Shooting the Messenger
Back in the 1st century BC, the king of Armenia, Tigranes the 2nd, aka King of Kings, refused a direct demand made by the Roman Empire. Due to that, as usual, a Roman commander was sent to conquer the kingdom of Armenia, and remove Tigranes from his throne.
The legend has it, that when the great king of kings first received the message about Rome invading his kingdom he lost control and had the messenger killed. Consequently, as rumors began to spread, no other messenger dared to deliver him with bad news ever again.
Needless to say that this wasn’t the best decision. While the king of kings remained completely unaware, the Roman army took the entire kingdom (which back then included Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Azerbaijan and East Turkey) without any resistance. [Plutarch’s Life of Lucullus, paragraph 25]
This kind of mistake is not an isolated incident. From ancient kings to modern men, ignoring and rejecting disturbing information is a mistake that at some point we all make. Even though it might be obvious that this strategy is completely ridiculous, when overwhelmed, people tend to do irrational things.
When something happens in our lives that we believe we can’t deal with, we almost automatically use this mental mechanism to expel it from our thoughts. Killing any negative emotional messengers and hoping that now, as we no longer feel bad, then the problem must have been solved.
In our own way, we as well end up killing the messenger.
Why Do We Deceive Ourselves?
We all have this little corner in our minds where we believe that if we wouldn’t know about something, then we must be safe from it. When something happens in our lives which we find too disturbing to deal with, even great kings may occasionally result to killing the messenger and simply ignoring the disturbing information.
When it comes to dealing with emotions, this type of mistake is unbelievably common. Perhaps because we find so many emotions too difficult to deal with, or maybe because of this hype against unpleasant emotions. Whatever the reason may be, it is extremely common for people to treat their emotions as if they were ducks in a shooting range – and that has devastating implications on the mental health of our society.
Ignoring emotional messengers may indeed make us feel like things got better, but this is nothing more than cheap self-deception. Manipulating our awareness of reality is as effective as cutting people out of photos, or drawing trees and lakes on a map of the desert. It might make us feel good for a second or two, but in the long run, not feeling a certain emotion doesn’t mean that things have gotten any better. If anything, they just get much worse!
What You Don’t Know Can Still Hurt You
The first person to observe and describe this type of behavior was, of course, Sigmund Freud. He identified this pattern as a coping mechanism and named it repression.
Repression is the process in which content (emotions, thoughts, and experiences) is expelled from conscious awareness, and locked in the unconscious. It is a type of a mental vault, into which everything we don’t want to think, feel, or remember is being put away for safe keeping. Out of sight and out of mind.
However, not feeling a certain emotion is not different than being unable to see certain colors or hear certain tones. The absence of awareness doesn’t improve our objective situation. It doesn’t change reality, it doesn’t make things any better, but what it does do, is leave people helpless against their problems.
Lacking awareness of our problems and pains cripples us in two main ways:
- What you resist, persists – lacking awareness of certain aspects of reality make it impossible to avoid them. Without the awareness of a certain emotion, we can never stop ourselves from walking into the situations that cause it – which makes it grow wild.
- Increased incongruence – as the unconscious mind is still exposed to the repressed information, it will now perceive reality very differently. And as the perception gap grows it will slowly rip the psyche apart.
These little lies people tell themselves cause them to behave in an irrational manner and disconnect from reality, as well as from themselves. This is what makes repression to be a leading component in almost all types of mental illness.
What You Resist, Persists The Importance of Negative Emotions
Negative emotions aren’t negative at all, but they only stand to represent negative things. They are the messengers which carry the news that we don’t like to hear, but this is exactly the reason we must listen to them! Without full awareness of unpleasant emotions, a person will not be able to recognize situations which might be potentially harmful to them.
For Example: People who don’t feel shame would keep taking part in shameful acts; people who don’t feel guilt would keep causing misery to others, unaware that they’re hurting them; and people lacking fear will keep putting themselves in dangerous situations, as they simply don’t know they might be at risk.
But when mistakenly believing that the emotion is what we need to avoid, we become unable to better ourselves – unable to improve, and unable to avoid. Not only that lacking awareness of certain aspects of reality isn’t beneficial, but it actually causes the perpetuation of the undesirable situation. Making the thing we try to avoid become increasingly powerful and dominant throughout our lives.
Increased Incongruence – Repression and Mental Illness
The other problem which arises is figuring out reality absent of the emotional input.
Once an emotion has been removed from conscious awareness a gap of information is created. This gap distorts the individual’s perception and makes things seem different to them than they actually are.
Due to this distortion of perception, the person has difficulties anticipating things. This causes confusion, frequent disappointment, and consequently, increased self-doubt. The larger this gap is the more challenging communication with other would become. Certain words, things, or people would become triggers for the repressed content they’re associated with, which means they would also have to be avoided.
In small doses, for short-term use, repression is completely bearable. But when it is used as the coping mechanism of choice, the consequences are life-shattering. What starts as an attempt to make oneself feel better may end up completely detaching the individual from reality, leaving them helpless and incapable of dealing with or even knowing about any of their problems.
Connect with your pain
Emotions Aren’t Right or Wrong – They are Subjective!
To better manage your emotions, you must remember this: Emotions don’t deliver you objective messages about reality, they are only here to represent your own subjective interpretation of reality.
Feeling guilty doesn’t necessarily mean you did something bad, but it always means that you believe you did something bad. Feeling afraid doesn’t mean that something bad is going to happen to you, but it simply means that you have a reason to believe that it might.
Be softer and more flexible with your emotions. Don’t treat them like problems.
Connect with your pain
Your so-called `negative emotions` aren’t the cause of your pain, and they do not cause you any problems. They are merely messengers, delivering you with information about your pain and your perceived problems.
Your emotions are nothing more than a window directly into your own self. Supplying you with information about your own opinions and beliefs, nothing more. They are simply messengers who deliver you messages from yourself to yourself. They are really nothing more than your own internal thinking process, just in a different language.
Collect them all!
Even though ignorance might feel blissful at times, since it leaves you unequipped to handle the actual problem, and since it fails to provide sustainable relief – do your best to avoid it. Because the world keeps turning with or without our awareness, and to achieve sustainable and lasting relief, we must accept the messenger, receive the message, and adjust our actions accordingly.
Remember: Emotions are the effect, not the cause!
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