Shooting the Messenger
Back in the 1st century BC, the king of Armenia, Tigranes the 2nd, aka King of Kings, refused one of the Roman Empire’s random demands. Due to that, as usual, a Roman commander was dispatched to conquer the kingdom of Armenia and remove Tigranes from his throne.
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 bad news ever again.
It goes without saying that killing a messenger might not have been the best decision. Due to that, the great king of kings (at least up to that point) remained completely unaware as the Roman army advanced through his kingdom without any resistance (which back then included Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Azerbaijan, and East Turkey). [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 can’t deal with (or at least 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 also end up killing messengers.
Why Do We Deceive Ourselves?
“What you don’t know can’t hurt you.” Seriously?!
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 its consequences. When something happens in our lives that we find too disturbing to deal with, even great kings may occasionally choose to simply ignore 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 sweep their emotions under the rug – and that can have devastating implications for our mental health.
Ignoring emotional messengers may indeed make us feel like things got better, but this is nothing more than a cheap trick of 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, now you have been disempowered, and things just get much worse!
What You Don’t Know You Can’t Defend Against
The first person to observe and describe this type of weird and irrational human 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 contained within the unconscious. Using the unconscious parts of the mind as a type of a mental vault into which everything we don’t want to think, feel, or remember is being put away for safekeeping. Out of sight and, seemingly, 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 make people helpless and leave them powerless against their problems.
Lacking awareness of our problems and pains cripples us in two main ways:
- What you resist, persists – lacking awareness of your problems makes it impossible for you 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 as it floods our lives.
- Increased incongruence – since the unconscious mind is still exposed to the repressed information, it will now perceive reality very differently. And as the perception gap between the different aspects of the self grows bigger, it slowly rips the psyche apart.
These little lies people tell themselves cause them to behave irrationally as they slowly disconnect from reality, and from their-selves. This is what makes repression into such a big part of almost all types of mental illness.
The Importance of Having Negative Emotions
We call them negative emotions, but the emotions aren’t actually negative at all. Negative emotions are actually just emotions that stand to represent negative things. They are the messengers who carry the news that we don’t like to hear, but this is exactly what makes them so valuable! Without full awareness of unpleasant emotions, a person will not be able to recognize situations that might potentially be harmful to them.
For example, people who don’t feel shame would keep taking part in shameful acts, as people who don’t feel guilt can’t stop causing misery to others. Unaware of the implications of their actions, and unaware of the pain they’re causing they have no idea they should stop.
People lacking fear will keep putting in harm’s way, as they simply didn’t notice the danger. And people who can’t feel rejected will inevitably become a social nuisance.
When mistakenly believing that the emotion is what we need to avoid, rather than the act or situation, 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 thing it was first meant to avoid. allowing the thing we wish to avoid to become increasingly powerful and dominate our lives.
Increased Incongruence – Repression and Mental Illness
The other problem which arises is figuring out reality absent of awareness and emotional input.
Once an emotion has been removed from conscious awareness a gap of information is created. This gap distorts perception and makes things seem different 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. Furthermore, the larger this gap, the more challenging communication can become. Certain words, things, or people would turn into triggers for the repressed content they’re associated with, threatening to divert awareness back to the repressed content, which means they now must be avoided.
In small doses, for short-term use, repression is completely bearable. But when it is used as a main coping mechanism, the consequences can be 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.
Know Your Emotions
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 embarrassed doesn’t necessarily mean you did something wrong, but it always means that you believe you did something wrong. 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.
When feeling bad, be softer and more flexible with your emotions and try to focus more on the beliefs and personal-interpretation which triggered them.
Connect with your pain
Your so-called `negative emotions` aren’t the cause of your pain, and they aren’t the cause of any of your problems. They are merely messengers, delivering you with information from yourself to yourself about your pains and your perceived problems, your opinions and beliefs – a window into your own self, and really, nothing more.
Collect them all!
Even though ignorance might feel blissful at times, since it leaves us unequipped to handle life’s challenges, and since it fails to provide sustainable long-term 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!
Main Image: Freepik