Today’s Solutions: February 03, 2023

Therapists never ask their patients if their suffering is connected to world events. But psychotherapist Miriam Greenspan believes that more and more people are hurting from the increasing perception of threats in the world. Greenspan takes a stand on the psychology of global suffering.

Miriam Greenspan | April 2003 issue
For some 30 years as a psychotherapist, I have listened to painful stories. When people come for the ‘talking cure’, they generally wear their pain as a badge of shame. They believe that they are suffering because of some core defect resulting from bad parenting they received, and that therapy will rid them of this defect and remove their bad feelings – hopefully forever. Conventional psychology is largely responsible for such ideas, which is why therapists always ask questions about how their patients’ pain is connected to their families of origin but almost never ask: ‘How is your suffering connected to the world?’
Our world, so full of beauty and wonder, is also a place of unthinkable terror, ecological devastation, and a baffling, overwhelming mass of ongoing collective sorrows. In these times of war, despair about the military ‘winnability’ of safety and freedom from terror nips at our psyche like a snake. In this global context, the dark emotions of grief, fear, and despair are, and for the foreseeable future will be, unwelcome guests in our consciousness. We all suffer from these emotions, or from the ailments that stem from denying or numbing ourselves to them.
One by one by one, we in the psychotherapy profession see the common suffering of our age: the depressed and suicidal, chronically anxious, psychically numb, attention-deficient, relationally-impaired, multiply-addicted, spiritually wounded men, women, and children who come to us for help and healing. In increasing numbers, at ever younger ages, Westerners are finding it impossible to sleep without Ambien, to work without Prozac, to live without alcohol, nicotine, or heroin, to be without our endless array of techno-toys. Mood-altering drugs, once a type of medication largely confined to the closed halls of psychiatric inpatient units, are now household words: Who has not heard of Prozac? Terms like ‘serotonin-deficiency’ are now in the common lexicon, expressing our culture’s reductive view of why we are so depressed.
Psychiatry diagnoses and treats these problems as though we are all little narcissistic bubble-selves floating around in space, with no relation to the social universe or earth we inhabit. Not one of the approximately 360 diagnoses of the DSM IV – the psychiatric bible of pathology – makes any connection between our emotional disturbances and the state of the world. What conventional psychiatry and psychology do instead is reduce human suffering to a plethora of categories of pathology, and document the steady escalation of these mental disorders in our time. These statistics tell us that some 100 million people around the world suffer from depression, and that each successive generation is more depressed than the one before. Millions more will be diagnosed with one or more phobias, or severe anxiety disorders with names like panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, substance-induced anxiety disorder. Sleep disorders too are on the rise. Children at younger ages are being diagnosed in increasing numbers with mental disorders once reserved entirely for adults – bipolar disorder, depressive disorder, borderline personality disorder, and eating disorders, along with escalating disorders of learning and attention and alarming new diagnoses like oppositional defiance disorder and attachment disorder.
In my view, our inability, both individually and collectively, to mindfully tolerate our grief, fear, and despair – emotions that are continually triggered in an age of global threat – is a crucial source of what ails us. These are the emotions we most dread and that most urgently require our attention. Aborted or suppressed grief easily devolves into depression, anxiety, and addiction. Benumbed fear often turns into panic, phobias, irrational prejudice, and violence. Overwhelming or unconscious despair can lead to severe psychic numbing or express itself through destructive acts to oneself and others, including suicide and homicide. Sadly, these patterns play themselves out on the world stage as much as in the individual psyche. Our children, growing into a world in which the ‘normal’ adult psychology of the older generation has traumatically endangered their world and their future, are carrying the burden of dark emotions that the adults in their world can barely name or tolerate.
If the bad news is that grief, fear, and despair are inevitable in the global environment we inhabit, the good news is that these emotions themselves offer us a means of individual and social transformation and healing. For more than 20 years, my work has focused on the healing power of the dark emotions. Most of what I know about this power I learned through my own personal odysseys in these realms. Being born and living for four years in a Displaced Person’s Camp in Germany just after World War II gave me an early intimacy with the intense currents of grief and fear that circulated through the community of post-Holocaust Jewish refugees. From these beginnings, I learned that painful emotions are a power to be reckoned with, that they are transmitted inter-generationally, and that they tell a story the world needs to hear.
I started writing about the dark emotions in 1989, after my daughter Esther took a fall from her crib. Esther was born with a neuromotor disability for which medical science has no name. After her fall, I was warned by her orthopedist that falling again could cause Esther to become quadriplegic. I spent a long night looking straight into the face of my terror for my child’s fragile life – and found that this fear, fully experienced in my body, had a trajectory, a movement that culminated in a state of unexpected, exuberant joy. In this moment, the idea for a book came to me, inspired and complete with chapter headings and title: ‘Healing Through the Dark Emotions’. But the book was germinating for a long time before this. I date its beginnings to 1981, the year my first child was born and died. This grief was my harshest and most extraordinary teacher. It was a tornado that uprooted me and threw me down in a devastated landscape that mysteriously opened into a magical world where spirit was alive, even after death. It led me by the hand, like a child, and showed me that a great suffering can open the gate to a world charged with the sacred.
What my life has taught me, repeatedly, is that the heart heals itself when we know how to listen to it. In befriending our most dreaded emotions, we discover the heart’s native intelligence. Each dark emotion has its own kind of wisdom, its own value and purpose, and its own alchemy. Each, in its own way, calls us to transformation. The alchemy of the dark emotions is a movement towards healing, harmony, and metamorphosis that happens when we know how to open to them, honour their wisdom and power, and use their energies wisely. In my own personal and professional experience, these alchemies move us from grief to gratitude, fear to joy, and despair to faith.
It is not the dark emotions themselves that hurt us but our fear of them, our belief that they are negative, and our inability to bear them mindfully. There are no negative emotions, only human emotions. But there are negative attitudes toward emotions, and negative consequences of emotions we ca not tolerate. I call grief, fear, and despair ‘dark’ not because they are unwholesome or pathological but because they tend to be shunned, silenced, or denied in patriarchal culture. ‘Emotion-phobia’ dissociates us from the energies of emotions like grief, fear, and despair and tells us that they are untrustworthy, dangerous, and destructive. Generally, we regard painful emotions as signs of psychological fragility, mental disorder, or spiritual defect. We suppress, intellectualise, judge, avoid, deny, or medicate them.
Grief, fear, and despair are primary emotions, as fundamental to human existence as love, awe, joy, and hope. Emotional suffering does not mean we are sick. It means that we are alive; that we live in a damaged and damaging social environment; and that we are challenged to use our suffering for the purpose of transformation.
Grief arises because we are not alone, and what connects us to others and to the world also breaks our hearts. Grieving our losses allows us to heal and renew our spirits. Grief is a sacred, redemptive psycho-spiritual process that develops our empathy and compassion – when it is not inhibited by well-meaning friends, religious clerics with blandishments not to mourn because it is God’s will, or psychiatric taboos that give us two months of grief time before declaring that we are suffering from a major mental disorder. Redemptive grief – by which I mean grief that has been honoured and allowed to flow, mindfully, in its own unique manner – brings us to an awed sense of gratitude. When we fully grieve for what we have lost, we discover, as though for the first time, what we really have. We know our blessings – and we are grateful. This is grief’s alchemy.
Fear is perhaps the most strongly stigmatised of the dark emotions, especially for men. Yet it is actually critical to our survival, both individually and as a species. Fear alerts us to protect life, extending beyond our instinct for self-preservation to our concern for the survival of others. Its call is an alarm that we ignore at our own peril. While we think of fear as paralysing, it is actually energizing. The paralysis sets in when we afraid to experience fear in our bodies, and so deny or numb ourselves to it. Fear is the adrenaline surge of ‘fight or flight’ which moves us to act. The trick is maintaining our awareness in the midst of this powerful emotion, allowing fear to move through us, and finding the right action – rather than trying to kill our fear through bold, aggressive moves (like destroying an ‘enemy’). In the alchemy of fear, we find the courage to experience our fear mindfully and to open to our vulnerability. We are then released into the joy of knowing that we can live with and use our fear wisely, that fear does not have to stop us from living fully.
The alchemy of despair may seem even more remote than that of fear. At face value, despair seems to be a ‘loser’ emotion – an immediate threat to functioning and living well. Yet despair too has its uses. Arising as a response to something in ourselves or in the world that we cannot bear to accept, despair insists that we face into a dark truth from which we’d prefer to avert our gaze. It asks us to create meaning from unbearable pain, to radically transform the ways we think and act if we are to avert self-destruction. When we honour our despair, it delivers us to a more resilient faith in life. Having looked at the Medusa’s head and not been turned to stone, we find a faith that is all the more unshakeable because it is not based on an avoidance of the dark. We discover that the darkness has its own light.
Again, our tolerance for this challenging emotion is only decreased by psychiatric assumptions of pathology. Psychiatry loves to put arbitrary deadlines on emotions it pathologies – timelines which, appearing in a diagnostic and statistical manual, attain the ring of hard science. It is not normal to feel sad, dejected, or hopeless, say the experts, for more than two weeks at a time (regardless of what is going on in one’s life or in the world). But anyone who has ever experienced despair knows that despair requires a great deal of patience. The darkest of the dark emotions, despair needs some spacious attention before it lifts. Feeling this bad in a feel-good culture is transgressive; it goes against the grain of a culture of denial. In my view, depression is unalchemised, chronic despair. It is what happens when despair becomes chronically stuck in the body. This is not to say that depression is not a serious mental health problem, or that it has nothing to do with serotonin. The problem is that the way we think about depression as a reified, pathological, strictly biochemical condition blinds us to despair as an honourable emotion and makes its alchemy unlikely.
Each dark emotion has a gift, a sacred redemptive power which we discover when we come to it with openness, and when we know the art of attending, befriending, and consciously surrendering to it. These are the three basic skills I teach in my therapy practice and in my book. Attending to emotions does not mean noticing and distracting ourselves from them. It means cultivating a deep awareness of emotions as in-the-body energies, and of the thoughts that both trigger and subdue them. Befriending our dark emotions is an extension of this process, elongating our emotional attention spans and developing what psychologists call affect tolerance. Finally, in surrender we do not give up our will, wallow in our pain, or become victims of our emotions. We simply allow the energy of emotion to flow through the body to its end point, without venting or melodrama. Surrender, like attention and befriending, is a ‘staying with it’ process, not a ‘getting away’ process. The only way to authentically let go of an emotion is to let it be, and this requires a great deal of spiritual discipline.
We generally do not come to these skills intuitively because we have deeply internalised a ‘contain and manage’ model of how to cope with emotions. We learn in our families, our schools, and in the culture as a whole that control is the best or only way to cope with intense feelings. In keeping with the patriarchal ethos of hierarchy, suppression, and fragmented consciousness, we try to keep those nasty feelings down before they overtake our reason. While this kind of control may be exactly what is needed in certain circumstances, it is also a culturally-sanctioned compulsion born of our emotion-phobic reactions to the flow of emotional energy in the body. If we are to receive the gifts of emotional alchemy, we need a more feminine model of ‘connection and flow’ in which mindfulness, not control, is the key. When we know how to ride the energy of the dark emotions on the surfboard of awareness, emotional flow becomes transformational.
The loss of connection to nature in Western post-industrial society, the devastation of our environmental resources and the crippling effects of patriarchy are the largely overlooked global contexts that trigger and complicate the dark emotions in our time. These emotions are the conduit of our moral responsiveness to the world, carrying information our conscious minds would often rather deny or avoid. They are affective markers of our collective fate, and the unrecognised vehicles of an urgently needed worldwide social and spiritual transformation – the tikkun olam for which we fervently act and pray. If we ever needed the wisdom of the dark emotions, we need it now.
Yet, even as the dark emotions increasingly dominate our psyches, the wisdom they offer continues to elude us. This is obvious when we look around the globe. From our high school halls to the Pentagon, from the Middle East to Washington, D.C., we see not emotional alchemy but psychic numbing combined with violent acting out of intolerable emotions. In the Middle East, Israelis and Palestinians, two chronically grieving people, fight over the same piece of turf, creating collective traumas that destroy the possibilities of peaceful coexistence. Intolerable grief, fear, and despair emerge as a proclivity to violence around the world, especially in spots where compulsive, ritualistic cycles of vengeance continually both re-enact and produce more and more traumatized grief, fear and despair.
Huge mushroom clouds of unalchemised dark emotions afflict us in our time, transmitted transpersonally to all of us in some form. The ‘sensitives’ among us (who tend to be women and children) are ‘carriers’ of these emotions who hold dark emotional energy in their bodies, often unawares, putting them at risk for a host of mind/body ailments. Others become numb ‘bystanders’ to dark emotions in themselves and others, masters of the dominant mode of emotional cut-off. This patriarchal style of dissociating from emotion is killing us – contributing to interpersonal impasses, violence both perpetrated and tolerated, moral failures to respond empathically to human suffering, and the eco-cidal destruction of the earth. If our leaders were more attuned to the empathic properties of their dark emotions, such bystander crimes would be a lot less likely. What is needed is a shift to a more feminine emotional style and meaning system, in which emotions are seen as powerful ways of knowing that guide us to develop empathy, nurturance, and care of others; a shift in which these qualities are no longer privatised or devalued as second-order business. Perhaps then emotions – dismissed, trivialized, and pathologised in patriarchy – would not lose their potential for redemptive healing and transformation.
We live in the world and the world lives in us. The dark emotions that our bodies carry are transpersonal energies housed in our flesh and rooted in our responses to the world – to the inevitable pain of being alive and being humanly connected to others. We see our private feelings through the lens of our separateness, but when we widen the lens, it becomes clear that everything we feel is experienced within a larger system of emotional ecology. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., we are all interconnected in an ‘inescapable web of mutuality’. We can use the energy of our most dreaded emotions for the purpose of healing not only ourselves but this larger web. The call to healing is, in fact, a fundamental message of the dark emotions: because we all feel sorrow, fear, and despair, because these emotions are universal, we are all intervulnerable, for better and for worse. We feel together and heal together. In recognizing the profound ways that we are interconnected in our suffering, we come to understand healing in a larger sense than simply the amelioration of individual pain. We hear more vividly the cries of others in the human family, and of the earth itself for healing. We each have a particular gift or vision, skill or song to contribute to global healing. Individual healing, as I see it, has a lot to do with finding this gift and giving it to the world. When we can do this, no matter how small our gift may seem, we are made more whole. In this process, we break out of the prison of ego. We become fuller and more connected to others, and to life. This to me, is what healing is about. A healed life is always a work in progress; not a life devoid of all traces of suffering but a life lived fully, deeply, authentically, and compassionately engaged with the world.
‘There is nothing so whole as a broken heart,’ goes one saying. The world breaks our hearts wide open – and it is the openness that makes us whole. We cannot and should not expect to be completely cured of grief, fear, and despair in a broken-hearted world. We learn to accept suffering and vulnerability as a normal part of life, and how to use our suffering for the good. Because we are vulnerable, life hurts. We are not here to be free of pain. We are here to have our hearts broken by life, and to transform our pain into love.

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