The 3 Steps to Emotional Freedom
Psychiatrist and author of Guilt, Shame, and Anxiety explains how to liberate your feelings—and yourself.
Illustration: Eiko Yamaji/Imagezoo/Getty Images
Step 1: Identify Your Negative Legacy Emotions
Many people live amid so much guilt, shame or anxiety that they become like fish that have been swimming in polluted water since escaping their eggs. A poor fish may have no idea that it is living under abnormal environmental conditions. Yet it will feel the equivalent of fish joyfulness when it finally experiences fresh, clean water. This will be the same for you.
Guilt, shame and anxiety are so painful that we will do almost anything to ward them off. To avoid feeling guilt, we make no choices that seem remotely bad, selfish or self-serving. To avoid feeling shame, we hold back our opinions at work, or in our marriage, and we never try anything creative, like writing, making artwork or dancing. To avoid feeling anxiety, we give up taking risks or trying anything new or different.
If your life seems constricted, boring or meaningless, your primitive emotions are probably sapping your vitality. To test this possibility, try imagining doing something different, and monitor your feelings for negative emotions. Imagine indulging yourself in some mildly selfish fashion. Imagine speaking your opinion to friends, or taking a small risk to add excitement to your life.
When you experiment with imagining something new and daring, do you experience guilt, shame, anxiety or some combination? Practice identifying your negative emotions, and you will take your first step toward emotional freedom and a better life for you and the people whose lives you touch.
Step 2: Reject Any Compliance With These Emotions
Do you want to redecorate your home, build furniture, play music, draw or paint? Do you want to go to the theater or travel? Do you want to start a small business or volunteer to help others? Pursue a career you will love? Get a degree? Find a person with whom to share your life? Improve your marriage or your relationships with your children? Make a difference in the world? If you have failed to act on these desires, your demoralizing, negative legacy emotions are probably stopping you. They probably kick in whenever you consider or imagine asserting yourself toward fulfilling your wishes or dreams.
Instead of obediently complying with or caving in to these painful emotions, recognize and name them like enemies you plan to confront and overcome: "You are guilt! You are shame! You are anxiety! You are chronic anger or numbness!"
Take the second step toward emotional freedom by rejecting your painful, self-defeating emotions. Tell your negative emotions, "I will not be paralyzed by you. I will not let you misdirect me. I refuse to be controlled or compelled by you."
Guilt, shame and anxiety behave like unwanted houseguests who repeatedly come back until we start saying no to them. They are emotional bullies who feel entitled to intimidate us. They push us harder and harder and take over our lives.
We need to remind ourselves that our most painful emotions have nothing to do with reality, with who we really are or with how we should act. Instead of consulting your negative legacy emotions, ask yourself what you want to do when you succeed in rejecting them. Then, begin to make decisions based on reason, mature ethics and love.
Our wretched feelings toward our lives and ourselves do not make us better people. Instead, they build anger and resentment and can drive some of our worst behaviors. They can blind us to our real misdeeds and make us unable to work toward becoming better people. Even if you believe that other people need these emotional inhibitions to make them behave, you can decide that you do not need them because you can use your emotional freedom to become more rational, ethical and loving.
Step 3: Triumph Over and Transcend These Emotions
The third step toward emotional freedom requires fulfilling your potential to become a source of love. For several decades now, this has been my working definition of love: Love is joyful awareness.
When your awareness of someone or something brings you happiness or joy, you are probably experiencing love. It can be your dog or cat, a person or place, nature, creativity, your chosen ideals or your concept of a higher power. If your awareness of this aspect of life makes you feel wonderfully glad to be alive, then you are experiencing love. This is what flowers, sunny days, starlit nights, streams and lakes, pets, music and art, marvelous ideas and higher purposes have in common: They can inspire us with joyful awareness, or love.
This is a simple, straightforward concept—that love is joyful awareness. It contrasts sharply with all the disappointing, self-defeating unhappy feelings and experiences in our lives.
Take a moment and imagine this for yourself: no more guilt, no more anxiety, no more shame, no more chronic anger and no more emotional numbness—or, at least, a lot less than you currently endure. Now, imagine filling your mind, heart and spirit with more love than you ever dreamed of. Imagine feeling joyful in the presence of others and of life itself. Imagine being happy.
These three steps to emotional freedom can change your life forever: Learn to identify guilt, shame and anxiety; learn to reject them; and, learn to fill yourself with love for other people, life in its many aspects and your greater purposes.
Keep in mind that love is joyful awareness. If you are thinking about something or someone, and it makes you feel miserable, then it is probably not love. If you think about something or someone, and you light up inside with joy or happiness, that is almost surely love.
You may have had so many negative experiences surrounding "love" that the very thought of it makes you succumb to painful emotions. Love may have initially attracted you to someone, and then it went sour. This may have happened a number of times, leading you to feel frustrated and angry, as well as numb. Reexamine what happened, and you will find the problem was not with love. Your relationships were held back, distorted or corrupted by negative legacy emotions afflicting you and your partners.
How does this apply when one partner simply feels more love than the other, or when the two partners have differing views of what the relationship should be? Often, people suffer in relationships from feeling unloved or from irresolvable conflicts. Although rational compromises are made, one or both partners may feel disappointed, frustrated or bereaved. What matters is how each partner handles his or her inevitable painful feelings. If guilt, shame and anxiety, or chronic anger and numbing, complicate their responses, they will become mired down with increasing feelings of helplessness. If these negative legacy emotions can be held off and helplessness rejected, then effective decision-making and emotional recovery are enhanced rather than impeded. Love motivates us to nurture, respect and protect whomever and whatever we love, from a special person to our spiritual relationship with life.
This excerpt is from Guilt, Shame, and Anxiety: Understanding and Overcoming Negative Emotions by Peter R. Breggin, MD.