever shows up prepares us to deal with the more challenging things in our day-to-day life.
It’s not easy to face these feelings, but it is possible. I encourage you to notice when you are locked in tension, and ask yourself, “What am I saying no to right now? What am I fighting?” and then subsequently, “What if I were to say yes to this instead?”
These may seem like small questions at first. But don’t be fooled. They have the power to change everything.
By David Eyerman
Dave Eyerman is an acupuncturist, meditation teacher, and holistic coach with a practice in Andover, MA. He works to broaden his clients’ and students’ awareness of themselves and the world, centering his work around mindfulness. Dave works at Clear and Now Holistic Healing Center, and maintains the center’s blog.