Toxic emotions are feelings that cause you unnecessary pain and interfere with your ability to live a joyful life. Not all negative emotions are toxic. Grief, while painful, is a necessary part of the human experience; it is the flip side of love. When we lose something or someone to whom we are deeply attached, we grieve deeply and experience intense emotional pain. Grief is how we process that experience. It is the way we move through it and emerge on the other side—it is how we heal.
Fear, too, is an uncomfortable emotion that most of us would prefer to avoid. Nevertheless, fear is an essential part of the human experience. It keeps us quick and smart, providing us with the instinctive ability to act efficiently and effectively in an emergency and fueling the natural intuition that keeps us alert to threats. Neurotic fear, phobias and anxiety are toxic. But real fear is an essential emotion without which the human race would not have survived for several thousand years.
What is the difference between an essential emotion and a toxic one? Essential emotions are natural reactions to a stimulus. When we are hurt, we feel sadness. When we lose someone we love, we feel grief. When we are threatened, we feel fear. When someone attacks us, we feel anger. When something repulses us, we feel disgust. The judgment that we attach to the emotion—whether we view it as a positive or negative event– is irrelevant; we feel what we feel.
Judgment, however, profoundly affects what we do with our emotions –how we respond to the experience after the stimulus is gone. If we view the emotions we feel as normal and natural reactions to life’s circumstances–if we acknowledge and accept them, no matter how painful doing so is– then we can process them and, in time, move through the experience and get on with our lives. But if we stifle our natural reaction, whether because we were conditioned to do so or because we fear being overwhelmed, the feelings fester, become toxic, and mutate into perverted versions of what they originally were. Grief becomes self-pity. Anger becomes resentment. Fear becomes anxiety. Regret becomes shame. Rather than affirming our humanity, toxic emotions undermine it, robbing us of emotional energy, blocking real growth and wrecking havoc with our lives.
The purpose of this exercise is to help you connect with repressed emotions—feelings that are attached to deep emotional wounds that probably happened a long time ago. Accessing these emotions and releasing them in a safe way through journaling is a very effective, but sometimes very painful, way to heal—to let go of toxic emotions and move on with your life. As you work on this exercise, you may experience intense feelings of sadness, anger, or other emotional pain. This is natural and expected—you need to feel these things to be free. Nevertheless, if you begin to feel overwhelmed or your feelings are too much to bear, take a break. It took you many years to get to where you are today—you are not going to free yourself of this pain overnight.
To begin this exercise, review the list of emotions from the previous exercise, and try to name the toxic emotions that are affecting your life today. Set an intention to release all judgment, and forgive yourself for holding on to what is causing you pain. Then choose the one emotion that is causing you the most distress now. Give yourself permission to experience it deeply, and follow it where ever it leads. What is it telling you? Where is it taking you? Let the emotion take you to the memory of the life event that gave birth to the feeling that you are experiencing today. That is the place where you still need to heal.
“The best way out is always through.” ~ Robert Frost