My first true spiritual epiphany came not through religion or spiritual activity, at least not the way I would have defined it at the time. I was in my early 30s, pursuing what I thought was a dream of mine, and failing spectacularly. Not many people knew how spectacularly I was failing — I put on a really good front. But I could feel my ambitions crumbling into failure and found myself in a desperate search for some explanation for the long run of similar circumstances in my life. I was smart. I was talented. I was motivated. Why didn’t things come together for me?
My parents espoused the theory that when we feel bad about ourselves we should pray about it, give our negative feelings over to god and let him take that burden. That approach had never worked for me. At the time, my approach had been to turn more deeply into my pagan spiritual practices for guidance out of my negative thoughts and towards productive action.
In the end, rather than finding god or the power of positive energy, I found Nine Inch Nails. Specifically, I found all of the negative emotions I’d tried to rid myself of my entire life. I found words to express all the times I was disappointed in my choices, angry at myself for my mistakes, upset because I couldn’t find the courage to do what I knew I should. I discovered the value of all the negative things I’d ever thought or felt but was afraid to express or acknowledge. Letting myself feel those things was revelatory. When I let myself think about events which made me feel rage and hate and terror and shame I finally realized what I needed to change about my actions, my decisions, my way of approaching life’s challenges.
The problem with spiritual or religious paths which tell us that anger, sadness, jealousy, judgment, fear, disappointment, and doubt are symptoms of lack of faith or signs of failure is that those emotions are useful and shutting them off has consequences. Serious consequences. Just like physical pain, emotions which make us feel bad rather than good are symptoms that something needs to be changed. If we touch something hot or sharp we feel pain, and it means we should move away from whatever is hurting us. Instinctively we know this. We don’t question it. But when something happens that makes us feel sad or angry we question our emotions. We try to alter what we feel rather than address the cause of those feelings.
I grew up being taught that faith should take away negative emotions. I simply wasn’t supposed to feel them. That meant I never learned to interpret them, never learned to address their cause. I was taught that god would take them away if I had faith, if I focused on spiritual things rather than reality. If I felt alienated or rejected it was because I put importance on what others thought when I should have been focused on what god thought. If I felt angry with myself or with others, it was because I did not trust god to work in my life to fulfill his own plan for me.
When my faith put me onto more pagan paths, my approach to negative emotions was different but the outcome was the same. Negative emotions meant I needed to put more effort into finding inner peace or focusing on channeling my thoughts and energies into more positive outcomes. If I felt alienated or rejected it was a sign that those who were shutting me out were bad for me, that I simply needed to find more positive influences and allies. If I felt angry with myself or others, it was because I had not learned to love enough, to forgive enough, that I was putting out negative energies and reaping the negative results.
Finding proper expression of my negative emotions revealed a hard but welcome truth: there were things about myself that I needed to change. It didn’t mean I was a bad person or that I was flawed or damaged. There were simply skills I needed to become better at, mistakes I’d made that I needed to fix.
Feeling alienated and rejected was sometimes a sign that I didn’t really know how to connect to other people. Sometimes it was a symptom of self-doubt, a twisted interpretation of my reality which allowed me to blame others for not including me when in reality I had been so scared of being ridiculed that I didn’t make an effort to reach out. When I really thought about what I was feeling, I realized that not knowing how to deal with being teased as a child for being different led to a lifetime of self-imposed barriers between myself and others.
Feeling angry with myself or others was sometimes a sign that I was involved in relationships which weren’t good for me. Sometimes it was a sign that I was avoiding the reality of a situation, and yes, that sometimes meant that I was to blame and deep down I didn’t want to own up to it.
There is a physical condition called congenital analgesia which causes an inability to feel pain. It is dangerous and life threatening. People with the condition suffer injuries and infections without realizing they’ve been hurt, and can suffer from illnesses and diseases without feeling the symptoms. Though many of us might think a life without pain would be a blessing, pain is actually a necessary part of existence. The same goes for emotional pain. We should not strive for a life without negative emotions. Living a life where we never feel the emotional sting of doubt or fear or shame means we aren’t able to tell when we need to take action, to protect or defend or heal ourselves.
Ultimately, what I learned through digging through a lifetime of ignored emotions is that they have meaning. They may not always mean what they seem to mean at first glance, but they always mean something. They are our inner spiritual guide, our inner voice. We shouldn’t blindly follow where it leads, but we should always listen when it speaks.