The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life - Tal Ben-Shahar (2009)
Part I. The THEORY
Chapter 2. Accepting Emotions
Those who don’t know how to weep with their whole heart don’t know how to laugh either.
Yom Kippur, 1973. My first memory.
The phone rings in our apartment in Ramat Gan, Israel. My dad picks up. He whispers to my mom. They look at each other, and then at me. I look into their pale faces. My dad walks to his room. I run after him. He puts on his army uniform. He ties the laces of his boots. He gets up. He runs his hand through my hair. I follow him outside to our turquoise Ford Cortina. My friend Esti is standing next to her father. He too is in uniform. All the fathers are in uniform standing by their cars. I know the names of all the cars in our neighborhood.
“Daddy, you are not allowed to drive on Yom Kippur.”
“Sweetie, there’s a war on,” he says, blackening the lights of our car with shoe polish.
“Why are you painting the lights?” I ask.
“So the airplanes don’t see us in the dark,” he responds.
“No, the MIGs.”
I plead, “But we have to go back to temple. The shofar.”
“You’ll go with Mommy,” he says, and his lips gently touch my cheek. He gets into the car, turns on the ignition, and drives off.
I want to run after him, but my mom holds me tight, and I cry, and I cry, and I cannot stop crying. Shaul, our elderly next-door neighbor, says to me, “Do you want to be a soldier when you grow up, like Daddy?”
“Yes,” I manage, between sobs.
“Soldiers don’t cry.”
I stop crying.
The old port of Jaffa, 1989. A few feet away from me, a fisherman and his wife sit close together, gazing at a distant ship and now and then at each other. I am gazing at my girlfriend, whom I have not seen for two weeks, which felt like an eternity. The full moon casts its light on her delicate face, and watching her I feel my tears welling up. I look away. She draws closer. Her fingers pass through my hair. I want to tell her how much I love her. I don’t.
Herzliya Squash Club, 1991. The finals of the Israeli nationals. I am the favorite to win the championship for a record fourth time. I lose. The trophy ceremony is excruciating, but I am stoic. I say and do all the right things, until it finally ends and my girlfriend and I leave. As soon as we do, she bursts into tears.
“Why are you crying?” I ask her.
“I’m crying because you’re not.”
The next day she brings me a recording of a song whose lyrics include the phrase, “Give me the strength to be weak.” I allow the tears to well up.
Experiences in my early childhood taught me to suppress my emotions, to hide my pain. It took me years to unlearn this harmful habit and give myself the permission to feel, the permission to be human. My most significant psychological breakthrough came when I realized—truly internalized the notion—that it was all right for me to be sad, that there was nothing wrong with feeling dispirited, scared, lonely, or anxious. That simple realization, that it was OK to feel, was the first step of a long journey, one that is ongoing, with its fair share of progress and setbacks, victories and failures.
In the previous chapter I focused on the Perfectionist’s rejection of failure in the context of performance. In this chapter I will focus on the rejection of failure in the context of emotions—on what the Perfectionist perceives as emotional failure.
We’ve seen that the Perfectionist has a very rigid view of what her life (and the lives of others, for that matter) should be like, and how she rejects as unacceptable any deviation from that ideal. In the realm of performance, of personal or professional success, the Perfectionist’s ideal is a straight-line journey to success. In the realm of emotions, the Perfectionist’s ideal is in most cases a life that comprises an unbroken chain of positive feelings. I say in most cases, because some Perfectionists perceive the tormented life as the ideal: the tortured soul, the suffering artist, the beleaguered outcast, the wronged victim, and so on. For them, the ideal that they yearn for, whether consciously or unconsciously, is a life that comprises an unbroken chain of painful emotions, and they reject any positive emotions they may feel. However, regardless of whether the Perfectionist’s ideal is of an unbroken chain of positive emotions or negative ones, she rejects all deviations from the emotional state that she has claimed as her own. Our nature, and the reality of living, is such that whether we like it or not, we experience the full range of emotion. And if we do not give ourselves the permission to experience it, the inevitable result is intense painful emotions or, perhaps even worse, the failure to feel any emotion at all.
In contrast, the Optimalist sees life as it is: fluid, changing, dynamic. Just as she accepts failure as part and parcel of the human experience, she accepts painful (and pleasurable) emotions as an inevitable consequence of being alive. She is open to what the world offers and is able to accept life and the variety of experiences and emotions that it has to offer. She is therefore more likely than the Perfectionist to actually experience and express her emotions—by crying when she needs to, by sharing her feelings with her friends, or by writing about her feelings in her journal.
The emotional life that the Perfectionist expects is one of a constant high; the Optimalist expects his life to include emotional ups, emotional downs, and everything in between. The Perfectionist rejects painful emotions that do not meet his expectation of an unwavering flow of positive emotions; the Optimalist permits himself to experience the full range of human emotions.
Many people learn early on, as I did, to hide and suppress their feelings, the pleasurable as well as the painful ones. We may have been told that boys don’t cry, that expressing pleasure at our accomplishments was evidence of unbecoming pride, or that
wanting something that someone else had was greedy. We may have been taught that being attracted to someone and yearning to express that physically was dirty and shameful or, conversely, that feeling shy and nervous about opening ourselves up emotionally and physically was uncool and shameful. Unlearning the lessons of childhood and early adulthood is hard, which is why it is difficult for so many of us to open ourselves to the flow of emotions.
Can you recall early experiences that taught you to express or suppress emotions?
Let Your Feelings Flow
Imagine Main Street if we didn’t rein in our emotions. Rude comments tossed at a passerby who fails to meet our unrefined aesthetic sensibilities; obscenities running wild each time our expectations are frustrated; an unrestricted flow of tears, of joy or misery, in response to memories that are evoked no matter where we are; an uninvited growl and then a leap at a sexual object walking past. The rules of the jungle—the product of impulse, impatience, and untamed power—would launch a hostile takeover of our concrete jungles. Fortunately, we learn to suppress our base instincts, to civilize our uncivilized urges—to hide our raw feelings and tame the ignoble savage.
Social ties would not hold—communities, families, and relationships would fall apart—if our emotions were always exposed. We have all at some time felt a primal emotion—be it envy, anger, desire—toward a friend or colleague, which, if revealed, would have endangered our relationship with that person. We have all in our imagination violated some of the commandments that hold society together—lusted after our neighbor’s partner, felt angry enough to hurt someone. We learn early on to control our emotions in public—a necessity in order to survive, let alone thrive, in the world. But as with most human interventions in nature, there are also side effects to suppressing our true feelings.
While it’s at times necessary to keep certain emotions out of sight (when we are with others), it may be harmful to try to keep them out of mind (when we are alone). We are taught that it is improper to display our anxiety or to cry in public, so we hold our emotions back in private as well. Anger does not win us friends, and over time we lose our ability to express and experience anger altogether. We extinguish our anxiety, fear, and rage for the sake of being pleasant and easy to get along with—and in the process of getting others to accept us, we reject ourselves. Denying ourselves the permission to acknowledge and truly experience “undesirable” emotions is detrimental to our well-being and an obstacle to becoming an Optimalist.
The Cost of Suppressing Emotions
Much has been written about the cost to our psychological well-being of suppressing our emotions. Psychologists such as Carl Rogers and Nathaniel Branden have illustrated how we damage our self-esteem when we deny our feelings. Richard Wenzlaff and Daniel Wegner, in their research on thought suppression, demonstrate that “the tendency to avoid thinking about traumatic or anxiety-producing topics may prompt the return of those topics to mind, and so activate a cycle that could perpetuate anxiety disorders.” In other research it was found that “higher levels of self-reported suppression of depressive thoughts were associated with a worsening of depressive symptoms.” Rather than trying to suppress or avoid certain thoughts, Wenzlaff and Wegner suggest that a more helpful approach for dealing with anxiety and depression would be “accepting and expressing unwanted thoughts.”1
When the Perfectionist rejects his emotions, not only by refusing to express them but also by refusing to allow himself to experience them, these emotions intensify—which is the opposite of what he intended. Try the following simple experiment, suggested by psychologist Daniel Wegner. For the next ten seconds, keep telling yourself not to think of a white bear. Do not, under any circumstances, think of a white bear. . . .
In all likelihood, you could not stop thinking about a white bear for the last ten seconds. If you truly wanted to stop thinking of a white bear, you would be better off allowing yourself to think of one and then after a while the thought would naturally go away—just as every thought eventually does. The attempt to actively suppress a thought, to fight it and block it, keeps it fresh and intense. Similarly, emotions such as anxiety, anger, or envy intensify when we try to suppress them, when we try to fight them and block their natural flow. An Optimalist understands that and allows himself to experience painful emotions, knowing that by doing so these emotions are more likely to weaken and fade away.
When I began teaching, one of the most difficult challenges I faced was overcoming my anxiety about public speaking. As an introvert and a Perfectionist, I felt so much anxiety during lectures that, quite beyond the fact that I was sure everyone in the audience could hear my heart pounding, I found it difficult to remember what I wanted to say, and I could hardly speak because my mouth was so dry. My initial response was to attack the anxiety head-on, to simply refuse to tolerate this disruptive emotion. To my chagrin, the emotion intensified. It was only when I stopped trying to suppress my anxiety and began to allow myself to feel nervous—when I accepted my anxiety and gave it permission to be—that it started to weaken.
Genuine acceptance of emotions cannot be conditional or instrumental. If the only reason we give ourselves the permission to be human is as a means to an end—so that we can succeed more, for instance—then we are engaging in what I think of as pseudo-acceptance. And this does not work. In the case of my anxiety about public speaking, it would not have helped if I had told myself something along the lines of, “OK, let me do this acceptance of anxiety thing so that I can deliver a perfect lecture with perfect calm.” We have to truly accept our emotions for what they are and truly be willing to live with them. This means that we have to accept painful emotions even when they persist beyond our wants or wishes. Genuine acceptance is about accepting that we are upset and then accepting that we might not feel better even though we accept that we are upset. The capacity for true acceptance is at the heart of the difference between the Perfectionist and the Optimalist.
One of the key messages of the Kabbalah, the teachings of Jewish mysticism, is that one must have “the will to accept, for the purpose of influence.” The word kabbalah itself means “acceptance,” and in this context the word influence means “the creation of spiritual and physical affluence.” When we fully accept reality—the good and the bad, the pleasurable and the painful—we can create and spread affluence; when we accept rather than resist, we become a pipeline, a conduit, through which wisdom and goodness can flow. While this notion might sound mystical—coming, after all, from Jewish mystical tradition—the message it conveys is, in essence, scientific.
Francis Bacon, philosophical father of the scientific revolution, wrote that “Nature to be commanded must be obeyed.” Bacon, like the Kabbalah, argues that to create affluence, to channel nature’s potential for our own purposes, we must first accept reality and work with it rather than reject it. It is only when we accept nature’s laws and processes—when we come to terms with their existence rather than perceive them as alterable—that we can make productive use of them. The birth of the scientific revolution, which in turn gave rise to the industrial revolution and to unprecedented material affluence, came about when people followed Bacon’s advice and obeyed nature—accepting the natural world for what it is rather than rejecting its laws and replacing them with mystical beliefs.
Bacon’s advice applies as much to our inner lives as it does to the world around us. The Perfectionist pays a heavy price when he disregards his nature, when he refuses to accept the reality of painful emotions and rejects them. The Optimalist is more likely to enjoy psychological affluence, to derive satisfaction from his life, because he acknowledges nature and accepts that painful emotions are an inevitable part of reality. In the same way that scientists were only able to make significant advances in technology by accepting the laws of physical nature—of gravity and thermodynamics, for instance—we too can only grow and lead richer, fuller lives by accepting the laws of human nature. And, like it or not, painful emotions are part of that nature.
Healing the Pain
If we inject water into a clogged pipeline, the pressure will increase a great deal more than if the water is allowed to flow freely through a clear pipeline; similarly, if we allow painful emotions to flow through us naturally, freely, the pressure eases and they eventually subside. A continuous buildup of water pressure can lead the pipeline to break down and burst; a buildup of unreleased painful feelings can lead to emotional breakdown. While this is a risk that Perfectionists face, Optimalists do not place themselves in a situation where emotional pressure can rise uncontrollably over a long period of time. Instead of denying their pain and fighting it, they accept it; rather than condemning themselves for feeling anxious, they accept their anxiety and allow it to flow through them and take its course.
Philosopher Alan Watts, who did much to bring Zen to the West, wrote, “The difference of the adept in Zen from the ordinary run of men is that the latter are, in one way or another, at odds with their humanity.” When we stop resisting who we are and what we feel, we drop the heavy burden of an endless, hopeless battle against our humanity.
In what ways do you find yourself at odds with your humanity?
Viktor Frankl proposed the technique of paradoxical intentions as a method for dealing with stress or anxiety. Frankl suggested that rather than trying to rid ourselves of our anxiety, we should try to induce further anxiety—we should encourage ourselves to feel more anxious, more nervous. As a result, because we allow the anxiety to flow freely through us, it weakens. This particular technique has helped me a great deal in dealing with my anxiety about public speaking. Instead of fighting it, I called forth more of it! I exhorted myself to be more anxious, more nervous. Paradoxically, this calmed me down.
Therapist and researcher David Barlow and his colleagues propose a similar approach to dealing with stress and anxiety: worry exposure. Clients struggling with excessive anxiety levels are asked to imagine the worst-case scenario relating to the cause of their concerns. They are given the following instructions: “It is essential that you imagine the worst event happening and concentrate on it as hard as you can. Do not avoid this thought or image, since avoiding it will defeat the whole purpose of the exercise.”2 First, clients are encouraged to fully experience the emotion and the discomfort that comes with the imagined scenario. Only then do they proceed to the second stage, which is to calm down and deal with the irrationality of their thoughts. While their anxiety initially intensifies as a result of worry exposure, anxiety levels soon drop below what they were originally. Clients are often amazed by how quickly and naturally their anxiety abates.
Matthieu Ricard, Buddhist monk and scientist, notes that “the more you look at anger, the more it disappears beneath one’s very eyes, like the frost melting under the morning sun. When one genuinely looks at it, it suddenly loses its strength.”3 The same applies to envy, sadness, anxiety, hate, and other painful emotions.
We are all born with innate abilities to heal ourselves. We are able to fight off germs, to repair broken bones, to grow new skin. In order to heal physically, we need to give the natural healer in us the time it needs to do its work. We have a similar mechanism to heal psychological injuries. But in addition to time, psychological healing requires that we shift our attention to our emotional pain and keep it there. Just as we don’t need professional assistance to heal from every bruise or scrape, in many cases it is sufficient to allow our internal psychological healer to function without calling in external support.
Oxford psychologist Mark Williams and his colleagues have shown that intentionally, mindfully focusing on the physical manifestations of depression helps in overcoming depression and in reducing the likelihood of relapsing after recovery. In fact, the researchers found that often “trying to get rid of depression in the usual problem solving way, trying to ‘fix’ what’s ‘wrong’ with us, just digs us in deeper.”4 The solution to many—not all, but many—of our psychological afflictions lies not in the fixing/doing mode but in the accepting/being mode.
It is this mode that allows the natural healer to do its magic. As Williams writes, “With the shift from trying to ignore or eliminate physical discomfort to paying attention with friendly curiosity, we can transform our experience.” Accepting our emotions means looking at them in a benign way, welcoming them as part of our nature, and thus as something interesting and worthy. For me, simply taking mental note of my anxiety before a lecture without trying to change it, becoming mindful of the parts of my body where the anxiety manifested itself without actively trying to make the discomfort go away, decreased my anxiety.
It is important to distinguish between accepting painful emotions and ruminating on them. Acceptance involves gently being with the emotion; rumination involves obsessively thinking about the emotion. Obsessing about the emotion or the event that led to it is unproductive and unhealthy, and may intensify, rather than dissolve, the emotion: “rumination is part of the problem, not part of the solution.”5
This is not to suggest that analyzing or thinking about an emotion or its causes can’t help us feel better—it certainly can. However, rather than having thoughts playing in an endless loop in our heads (ruminating), we would be better off expressing our thoughts verbally or in writing.6 Keeping a personal journal in which we express our thoughts and feelings can yield significant benefits. In a set of experiments, psychologist James Pennebaker demonstrated that students who on four consecutive days spent twenty minutes writing about difficult experiences were ultimately happier and physically healthier.7 Expressing our thoughts and sharing our feelings in conversation with someone we trust can be at least as helpful as expressing them in writing.
While we do not need to scream as we are walking on Main Street or shout at our boss who makes us angry, we should, when possible, provide a channel for the expression of our emotions. We can talk to a friend about our anger and anxiety, write in our journal about our fear or jealousy, join a support group of people who are struggling with issues similar to ours, and, at times, in solitude or in the presence of someone who cares about us, allow ourselves to shed a tear—of sorrow or of joy.
What are some of the outlets in your life for the expression of painful emotions? Are there people you trust? Are there people with whom you can build trust? Do you keep a journal?
The Range of Human Emotions
The best advice that my wife, Tami, and I received when David, our first child, was born came from our pediatrician. “Over the next few months,” he said, “you’re going to experience a whole range of emotions, often to the extreme. You’re going to experience joy and awe, frustration and anger, happiness and irritation. This is normal. We all go through it.” Was he right! While there certainly were moments of joy, there were difficult moments, too. For example, when David was a month old, I started to feel some envy toward him. Why? Because for the first time since Tami and I had started dating, her attention was focused on someone else more than on me. But then five minutes after feeling envy, I would experience the most intense love toward David. My initial reaction was to label myself a hypocrite, to question the authenticity of my love: how could my feelings of love for him be real if at the same time I also envied him? And then our pediatrician’s words came to mind, reminding me that it was natural to feel what I was feeling, essentially giving me the permission to be human.
The doctor’s advice helped in two related ways. First, because I recognized and accepted—rather than rejected and suppressed—my feeling of envy, it gradually subsided and lost its hold. Second, I was able to experience and enjoy the feeling of love much more intensely, without it being marred by feelings of guilt or disingenuousness.
Acceptance is a prerequisite for a healthy emotional life. When we accept our emotions, when we welcome everything that is human about us, we open up a space within which we can feel. Closing off the emotional valve to the flow of painful emotions inevitably restricts future flow of positive emotions, too. The same system is used for the flow of all emotions—positive and painful—and if we block the flow of one emotion, it affects our ability to experience other emotions. When I refuse to accept that I am upset after I make a mistake, I hinder my ability to experience joy when something good happens to me. When I do not recognize my anger toward my partner, I limit my capacity to love. When I reject my fear, I stifle my courage. When I do not give myself the permission to experience envy, I undermine my generosity. In the words of psychologist Abraham Maslow, “By protecting himself against the hell within himself, he also cuts himself off from the heaven within.”
No person can enjoy a “perfect” emotional life, an unbroken chain of positive emotions. Trying to lead that kind of life by rejecting painful emotions when they arise only increases suffering. For optimal human functioning—for us to enjoy the best possible life—we need to give ourselves the permission and the space to experience and express the full range of human emotions.
Acceptance and Resignation
Accepting an emotion does mean resigning to it. Nathaniel Branden explains:
The willingness to experience and accept our feelings carries no implication that emotions are to have the last word on what we do. I may not be in the mood to work today; I can acknowledge my feelings, experience them, accept them—and then go to work. I will work with a clearer mind because I have not begun the day with self-deception. Often, when we fully experience and accept negative feelings, we are able to let go of them; they have been allowed to have their say and they relinquish center stage.8
Along similar lines, psychologist Jon Kabat-Zinn notes, “Acceptance of the present moment has nothing to do with resignation in the face of what is happening. It simply means a clear acknowledgment that what is happening is happening.”9 In fact, acceptance is the first step we need to take if we are concerned with change. Carl Rogers, founder of the client-centered school of therapy, points out that “the curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”10 For example, if I am too sensitive to other people’s opinions of me and want to change that about myself, condemning myself each time I overreact is unlikely to prove helpful. Accepting myself, sensitivity and all, is more likely to help me become more resilient. When I accept the emotion—when I accept myself—that’s when I am in the best mind-set and heart-set to change.
Accepting our emotions does not imply that we like them but rather that we are giving ourselves the permission, the space, and the freedom to feel as we do. Accepting emotions also does not mean that we accept the behaviors that might spring from them. I can experience envy toward my child (an emotion) and yet still act with kindness toward him (my behavior); I can experience anxiety before a lecture and still choose to teach. This is the essence of active acceptance as opposed to passive resignation.
When the CEO of a company I had been consulting for expressed interest in a leadership seminar, I asked one of my friends, an expert on leadership and an excellent speaker, for help. My friend and I planned the seminar together and then shared the teaching between us. Watching my friend interact with my client, seeing how captivated the participants were by his eloquence, I began to regret having asked him to join me. I was jealous.
I was so upset with myself for feeling the way I did that I hardly slept for three nights. How could I feel jealousy toward a friend? How could I feel regret over asking him to work with me when I knew that everyone involved—myself and the participants—had learned so much from him? Finally, I decided to tell him what I felt—part confession, part request for advice. He told me that he, too, had felt jealous when he observed me teach. On that day, and for a long time after, we discussed our respective experiences of jealousy. Simply talking about it made us feel better and brought us closer together. Our only conclusion, though, was that jealousy is natural and, to some extent, unavoidable.
Certain feelings are inescapable. No person is free from the experience of jealousy or fear or anxiety or anger. The real question is not whether we experience these feelings—we all do—but what we decide to do about them. Our first choice is whether to reject or accept our emotional reaction, whether to suppress or acknowledge that which is. Our second choice is whether to act on our initial impulse (for instance, to stop collaborating with people we’re jealous of) or whether to go beyond it (create as many alliances with talented people as we possibly can). The second choice is made significantly easier if, first, we choose to accept our feelings: negative emotions intensify and are more likely to control us if we try to suppress them.
If we refuse to accept that we can be jealous of a friend, we are likely to behave badly toward him and then rationalize our behavior. If we do not accept that we are afraid to ask someone out, we are likely to avoid that person and then convince ourselves that we didn’t really like her anyway. Had I denied that my feelings toward my friend were driven by jealousy, I would have looked for an alternative explanation for my discomfort around him. We are creatures of feeling and reason, and once we feel a certain way, we have the need to find a reason for our feeling. Rather than dealing with the real reason for my emotional reaction, rather than admitting to feelings of which I did not approve, I would probably have justified my discomfort around him by finding fault with him. To avoid thinking ill of ourselves, we often condemn the people we have wronged.
There is another potential harm in suppressing unwanted thoughts or feelings. In their work on “defensive projection,” psychologist Leonard Newman and his colleagues have shown that “when people are motivated to avoid seeing certain faults in themselves, they contrive instead to see those same faults in others.”11 These unwanted thoughts and feelings become “chronically accessible”—just as a white bear becomes chronically accessible when we attempt to suppress the thought of it—and we see them everywhere around us, in other people, even when they are not really there.
We pollute our environment with our unacknowledged thoughts and feelings. Had I denied my jealousy toward my friend, I would have been more likely to blame him and others for being jealous. At the end of the process that started with suppressing my real feelings, I would have harmed myself, my friend, our relationship, and potentially others as well.
Whenever we suppress a painful emotion we—as well as those around us—pay a price. If, for example, we do not acknowledge our anger within a romantic relationship, we will most likely “project” that anger outward—see it in our partner or in others even when it is not there—and inadvertently end up hurting our partner and our relationship. If, at work, we do not act authentically—if we do not speak up when we know we should, or we say things we don’t believe just to impress others—and then refuse to acknowledge our behavior, we will begin to see inauthenticity all around us and unjustly criticize others. It is when we accept our feelings—those we like and those we don’t—that we open up the possibility of acting nobly.
When in your life have you felt, or do you feel, jealousy or envy? Observe the feeling, accept it without trying to change it, and then commit to behaving in ways that you deem noble.
What would your life look like if you refuse to accept the law of gravity? For starters, you may not survive for long if you ignore the fact that things, people being no exception, fall when left in midair. But even if you do survive, imagine the frustration, the feelings of inadequacy that would dominate your daily existence. So, though we may not like the law of gravity, we accept it and learn to live within its constraints.
Painful emotions are as much part of human nature as the law of gravity is part of physical nature, and yet most people accept and embrace the latter while rejecting and denying the former. To lead a fulfilling, healthy life, we need to accept our emotions in the same way we accept other natural phenomena. When we accept physical nature—the law of gravity, for instance—as a given, we can design machines that fly at high speeds or create games that celebrate the physical law (imagine the Olympics without gravity). Similarly, if we accept human nature—the existence of painful emotions, for instance—we are much better able to design the kind of life we want for ourselves. Would you buy an airplane designed by an engineer who does not accept the laws of nature? Why not apply the same standards when it comes to human nature? Why settle for less when your own happiness is at stake?
Morality and Emotions
We are not doing ourselves justice when we reproach ourselves for feeling a certain way. Moral evaluation—the judgment as to whether something is good or bad—presupposes choice. And where there is no choice, there are no grounds for moral evaluation. For example, we may not like the law of gravity, but gravity in and of itself is neither good nor bad—it simply is. Similarly, we may not like feeling fear, but the feeling itself is neither good nor bad—it, too, simply is. Feeling jealousy toward my friend does not make me a bad friend; if, however, I jeopardize my friend’s success because of my jealousy, then I am a bad friend. Feeling anxious when I meet a person I would very much like to go out with says nothing about my courage—running away from something I very much want because I fear being turned down does.
In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Nelson Mandela illustrated the value of active acceptance. When describing his own and others’ feelings toward the apartheid regime, he said:
Our emotion said the white minority is an enemy, you must never talk to them, but our brain said, if you don’t talk to them your country will go up in flames and for many years to come this country will be covered with rivers of blood. So we had to reconcile this conflict and our talking with the enemy was the result of the domination of the brain over emotion.
Mandela openly acknowledged his feelings. “When I think about the past, the types of things they did, I feel angry, but again that is my feeling. The brain always dominates.” Mandela did not pretend that he had warm feelings toward those who imprisoned him for twenty-seven years and who oppressed millions of people because of the color of their skin. The feelings of bitterness, of anger, and of revenge were there, they were real, and acknowledging their reality helped him think, and act, with reason. By first choosing to accept these emotions and then choosing to behave benevolently toward his former oppressors, Mandela was able to lead South Africa through its most challenging period of transformation.
We all have an image of our ideal self, an elaborate construct of the kind of person we would like to be. While it is not always possible to feel as this constructed self would (fearless and compassionate at all times, for example), we can act in accordance with its ideals (courageous, generous, and so on).
Active acceptance is about recognizing things as they are and then choosing the course of action we deem appropriate and worthy of ourselves. It is about recognizing that at every moment in our life we have a choice—to be afraid and yet to act courageously, to feel jealous and yet to act benevolently, to accept being human and act with humanity.
Which painful emotions do you tend to have trouble accepting? Once you accept these emotions, what would be the most appropriate action to take?
It is impossible to describe the pain that follows the loss of someone we loved. The person left behind to mourn is often unable to contemplate life without the deceased. However, what happens next varies drastically among individuals. Some people never recover from the loss. Others move on, after a period of grief, and are able to function as they did before, in terms of both their actions and their emotions. Finally, there are those who experience what Lawrence Calhoun and Richard Tedeschi call post-traumatic growth; the loss transforms them in profound ways—they appreciate life more, their relationships improve, and they become more resilient.12
Bonny died on December 19, 1997, two weeks before her thirtieth birthday. Her flight, Silk Air 185 from Jakarta, crashed at 5 P.M.—one hour before its estimated time of arrival in Singapore’s Changi International Airport and two hours before she was supposed to call me in my room, in a hotel on Beach Road.
When I hadn’t heard from Bonny by 7:15 P.M., I called the airport to find out whether the flight was delayed. I began to worry when I was transferred from one operator to another. Finally, a woman’s voice broke the pattern: “To find out more about the flight, you have to come to the airport.”
“Why?” I asked.
“To find out more,” the operator repeated, “you have to come to the airport.” I called the airport again and was told the same thing by another operator.
“I can’t come to the airport,” I lied. “I am calling from Jakarta.”
In a matter-of-fact tone, she said, “We lost radar contact with the plane over two hours ago. We have no further information.”
I fell to the floor, too weak to live. And then I screamed. I never screamed like that before or since.
The pain, especially for the first eight months, was unbearable. It was so overwhelming that I thought it would never end. How could it, when it felt more concrete—more real and permanent—than anything else in my life?
And yet eventually the pain did subside, and I gradually moved on. How did this happen? How does emotional healing—let alone emotional growth—take place, and what does the recovery process look like? We can gain some insight into the process of emotional development by looking at the process of cognitive development.
The theory of cognitive disequilibration explains mental development using bricks as a metaphor. Each new piece of information or knowledge that we gain is an additional brick, which we lay on an existing one. The brick structure gets taller over time and eventually becomes unstable. It sways from side to side, loses its balance, its equilibrium, and finally crashes. Disequilibration takes place: the old construction collapses, the bricks fall to the ground, and the wreckage becomes the foundation for a new structure. This foundation is wider than the previous one and thus able to support a taller structure. As we continue developing, more bricks are placed on top of the wider foundation until this structure, too, ultimately becomes unstable. The structure collapses, again a wider foundation is formed, and so on.
This, too, is the nature of eureka experiences—the aha! moments when we have an insight. These moments are usually the culmination of much effort over a long period of time. As we learn more, we are adding more bricks to our cognitive construct. Eventually, the cognitive construct loses its equilibrium, collapses, and then reemerges as a new, stronger foundation that is able to support a wider, taller structure. The eureka experience occurs when the existing structure of knowledge collapses and the fragments of knowledge come together in a different way—as a new insight from which we can learn and upon which we can build.
A similar process occurs on a greater scale with respect to entire fields of human knowledge. According to philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, a paradigm shift occurs within a scientific discipline when the old paradigm is no longer able to contain and satisfactorily explain the new knowledge that has accumulated.13 Like a brick tower, the old paradigm crumbles to form a new foundation, which then becomes the genesis of a new paradigm. The process repeats itself when the new paradigm, in its turn, is no longer able to contain the accumulation of knowledge, and once again the foundation for a new paradigm is formed out of the wreckage of the old.
The disequilibration model applies as much to the realm of emotions as it does to the realm of thought. Each emotional experience is like a new brick that is placed on top of our existing emotional structure. After a while, the structure becomes too high for its foundation, the bricks collapse, and emotional disequilibration takes place. A new foundation is formed, one that is wider at its base, and therefore more solid and able to bear a greater load. Returning to the metaphor of the pipeline through which all of our emotions flow, a wider foundation is parallel to a wider pipeline, one that has a larger capacity for the flow of emotions, one that is able to effectively handle larger quantities of feelings, both painful and pleasurable.
In The Prophet, Khalil Gibran describes how each time we experience sorrow, our capacity for joy increases:
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.14
Following Bonny’s death I went through emotional disequilibration, breaking down and then slowly building up again. Extreme emotional experiences can lead to accelerated emotional disequilibration and hence to post-traumatic growth.
Emotional disequilibration does not happen only as a result of negative experiences. Every time we allow ourselves to feel, we grow. This is why peak experiences—moments of bliss, ecstasy, supreme joy—can transform us.15For example, some women report that the experience of childbirth changed them forever, that they became more self-confident, happier, calmer, or generous as a result. Aesthetic experiences, such as reading a novel or looking at a painting, can expand our emotional understanding of the world and open our emotional floodgates. Profound religious experiences can also alter the way we see the world around us and lead us to a spiritual depth that we never attained before. It’s important to realize, however, that these extreme positive and negative emotional experiences provide the opportunity for growth; they do not automatically induce growth. To seize this opportunity, we need to openly embrace the emotions that these experiences elicit.
There are more parallels between emotional and cognitive growth. Dogmatism is about closed-mindedness, about rigidly holding on to one’s own position and ideas, without consideration for other points of view. Cognitive disequilibration—intellectual growth, a eureka experience, a paradigm shift—is less likely to take place if we are dogmatic, if we are unwilling to open ourselves up to different ways of understanding and seeing the world. There is also what we might think of as emotional dogmatism, which is about closing our heart, not being open to the full range of emotions that our experiences generate in us. Emotional disequilibration is unlikely to take place if we are emotionally dogmatic, unwilling to allow ourselves the experience of strong emotions.
The Perfectionist, rigid and unyielding, is an emotional dogmatist; he suppresses painful feelings in his ongoing attempt to sustain the unbroken flow of positive emotions. Cognitive dogmatism (closed-mindedness) and emotional dogmatism (closed-heartedness) lead to the same outcome: stagnation.
In his work on bereavement, Colin Murray Parkes describes how widows who do not express their emotions following the death of their husbands suffer from longer-lasting and more severe physical and psychological symptoms than widows who “break down” after their loss. In the words of Marcel Proust, “We are healed of a suffering only by expressing it to the full.” James Pennebaker reports on studies that show that “the more people talked to others about the death of their spouse, the fewer health problems they reported having.” After some time, while they continue to experience pain—and continue to accept it—they are able to go on with their lives.
The most extensive work on grief was conducted by therapist William Worden, who suggested that the process of mourning comprises four stages: accepting the reality of the loss, working through the pain of grief, adjusting to life without the deceased, and moving on.16 Not going through the four stages (either sequentially or with some overlap) could thwart the healing process and lead to long-term complications.
The first stage has to do with one of the common responses to loss, which is denial, either by refusing to come to terms with the fact that the person is gone or by belittling the value of the relationship with the person who passed. For healthy recovery, the person who experienced loss has to accept reality: both the fact that the deceased will not return and the true significance of her relationship with the deceased.
The second stage is working through the pain of grief. Rather than controlling their emotions, pulling themselves together, or being tough, mourners are better off going through the emotions, feeling the pain when it naturally arises, and then expressing it in words and tears. Those who experience loss are often distracted from their pain by well-meaning people who encourage them to stop crying over the dead and get on with their lives or by doctors who prescribe antidepressants. Such strategies usually only prolong the grieving process and the pain. These “strong” mourners fail to recover because, in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, “They don’t indulge in the cheering luxury of tears.”
This stage can take time and requires much patience. There are certain processes that cannot be rushed and need to be allowed to unfold at their natural pace. In Hebrew the word for “patience,” savlanut, stems from the same root as the word for “suffering,” sevel. At times, having patience is about enduring suffering.
The third stage involves adjusting to the new reality. A loss could mean having to take over responsibilities of the person who died, having to form a new or revised identity that does not include the role of the deceased in our life, or initiating new relationships to fill the void created by the loss. The adjustments cannot, and should not, come right after the loss, but it is detrimental to the recovery process to avoid making these adjustments.
The final stage, moving on, is difficult, because it may feel like a betrayal of the deceased, as well as of one’s own values. How can I continue to enjoy life when she cannot? If I truly loved him, how could life without him possess any significance? The key here is to find an appropriate place in one’s heart for the deceased, while simultaneously moving on by investing in meaningful relationships and pleasurable activities.
Looking at Worden’s four stages, we see the process of active acceptance. The first two stages are about acceptance: cognitive acceptance in the form of intellectually coming to terms with the loss and emotional acceptance in the form of experiencing the pain. The third and fourth stages—adjusting and moving on—form the active part of the equation.
Grieving does not necessarily need to be restricted to the physical death of a loved one. We can grieve over a meaningful relationship that has soured, over a person we care about deeply who moved away, or over a job that we lost. Going through Worden’s four stages of grief can help us heal and grow following loss, regardless of its nature.
When Ralph Waldo Emerson was twenty-seven years old, his beloved wife, Ellen, died. Later, after he remarried and became a father, he lost his two-year-old son. Emerson wrote an essay titled “Compensation,” which is a testament to his sense of life and optimism. Here is the last paragraph from the essay, which is essentially about post-traumatic growth, and which gave me hope when I had none:
And yet the compensations of calamity are made apparent to the understanding also, after long intervals of time. A fever, a mutilation, a cruel disappointment, a loss of wealth, a loss of friends, seems at the moment unpaid loss, and unpayable. But the sure years reveal the deep remedial force that underlies all facts. The death of a dear friend, a wife, brother, lover, which seemed nothing but privation, somewhat later assumes the aspect of a guide or genius; for it commonly operates revolutions in our way of life, terminates an epoch of infancy or of youth which was waiting to be closed, breaks up a wonted occupation, or a household, or style of living, and allows the formation of new ones more friendly to the growth of character. It permits or constrains the formation of new acquaintances and the reception of new influences that prove of the first importance to the next years; and the man or woman who would have remained a sunny garden-flower, with no room for its roots and too much sunshine for its head, by the falling of the walls and the neglect of the gardener is made the banian of the forest, yielding shade and fruit to wide neighborhoods of men.17
It has been over ten years since Bonny died. Yesterday, I went running along the Charles River. The New England fall aroused my senses with its hues and warmth. I felt the world, and it was beautiful to me. I marveled at how this existence, that not so long ago was devoid of all luster and purpose, had regained its color and hope.
How have you handled loss in the past, whether of a friend, a relationship, or something else that was important to you?
August 2008. David, my four-year-old son, and I are standing in line at the supermarket in Ramat Gan, Israel. Ahead of us a soldier is unloading his groceries onto the counter.
“Why is he a soldier?” asks David.
“Because,” I answer, “when he turned eighteen he had to join the military.”
David pauses for a minute, looks admiringly at the soldier, and then says, “I also want to be a soldier when I grow up.” The soldier pays the cashier and walks off with his bags, smiling at David, who smiles back.
David’s eye catches a toy, a green Ninja Turtle with red goggles, hanging next to the counter. “Daddy, can you buy this toy for me?”
“No, David, you already have a toy like it.”
Unconvinced, he says, “But mine is old. I want a new one.”
Unconvinced, I say, “No.”
David begins to cry. There is another man paying the cashier now who looks at David and says, “Soldiers don’t cry.” David stops crying.
The stranger walks off. David looks up at me, his eyes still moist. I run my hand through his hair. “You can cry if you are sad. Soldiers also cry.”
“Then why did the man say that soldiers don’t cry?” he asks.
“He made a mistake, sweetie, just like Daddy does sometimes.”
Over the last few decades, there has been an increasing amount of research documenting the benefits of mindfulness meditation for physical and mental health. Mindfulness is about being fully aware of whatever it is that we are doing and accepting (as much as possible) the present moment without judgment or evaluation. We are mindful when we focus on the here and now, experience the experience, allow ourselves to feel whatever feelings emerge regardless of whether or not we like what we are feeling. According to John Kabat-Zinn, a leading practitioner and scholar in the field of mind-body medicine, “Mindfulness [involves] the complete ‘owning’ of each moment of your experience, good, bad, or ugly.”18
Mindfulness meditation is the practice of acceptance. In the same way that understanding in theory what would improve your tennis backhand only takes you so far—you have to actually practice the moves in order to really become good at them—so theorizing about acceptance has its limits.
While the practice of mindfulness meditation itself is simple, implementing it as a regular practice is anything but. For meditation to have a significant impact on the quality of your life, you need to meditate regularly, ideally every day, for at least ten to twenty minutes. However, a session every other day, or even once a week, is certainly better than nothing.
There are many variations on meditation, and attending a class led by an experienced instructor is a good idea. In the meantime, here are instructions for a simple meditation that you can start today.
Sit down, either on the floor or on a chair. Find a position that is comfortable for you, preferably with your back and neck straight. You may close your eyes if it helps you relax and concentrate.
Focus on your breathing. Inhale gently, slowly, and deeply. Feel the air going down all the way to your belly, and then exhale slowly and gently. Feel your belly rise as you breathe in and then falling as you breathe out. For the next few minutes focus on your belly filling up with air as you inhale gently, slowly, and deeply and then being emptied of air as you exhale slowly and gently. If your mind wanders to other places, kindly and calmly bring it back to the rise and the fall of your belly.
You are not trying to change anything. You are simply being.
Experiencing the Experience
Tara Bennett-Goleman, a therapist who brings together Eastern and Western psychology, writes, “Mindfulness means seeing things as they are, without trying to change them. The point is to dissolve our reactions to disturbing emotions, being careful not to reject the emotion itself.”19 By focusing on a painful emotion, accepting it with an open heart and mind and letting it flow through us, we can help it dissolve, disappear.
For example, if you get extremely nervous in front of an audience, imagine yourself getting onstage; if you lost someone and time has not healed the pain, imagine yourself sitting next to the deceased or saying good-bye to him. You can also bring up certain emotions, from insecurity to sadness, by thinking about them without imagining a particular situation. Once the emotion comes up, just stay with the experience for a few minutes without trying to change it.
Throughout the exercise, to the extent possible, maintain deep, gentle breathing, just as you did for the mindfulness meditation. If your mind wanders, return to whatever it was that you were imagining or experiencing, and continue with the breathing. If tears come up, let them flow; if other emotions, such as anger or disappointment or joy, come up, let them be. If a particular part of your body reacts in a certain way—you get a knot in the throat or an increased heartbeat—you can shift your attention to that part and imagine yourself breathing into it, without trying to change it.
This exercise is about giving yourself the permission to feel, to experience the experience rather than to ruminate on it; it is about accepting the emotions as they are, being with them rather than trying to understand and “fix” them.