Al, sheepishly explaining his infidelity to his wife who has just discovered it, “I’m only human.”
Later, explaining to police why she stuck him in the groin with a kitchen knife, Al’s wife says tearfully, “I’m only human!”
Angelica, who says she prays every day for world peace, feels her anger boil up every time her neighbor’s dog poops in her yard; “I’m only human,” she says, explaining why she has threatened to poison the dog.
Emily, whose husband is leaving her because of her frequent anger and rage, says that her emotions prove her very humanity and that without them her life would be boring and flat. She would rather have her volatile emotions than have a husband.
If we staged a comedy entitled, “I’m Only Human,” it would be full of dark laughter at our preposterous behavior in the name of our humanity.
“I’m only human” is the most pathetic excuse we can use to defend our self-pity and its attendant emotions—anger, irritation, impatience, and resentment.
Negative emotions only prove that we don’t know much
Self-pity, anger, irritation, and resentment do not remind us that we are human with a full emotional palette; they only prove how self-indulgent, weak, unconscious, and immature we are capable of being.
Nevertheless, we are frequently advised to embrace all of our emotions. Here’s a recent quote from a highly-ranked self-help blog :
Embrace every single one of your emotions. Welcome them as a reminder of your essential humanity. And be ready to discover how completely juicy and rewarding life will be.
Apparently, according to this advice, I should embrace my anger, give it a kingly position in my response to life. In this view, my life will be “juicy and rewarding” if I give anger my highest respect. I’m very angry right now, so I am in touch with valuable information, because my anger doesn’t lie. It tells me that something is terribly wrong—not with me, but with somebody or something in my life. I need to know that.
The rationalization: how could I know that I am being victimized if I couldn’t feel this valuable emotion? Without anger, I might not get my defenses up, and then what? I’d be vulnerable to all sorts of attacks and unfairness. My anger is my armor!
This bogus advice is endemic in pop psychology. But it’s comforting, no doubt, to people who don’t want to confront their own weaknesses and bad explanations.
How could embracing the emotion of anger help me discover how “completely juicy and rewarding life will be”? Let’s say that I am often angry or irritated in my relationships with some of the people in my life, and I’m convinced that my irritation is valuable. It tells me that I am not being respected by them appropriately, or that they grate on me because they are so stupid, mean, selfish, unconscious, or crazy. With my valuable irritation, I can fight back.
But irritation is a bad explanation for what is going on. The message I get from my emotion tells me that I’m disturbed by something, but my interpretation of the emotional message is deeply flawed.
How we misinterpret negative emotions
So how to understand our negative emotions? What’s happening when we feel powerful emotions like anger? What’s happening when our emotions erupt in irritation and impatience, for instance?
These emotions are visceral. Our bodies provide powerful reactions when, for instance, we’re angry. We may feel it in the gut. Our hearts may speed up. Our skin may feel flushed; maybe we become red-faced. We may feel nauseous. Maybe we’ll get a headache. Maybe we’ll grit our teeth. Our ability to hear and see may be diminished. Our anger will surely erase arousal if it occurs during sexual activity.
Most people are very familiar with these emotions and their physical manifestations. We have had these emotions since childhood, and we were surrounded with people who expressed these emotions. It seemed, as children, that feeling and expressing negative emotions is completely logical, normal, and desirable.
Because these physical reactions are so powerful, we are certain that they must provide insight into what is happening that seems to cause them. The self-important business man, for instance, is used to deference. When someone gives him some feedback he doesn’t invite or like, he becomes impatient and irritated. His interpretation of his emotional response is that the other person is disrespectful or stupid or just doesn’t “get it.”
He uses his impatience and irritation to ward off the feedback he resists and to establish his superior power in the relationship. Usually it works: we don’t enjoy giving feedback to someone who will punish us. Thus people use negative emotions as armor. The result is that we are somewhat protected, but operate with a bad explanation for our negative emotional reactions. We are “only human,” after all.
The anger and other negative emotions carry information, all right, but it’s not information about survival or responding righteously or releasing our feelings as a way to vent. Anger does not help us survive, but only proves our vulnerability. If I know how to make you angry, I’m in control of you. And there is no righteous anger, as we shall see. The really valuable information our anger provides is about us, our inadequate self-awareness, and the underlying reasons for our unhappiness.
Susan, a wife and mother, comes home from a hard day’s work to see that her children have strewn their toys everywhere. They haven’t made their beds, even though they have agreed to do it. The children and her husband have eaten the food in the refrigerator that she had planned for dinner and the scraps and dirty plates have been left all over the kitchen. Her husband sits in his chair watching tv. Hurt that no one in the household is respecting her, she shouts orders to her children to clean up the house. She threatens them with the possibility that there will be no dinner for them tonight. She cries in frustration as she asks her husband, “Are you brain-dead, or are you just mentally ill?” Her body, loaded with emotional response, is now exhausted.
She doesn’t question her own emotional responses: she is deeply convinced that her anger, impatience, and irritation are good explanations for what is happening. And she is deeply convinced that her emotions are caused by her feckless family.
She loses her poise regularly because she carries a lot of self-pity into her marriage and child rearing. Her powerful negative emotions convince her that her family is failing her, but actually they only indicate how much her self-importance is constantly pricked. She has a notion that her position in the family as wife and mother should be respected and that her family is not respecting her. She feels sorry for herself every time their behavior doesn’t match her expectations.
Her children and husband have become wary of her emotional outbursts and try unsuccessfully to placate her or avoid her. Even when they change their behavior to please her, she habitually and unconsciously continues to use her emotions to control family members. Challenged by her husband about her emotional outbursts, she likes to say, “I’m only human.”
Our negative emotions are great teachers
We may be convinced that our emotions don’t lie. That is undoubtedly true, but not in the way most people believe.
Our negative emotions rise up in the moment telling us that something is wrong. And something is, indeed, wrong.
Anger arising in me, I know that I am off, misinterpreting what is going on. Irritated by something or somebody, I am refusing responsibility for creating how I feel and think.
My negative emotions can reveal valuable insights—that I have lost my poise, that I have moved into the victim mode, creating a false story about how somebody or something is doing something to me.
Anger, irritation, and impatience tell me in the moment that I have gone to sleep and for the moment live in a default response to what is going on.
Does this mean I should mistrust my emotions?
No. I should trust my negative emotions. They hold invaluable information. They tell me that I’m out of balance. I can’t understand what is going on right now, my anger informs me. My anger is demanding my attention, and while it demands my attention, my love is no longer available.
“Ah,” my anger tells me, “you can’t love right now. YOU ARE OFF!”
I need these emotions—not when my love is flowing—but right now because there are dark corners in my awareness that must be illuminated. My anger, for instance, tells me right where to look for my weaknesses.
The businessman discussed above is irritated when others give him feedback he doesn’t like—feedback that disagrees with his perspective, and feedback that seems to him to question his position, importance, and intelligence. He fends them off with criticism or defensiveness.
He doesn’t see that his irritation is valuable information telling him that he is off.
If he learned how to interpret his negative emotions correctly, he would be humble and alert: he would feel the true danger in this moment of his life—the danger that he is moving in darkness, making mistakes, and closing off his love and his learning.
If Susan, the mother and wife discussed above, listened to herself during her angry episodes, she could discover the self-pity at the root of her emotional outbursts.
She could see that she is off, out of balance, crazy even, her love not available just when she needs it most. Her negative emotions could be a signpost for her, directing her toward a profound learning that she must engage. Instead, she shields herself from any insight claiming, “I’m only human.”
A warrior is on a loving path, and on a loving path he or she is humble and alert. Anything that throws a warrior off a loving path must be examined, understood, and then rejected.
Anger, irritation, and impatience throw us off our loving path.
Can we achieve a consciousness without negative emotions?
Men and women of great awareness have achieved a consciousness that does not need negative emotions any longer. Maybe they needed them at early points in their life, but used them to learn and to get back to a loving path.
We can achieve the same freedom and victory over our bad explanations for what we reject about life. But only if we have the courage to perceive the truth, undistorted by excuses and lame justifications.
Negative emotions are painful, our being crying out because we are off.
Our anger, irritation, and impatience are simply our self-pity expressing itself. We don’t have any need of them at a certain point in our development.
Once we’ve erased our self-pity completely—a real possibility for some of us—we will no longer feel angry, irritated, or impatient.
We will no longer need these instructors. We will no longer need to be in emotional pain.
Maybe we can stay on our path of love full time and for the first time claim, “I am human.”