Emotions, Ambivalence, Holding Space, And Life’s Complexity

Reflections on emotions:

Emotions appear strongly “contradictory” or “conflicting” when looked at from the lens of doing or needing to do something about/with them.

Doing will inevitably be the frame of reference a lot of the time as emotions emerge as action impulses at heart- they drive us to do things and they carry the (often illusory) promise of being able to be relieved or satisfied once X has finally been done.

From the sometimes more challenging perspective to adopt of being (challenging only inasmuch as “letting go” or “doing nothing” is challenging)- there is no contradiction. There are just different feelings appearing at different times in relation to different things.

Most things in life are truly complex. The only way to have simple feelings about something is if that things role in your life is very simple and straightforward- like “I like the curry at this restaurant”.

But for most of us most of the time, our relationships, our careers, our values, and many other life circumstances/decisions will play out in many complex ways, leading to many mixed (“conflicting”) feelings about those things. We may at moments be both disgusted and encouraged by our own past actions. We may leave a job to seek greater ambitions, only to later on realise that we truly miss something about the old working environment (“You don’t really know what you got ’til it’s gone”). Many major life decisions appear to be, at best, very blunt instruments with which to craft our wellbeing.

Mixed feelings about something is something that can’t be helped or solved because for many things no matter which action you take you’ll just have a new basket of mixed feelings following. That’s not to say we can’t take actions in life that aren’t a “net win” on some level- we can and do attempt to navigate on a day to day basis towards greater well-being, and some situations are clearly better than others. But for many of the more vexing situations and decisions in life, perhaps it’s helpful to be sceptical of our ability to “solve” for our feelings, and gently work towards merely accepting them.

This is where “making space” for emotions comes in. Think what you think. Feel what you feel. Sitting with these feelings over time- getting to know them intimately. Making space for emotions doesn’t make them go away, it just makes them more bearable and we suffer less for them.

Four things that I find help make space for emotions every day:

1. Meditation

Practicing observing the present thought and emotion again and again. What is happening right now? Can you see/feel it clearly? Sitting for longer periods of time helps. But also- dropping all expectation of meditation “succeeding” in any way- (including dropping the expectation of being able to drop the expectation!). Also reconnecting with the physical world around you- the sounds, the sensations in your body, and sight- things that aren’t emotions of themselves.

2. Emotional connection with others

So much of what makes emotional life challenging is the sense of being alone/isolated/mad with what we feel. It’s such a relief to connect to others and realise they feel the same way and navigate the same paradoxes on a day to day basis. I think it was Brene Brown who said “connection solves everything”. Sometimes I wonder if so much of what we feel deep down can ultimately boil down to a deep-seated, vulnerable desire to connect with others- even ostensibly superficial things like buying the latest Tesla, keeping up with fashion or getting a bigger house.

3. Flow states

Flow states could be thought of as when a part of us gets to truly sit in the “drivers seat” of consciousness for a time and enjoy a particular ride. I feel flow states when captivated by a movie, a piece of music, working on something I find enjoyable, playing sport, or in conversation with others. Perhaps flow states help because one part of us gets to really engage with reality for a time, which satisfies it and allows it to fall back afterwards. Flow states allow our parts to meet their needs.

4. Art

The purpose of art should be to help us hold space for life’s complexity. It should help us connect with and express our deepest emotions. Great art is really capable of doing this- bringing us solidly into the present and “feeling what we feel”.

A few things that seem to reduce my emotional space every day

In contrast to the above four, these are things that I find result in my feeling less emotional space and less capable to hold the paradoxes of life:

1. Being too busy

When our work or life is too busy, certain parts of us get shoved to the side and don’t find their expression. Once we return home after a long day at work we’re exhausted and don’t have the resources to sit with or hold our feelings. Over time they fester until a mountain is created, which can ultimately lead to an emotional breakdown.

Alain De Botton wrote well of this in his book The pleasures and sorrows of work. Speaking of this state of constant animation:

“The challenge lies in knowing how to bring this sort of day to a close. His mind has been wound to a pitch of concentration by the interactions of the office. Now there are only silence and the flashing of the unset clock on the microwave. He feels as if he had been playing a computer game which remorselessly tested his reflexes, only to have its plug suddenly pulled from the wall. He is impatient and restless, but simultaneously exhausted and fragile. He is in no state to engage with anything significant. It is of course impossible to read, for a sincere book would demand not only time, but also a clear emotional lawn around the text in which associations and anxieties could emerge and be disentangled….

For this particular combination of tiredness and nervous energy, the sole workable solution is wine. Office civilisation could not be feasible without the hard take-offs and landings effected by coffee and alcohol. The final approach will be made under the benign guidance of a Chilean Cabernet and the hypnotic, entirely untroubling retelling of the day’s misdemeanours and cataclysms on the evening news.”

2. Constant demands on attention

Anyone who’s a parent will know what it feels like to have one’s attention constantly demanded. When one’s attention is captured away by the demands of work, family or other commitments ones own feelings never have time to emerge and be processed.

3. Isolation

The COVID pandemic has resulted in a significant increase of working from home, and I have worked from home now for over a year. I have to put in special effort to connect frequently with friends. We need frequent and mutually attuned contact with the minds of other people- contact with the minds of other people can reinforce a healthy sense of self and offers the antidote to being alone with our many feelings.

I hope this article helped you to hold space too.

Shawn 12/08/2022

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