On Our Last Episode…
In a previous post, I shared some thoughts about how the word “should” causes us so much suffering. The short version is: The initial event (waking up too late, being cut off in traffic, stubbing our toe, or having rain start when we want to go for a walk) doesn’t usually make us upset for very long. What makes us upset is our insistence that things should be different – that we should have behaved differently, or that others should have behaved differently, or that the world should be different than it is. There’s nothing wrong with wanting things to be different and working to effect that change. But being upset about the fact that they’re not different right now is unhelpful. It just makes us feel worse and drains our energy.
Stacking Negative Emotions
There is another form of emotional pain we inflict on ourselves, a kind of shoulding that is especially insidious. Very often, after having an initial reaction, we then have an emotional reaction about our initial reaction. I call that “stacking”, like putting one pancake on top of another – except in this case, each pancake is a negative emotion. Sometimes we even add a third pancake and a fourth pancake, and pretty soon we are dealing with a giant stack of negative emotions.
For example, someone may cut us off in line to the self-checkout machines at the supermarket. We get irritated (“this person shouldn’t have cut me off!” – the first pancake). Then a moment later we feel annoyed at our own irritation (“stop making such a tragedy out of everything! So you got cut off in line, big deal!” – second pancake). Then we feel worried about over-reacting so often (“I’m so emotionally fragile” – third pancake). Then we feel contempt toward ourselves for not confronting the offender (“Why can’t I stand up for myself instead of standing here like a coward?” – fourth pancake). And on and on.
By that point, instead of just being momentarily annoyed, we are upset with, worried about and maybe even contemptuous of ourselves. Can you see how, in this example, our thoughts and feelings about our thoughts and feelings are causing us most of the suffering?
It would be good to learn how to stop doing that to ourselves. Especially when we are in the middle of a negative emotion spiral, it would be helpful to stop adding additional pancakes to the stack.
Good news. You can.
How to Stop Stacking
In order to stop stacking negative emotions, we must accept the current reality. When we accept reality, we disconnect from the should. We stop straining against the facts, and stop hurting ourselves with this struggle. Accepting the current reality doesn’t mean we become passive. We can still work to change things, without emotionally punishing ourselves for the way things are right now. It all starts with acceptance.
To stop stacking negative emotions, you must first realize that you stacking. The moment you realize that you are stacking, you have already stopped stacking: You cannot think “Ah, I’m stacking!” and at the same time think “I’m so emotionally fragile”. In the instant when you realize you are stacking, you are stepping outside of the stacking cycle, you are standing apart from it and pointing at it. Of course, on the next very instant you may fall right back into it. “Ah, I’m stacking! I shouldn’t stack, why do I always stack negative emotions? What’s wrong with me?” but then, if you are lucky, you again realize that you are stacking, and for another moment you step outside of the stacking cycle.
This is the whole technique: Realize, Accept.
If you want to be fancy, you can add a step: Realize, Breathe, Accept. That’s all it takes. You name each pancake, and accept that this is really how you feel, with an attitude of kindness and warm caring toward yourself. By the time you are done doing this, you will feel calmer. You will have left the terrifying cycle of feeling worse and worse, and you will gain some clarity, some sense of stability. Paradoxically, by accepting your reality completely and without struggle, you will change your reality a little. You will remove the main thing that has been causing your suffering: Your resistance.
On the next time you catch yourself stacking, name your current reality and accept it as reality. Just name each one of the pancakes in your stack of negative emotions, and conclude with “and I accept this is how things are right now.” Do this gently, with compassion toward yourself and your own suffering. Remember that you are talking to and about someone who is in pain. Be kind.
For example, you might say “Oh! I’m stacking. I feel stupid because I keep catching myself stacking negative emotions. I feel worried that I’m always having intense emotional reactions over little things. And I still feel really upset because that guy cut me off in line at the supermarket. And I accept this is how things are right now.”