Once upon a time, a young girl called Alice was in a paddock warming herself in the sun and throwing pine cones at Farmer Brown’s beehives.
Alongside the paddock was the Dark Forest. Out from the Dark Forest strode Anger. Anger was a ferocious looking creature, and when it stormed up to Alice she trembled. The creature complained bitterly to her about something and demanded she act immediately.
Alice told it, ‘Go way! I don’t want you here! Go away!’ But it stayed and continued to complain until eventually it strode away, back into the Dark Forest.
Alice felt dreadful.
The next day, Alice returned to the paddock with a long stick, and set off Farmer Brown’s rabbit traps. Out from the Dark Forest stepped Prejudice. The creature insisted on speaking with Alice, and this time Alice shrugged, knowing she didn’t have much choice in the matter. Prejudice rambled on until finally it wandered off back into the Dark Forest.
Alice felt flat.
On the third day, while Alice was in the paddock shooting bullets into Farmer Brown’s ‘No Shooting’ sign, Sadness emerged from the Dark Forest. This time, Alice decided to welcome the creature, and she listened to what it had to say. She even wiped a tear from its left eye. After a while, Sadness went quiet. It disappeared without her noticing.
Alice felt okay.
Then it dawned on her: although Sadness was no fun to be with (a real drag, truth be known) it had come to assist her. It had come to tell her that something was wrong in her life.
Alice then realised that Anger and Prejudice had also come to assist her. Anger had come to fight for her values, and Prejudice had come to reveal her fears.
The next day, Anger visited again. This time, Alice welcomed the scary creature, and listened to its complaints. She even worked out a better way to solve its problem. Anger considered her advice, and agreed with her solution. It wandered off with a mild grumble.
Over time, Grief, Fear, and Jealousy emerged from the Dark Forest, and many others. Most visited more than once. All of them had seen pain in her life and had come to assist her. Although Alice didn’t want their assistance, she gave them all permission to be with her and she listened to their concerns. She got to know them all, and came to understand their desires, foibles and fears – and their messages. She knew what consoled them. Although they were all hard to get on with, she became adept at dealing with them.
She knew none of the creatures were bad; they were just troubled souls trying to deal with the world – her world – the best way they could.
Alice kept welcoming them and listening to their concerns. The creatures grew softer, and wiser. After a while they rarely needed to leave the Dark Forest, and when they did, they didn’t stay long. They would have a quiet chat with Alice and return content.
Alice lost her fear of the Dark Forest, and ventured into it. She discovered new paths, and had new experiences. When she met the dark creatures in there she felt comfortable with them. And safe.
And she came to realise: they were her friends. They always had been.
Alice met Farmer Brown’s son, Tom. She held his hand and introduced him to the creatures of the Dark Forest. They married, and lived happily ever after.
Although this fairy tale is on one level about a little girl and the creatures that live in a dark forest it is also, of course, a metaphor for the “dark forest” within each of us.
We can learn from Alice. Her message is clear: we need to give ourselves permission to feel any emotion. It is natural to feel emotions such as jealousy, envy, hatred, anger and greed. They are in our ‘dark forest’ and when they venture out let’s welcome them and give them permission to be with us. Let’s make them a cup of tea and give them a biscuit!
Above all, let’s listen to what those dark emotions have to say, because if we tell them, ‘No, I’m not feeling you! Go away!’ they will just keep coming back, and they will always be hard to handle.
We may not enjoy their visits, but those dark emotions require our attention. When we give each of them permission to be with us, and listen to their message, we become skilled at dealing with them.
And, like Alice, we also come to realise that they are our friends. They always have been.
Over time, those dark emotions will grow softer, and wiser. And so will we.
Let’s avoid expressions like:
‘I’m jealous of her. I shouldn’t be feeling this way. I’m a shallow person.’
‘I feel jealous. That’s fine. Although I’d rather not feel this way, it’s what I am feeling. So be it.’
We might choose to add:
‘What do I fear that prompts me to feel that way? What is my deeper concern?’
‘I’m angry. I shouldn’t get angry. I’m supposed to be serene and mature. Only losers get angry.’
‘I feel angry. So be it. What’s the best way to express this anger to make changes, and not make things worse?’ Or,
‘It’s okay for me to feel angry, but is it worth getting angry about?’
‘I’m afraid, but I shouldn’t be. Other people are braver than me, and have gone through worse.’
‘I feel afraid, for whatever reason. I’m allowed to be afraid. I will be afraid!’
We might choose to add:
‘What can I do to reduce my anxiety? What can I do to solve the problem?’
‘I hate that person. I must be a bad person to be so hateful.’
‘I hate that person. That’s interesting. What do I fear the prompts me to hate that person?’
In each instance, by taking the second option we give ourselves permission to feel what we are feeling, and by doing so, we give ourselves the the freedom to grow.
I, Mark Avery, aka Mr Bashful, hereby give you permission to feel any emotion that comes to you.
There: it’s official.
More importantly, give yourself permission to feel any emotion.
Do it now. Officially give yourself permission to feel any emotion from this moment until the moment you die.
(Say it out loud, and mean it.)
‘I , – – – . officially give myself permission to feel any emotion that arises within me. That includes anger, fear, hatred, self-loathing, envy, doubt, jealousy, resentment, despair – any dark emotion that might arise within me.
If I feel any of those emotions, so be it. It can stay. For as long as it likes. And, while it visits I will listen to it and aim to understand what it’s telling me.
I also give myself permission to feel joy, peace, serenity, humour – and any other warm emotion that might arise within me.
All my emotions, dark and warm, are welcome, and will always be welcome.
Furthermore, I will protect that emotion for as long as it chooses to stay.
Officially, each and every one of my emotions has my unwavering permission to be. Period.’
You have just given yourself permission to feel any emotion that comes to you, which means that from now on you are obliged to notice what you are feeling and welcome it. On no account can you criticise yourself for feeling an unwanted emotion. When you feel one don’t say to yourself, ‘I shouldn’t be feeling this way‘, or ‘Why am I upset over something so trivial?’ No, those statements are now banned. Instead, be like Alice and let the emotion be. Welcome it. Observe it. Label it. ‘I’m feeling greedy.’ Or, ‘I’m feeling hateful. And that’s fine. I’m allowed to be hateful.’
Then, if you like, shrug.
‘Have the courage to be imperfect.’
We are meant to have all the emotions. We evolved to have them. They are in our forest and they are meant to be there. It’s what we do with them that counts. If we are hateful, fine – we can choose to not act on the hatred. Instead of pretending it’s not there, or criticising ourselves because it is there, we can simply notice it and accept it. Even better, we can look at what’s behind the hatred. Is it fear? Of what?
When we observe an emotion without criticising it we get to know it better, and its hold on us weakens. After a while we might even stop feeling hateful, or jealous, because we are not acting on those emotions, we are not feeding them. We have listened to them, and understood them.
In short, let’s avoid criticising ourselves when we have an unwanted emotion. Let’s not say something like, ‘I shouldn’t be feeling this; I’m a bad person’. After all, we have given that emotion permission to be there.
Let’s observe it, label it, shrug, and accept it. Then give thought to our response. That will build within us the confidence that we can deal with our dark emotions – that we can handle what happens in life. Result: resilience.
‘. . . it is important to totally give yourself permission to feel. And then feel it. Strange things happen when we feel our feelings. They themselves morph into another feeling and often we have a feeling of relief for honouring our own feeling.’
Gay McKinley, psychotherapist.
Q. ‘Shouldn’t I at least try to stop feeling hateful?’
If you’re truly hateful you’re not going to make that choice, are you? But you can choose to:
1. Let it be, and observe it like a scientist would.
2. Understand precisely what it is that you hate, and why. (That’s not easy.)
3. Give thought to your response. Although you have given yourself permission to feel hatred, (or jealousy, anger, etc.) that doesn’t mean it’s okay to act on it. It’s not okay to be violent, pernicious, or become a stalker, for example. Those are poor ways to express what we are feeling.
Q. ‘What if I don’t give myself permission to feel an emotion?’
As psychotherapist Gay Mckinley says, ‘It won’t go away! And you will feel it in unexpected ways and at unexpected times – in all its glorious messiness. It takes time to heal, but feeling that pain is a crucial step towards healing.’
Q. ‘So, what do I do?’
Notice what you’re feeling and label it. ‘I’m feeling jealous.’ Then remind yourself it’s normal to feel that emotion and it has your permission to be there.
‘Hey, I feel jealous and that’s okay. I am allowed to feel jealous.’
In his book ‘The happiness trap’, Dr Harris suggests you can say something like,
‘I don’t like this feeling, but I have room for it.’
‘This feeling is unpleasant, but I can accept it.’
If you’re suffering, tell yourself: ‘I’m feeling this and it feels awful. But it will pass.’ Remind yourself that in a day or so, or in a year or so, the pain will be gone.
‘For the most part, emotional pain has a cure – and that cure is time.’
Toby Green, psychologist.
‘The pain you are experiencing will build, peak and then ebb. It has its own energy force and its own time schedule. You’re simply its passenger . . .
‘Be an observer of the process. Tell yourself, “I’m watching myself be in pain but not wasting time trying to fix it.”
Toby Green again.
Q. ‘It seems Alice didn’t meet the positive emotions?’
Alice already felt comfortable with her friends, Curiosity, Compassion, Calmness and Confidence (to name just a few). They also enjoy the ear of a patient listener, but unlike the creatures of the Dark Forest, they don’t need those things.
Q. ‘Mark, someone cuts in front of you in a queue at the supermarket. You tell them you were next and they ignore you. The person at the checkout ignores you too, and starts serving the person first. What do you do?
My friend, Jan, would feel indignant in that situation, and make a scene until she was served. She would ‘give herself permission’ to feel indignant, and create stress for everyone, including herself. Is this what you want?’
There is a difference between feeling an emotion and acting upon it. I’d suggest your friend notice her indignation (label it) and allow herself to feel indignant. (She probably does!) What she does with her indignation is her choice.
If she felt indignant but denied it, or was ashamed of feeling indignant, she might have a problem. Resentment and powerlessness might grow within her. Especially if she acquiesced regularly in other parts of her life.
‘What should she do then?’
Allow herself to feel indignant, and find a healthy way to express it.
She could say everything that needs to be said assertively.
‘That didn’t work.’
When it doesn’t work we can shrug and congratulate ourselves for sticking up for ourselves, and for acting on our emotion in a healthy, constructive manner. That’s the bit we can control.
It’s possible to be bullied, or ignored, and lose the encounter, yet feel fantastic afterwards, because we stood up for ourselves in the best possible manner.
Q. ‘If I am sad, why would I welcome that sadness? Won’t I become even sadder? What if I end up sinking into a sadness I can’t get out of? And become depressed?’
Yes, it will hurt more. Allowing ourselves to feel those emotions instead of pushing them away or distracting ourselves from them will initially be even more uncomfortable. But it will dissipate. It’s a bit like lancing a boil, or having an injection. In the short term it hurts, but in the long run you benefit. By undergoing the initial pain you give yourself the opportunity to fully heal.
Q. ‘Why do we grieve? It provides no evolutionary benefit. We can’t function properly when we grieve.’
True. Grief is a byproduct of feeling love. If we didn’t have the capacity to feel grief we wouldn’t have the capacity to love in the first place. When we fear losing someone we create in our body stress hormones. They prompt us to fight for what we love. When we lose the person we love, stress hormones keep flooding us because there is no happy ending to make them stop. That’s grief.
Change the following sentences to give yourself permission to feel. Here are three examples:
Example 1: ’I’m sad about losing my dog. I shouldn’t feel sad. I have to move on. Other people suffer worse.’
‘I feel sad about losing my dog. To feel sad is an appropriate emotion to have. Besides, I have given myself permission to feel any emotion, so I can feel what I like. However, I don’t want to feel that way, so maybe later I’ll take steps to deal with it.’
‘I’ll let myself remain sad, and see what happens.’
Example 2: ‘I really want that. Oh, gosh, I’m so materialistic. I’m so shallow.’
‘I really want that . . . Oh, that’s envy. So be it.’ (I might want to add: ‘Why do I want it so much? Why is it important to me? What do I fear will happen if I don’t get it?’)
Or: ‘I really want that. I’m envious. It’s okay if I feel envious. What changes can I make in my life to ensure I get what I want?’
Example 3: ‘I feel ashamed, but I shouldn’t feel that way. I did nothing wrong.’
‘I feel ashamed, and that’s okay. But why do I feel ashamed? What beliefs do I have that are prompting me to feel this way?
(1) ’I can’t stop crying. I’m hopeless.’
(2) ‘I can’t stand being with her. I shouldn’t be like that. I should be more patient, more tolerant.’
(3) ‘I feel hurt, but that’s my problem. If I get upset over that, it serves me right.’