The Habit Of Being Unhappy

Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher, Michael Haneke, 2001

Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional, the saying goes.

When I touch fire, I inevitably feel pain. Pain gives me information key to my survival. In that moment, it’s telling me, “this isn’t good for you,” and so, I remove my hand.

But when the pain is emotional, why do we so often keep the metaphoric hand in the fire?

I read on Tara Brach’s book, Radical Acceptance, that someone mentioned feeling as though he “lived from the neck up.” I’ve heard this before.

Are you hyper-rational?

Working through a negative emotion with a client, I ask, “where do you feel it in your body?” They may reply, “I feel disappointed,” or “I feel sad.” I insist, “Where do you feel that sadness in your body?” Puzzled, they may ask back, “In my body? How do you mean in my body?”

Often it’s only when something enters the mind that we become aware of it.

Relying on the rational mind to experience our Self in the world is misleading. An emotion presents itself first in the body. It’s butterflies in my stomach, a weight on my shoulders, a tightness in my throat, a warmth in my chest. Then, the sensation generates thoughts. Our rational mind will be quick to respondo to the thought with a verdict: “this is good” or “this is bad.”

If the rational mind (our internal Judge) dictates “this is good,” we become happy. If the verdict is the opposite, we become unhappy. The mistake is we believe everything we think.

Jillian Bell and Micah Stock in the movie, Brittany Runs a Marathon, Paul Down Colaizzo

Where do you feel the pain of disappointment?

I was scheduled to run my first marathon last Sunday, after 24 weeks of intense training and mental preparation. The Monday before, one minute and 13 seconds before finishing my workout, I rolled over my foot and sprained my ankle.

I saw stars, tears came to my eyes, but brushed off the pain and kept running–what’s one minute and 13 seconds? Three steps; I couldn’t continue.

Immediately my Judge presented me with some nicely selected images: all my disappointed cheerleaders, putting their signs down. Off goes the medal. I was no finisher. “You’re quitter,” my Judge said. “You’re lazy. You’re saying you hurt your ankle because you’re afraid you won’t finish and you’re quitting.” I believed it and said no to the thought. I’m not a quitter, I have to go on.

The pain went away.

But after a few hours, my ankle was burning hot and I couldn’t move my toes. Standing up was unthinkable, let alone walking. Running? Ha!

Kate Winslet in The Life of David Gale, Alan Parker.

My Judge insisted but this time I didn’t back off. I metaphorically looked her in the eye (my Judge is a chic French lady) and, very calmly and without anger, said, “I see you. I know what you’re trying to do.” Instantly, her power over my feelings shrank.

Once free of the negative emotions she’d tried to impose on me, I could listen to what the pain in my ankle was telling me: don’t run. I accepted it: I wouldn’t run.

Do you keep your hand in the fire?

Immediately, I saw the Judge with the corner of my eye. She was shaking her head and clicking her tongue, “You’ve dropped the ball–again!!!”

Everything made sense.

Those times I stayed sad for weeks, months, even years after a failure? It was the Judge, shaking her head, clicking her tongue. That pang of pain I tried to kick away every time I saw a reminder of my failure? That flood of shame in my cheeks when recalling my big blunder?

You make your Judge happy by staying in your corner, sobbing and feeling worthless. That’s what it wants. It wants to show its strong voice, have the last word. To exert its power over you.

You grow your inner Sage (your true Self) by feeling empathy–unconditional friendliness.

When your Judge comes at you with its angry or snooty face, first, acknowledge it: “I see you.” But don’t be aggressive, because it’s only doing its job–to judge you and try to keep you small, cornered.

Then, show yourself some love–it’ll trump your Judge’s futile tricks. Ask yourself, “What’s the most loving and compassionate thing I can say to myself right now?”

Last Monday, when I accepted I wasn’t going to run, I told myself: “I know I can run 26.2 miles because I trust myself and my training. I have all the time in the world to run a marathon. Now I take care of myself by resting and listening to my body. I thank my feet, legs, and lungs.”

This is what removing your hand from the fire looks like. Now, you’re free to be happy.

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