Understanding Negative Emotions

One common misrepresentation of the Course is the idea that it teaches or encourages us to suppress or deny negative emotions. This is based on a misunderstanding and misuse of an often quoted, and indeed quite radical and uncompromising, teaching in the Course, that...“anger is never justified.” Students and non-students alike sometimes take this to mean that the Course is saying that we should not get angry—or that anger is something we should feel guilty about.

Similarly, people sometimes think that the basic metaphysical teaching of the Course that this world is illusory means that the Course is telling us to go through life pretending that nothing bothers us, when in fact it does, acting as if everything that happens is okay with us, when in fact it isn’t—putting up with behavior from people that inwardly we really think is terrible and forcing ourselves to smile sweetly in return.

The Course is saying no such thing. Very simply, the Course never asks that we deny, lie about, or minimize our subjective experience—our feelings, judgments, perceptions to ourselves or anyone else. It never asks us to pretend to feel differently than we do feel. And it never tells us to feel guilty about the feelings we have.

The core teaching of the Course is that healing is the release from guilt and fear, not the deepening of them in our minds. Although the Course does teach metaphysically that this world is illusion, it also recognizes and states very clearly that we do not believe that.

We believe that the world is real, and so it is very real for us. We are not meant to use the metaphysical teachings of the Course to pretend that we no longer take this world, or our bodies, or our ego-identities seriously. In fact we do take them very seriously—and this is our need for healing.

We can’t use metaphysical jargon or intellectual understanding to circumvent our healing process—nor does the Course in any way advocate that we do so. How do we understand emotions, particularly painful or so-called negative emotions, in the framework of the Course? Where do they fit into the healing process?

How do we work with them in our experience?

Emotions Are a Response to Perception

Although our emotional reactions always seem subjectively to be a response to something eternal—to something that has happened or something someone did. In fact they are always reactions to something internal, something within our own minds—to our perception and interpretation of whatever has occurred.

"Understand that you do not respond to anything directly, but to your interpretation of it. Your interpretation thus becomes the justification for the response."

-A Course in Miracles

Regardless of how it seems, we never react emotionally to an event or fact, but always to our perception of that event or fact—to the interpretation and meaning we give to it.

The same event or action, seen in a different light or context, will have a different meaning to us, and our emotional response will be different.

Our feelings are always mediated by our thoughts and interpretations, whether we are consciously aware of this process or not.

Imagine that you go into work one morning and a co-worker completely ignores your greeting to her. You feel offended and angry and think to yourself, "Who does she think she is?"

Or, if you are a more self-blaming type, you might feel scared and upset and wonder why she's mad at you or doesn't like you.

Then suppose another co-worker takes you aside and tells you that this woman's elderly father in another state had been suddenly taken ill and that the woman has been upset and preoccupied all morning.

Suddenly your feelings may be quite different. In place of the anger or personal upset you had been experiencing, you find yourself feeling sympathetic and concerned.

Nothing at all has changed except your perception and understanding of the woman's behavior; you now see a call for love where before you saw an attack, and automatically your emotional response changes.

The emotions we feel are always a natural, and in that sense appropriate response to our perceptions of things. If we perceive attack and blame, we will feel angry or defensive or scared. There is simply no way around that. It is a psychological reality.

"If you decide that someone is really trying to attack you or desert you or enslave you, you will respond as if he had actually done so, having made his error real to you. ..you react to your interpretations as if they were correct.
You may then control your reactions behaviorally, but not emotionally.This would obviously be a split or an attack on the integrity of your mind, pitting one level within it against another."

-A Course in Miracles

This passage makes very clear that merely controlling the expression of our emotional reactions is not healing.

Pretending—to others or to ourselves—that we are not angry, upset, or hurt when in fact that is how we feel is not healing.

Our emotions are the result of our perceptions. They are the symptoms of a problem, not the cause. Control or suppression at the level of symptoms is not real healing.

"It is pointless to believe that controlling the outcome of misthought can result in healing. When you are fearful, you have chosen wrongly ...
You must change your mind, not your behavior ...
Correction belongs only at the level where change is possible. Change does not mean anything at the symptom level, where it cannot work." -A Course in Miracles

Denying that we are feeling emotionally upset neither changes the feelings nor helps us let them go. At the same time, expressing our feelings does not, in and of itself, change them or help us let them go.

The real problem when we are upset is not at the level of what we are feeling, but at the level of how we are perceiving and giving meaning to whatever is happening.

We will naturally feel differently when we see differently.

The only way to have a different emotional response is to have a different perception of what is happening.

Our Perceptions, and Thus Emotions, Are a Choice We Make

A basic premise of the Course is that there are, within our minds, two basic perceptions or ways to see.

We can either see through the eyes of the ego—which will always perceive separation, difference, attack, guilt, and blame—or we can see through the eyes of the Holy Spirit—which will always see wholeness, unity, innocence, the calling out of love to and for itself. At any given moment, we are choosing between these two ways to see.

By choosing between these basic perceptions, we are also choosing between two basic emotions—fear and love.

The basic emotion of fear encompasses the full range of painful emotions, including anger, upset, feelings of superiority or inferiority, inadequacy, guilt, shame, depression, despair, etc.

The basic emotion of love encompasses joy, well-being, connectedness, and peace.

The Course asks us to work with the idea that we choose which perception.and thus which emotion we will have. even though we do not usually experience making that choice consciously.

Our subjective experience is that we are seeing and reacting to what is "out there." It certainly does seem that way. but we can also recognize and appreciate that things are not always what they seem.

For instance, have you ever noticed that there are some days when things that usually "get to you" simply don't?

And that there are other days when things that normally don't bother you seem to set you off?

Think about that more closely for a moment...

If you can have different reactions to the same events, then the events cannot be the cause of your reactions. Something in you must account for the differences in how you react.

According to the Course, that "something" is the inner choice we make between seeing with the ego and seeing with the Holy Spirit. And the result of that choice will be the experience of either some kind of upset and turmoil, or peace.

When the Course says that anger is never justified, it is reminding us that the source of our anger is not outside of us, but inside—not in what is happening but in how we are perceiving and interpreting what is happening.

In truth we are not reactive but pro-active.

We choose the emotional experience we will have by choosing which perception we will accept—that of the ego or that of the Holy Spirit.

Anger always reflects that we have chosen to identify with the ego.

Our Emotions Show Us Which Choice We've Made

From the perspective of the Course, then, our emotions are signals to us of which choice we've made.

If we are feeling angry, upset, anxious, depressed, guilty, or frightened—we have already chosen to identify with the ego, with the ego's belief in and perception of separation, guilt, and attack.

Knowing that does not necessarily make the pain of those emotions any less, nor does it necessarily mean we are ready to make a different choice.

Knowing that simply points us in the direction of where our healing and release can be found when we are ready and willing to receive healing.

The Course teaches that we need not be victims of our painful emotions. We are not "stuck" with them, nor does the world have to change for us to be able to let them go.

There is always another choice we can make, another way for us to see, in any situation that seems to be a source of pain.

We can always ask the Holy Spirit for a perception that will replace fear, whatever its form, with love.

Love answers our call with the experience of peace.

This other perception, the loving perception that brings us peace, is not something we can figure out ourselves or come up with on our own. Rather it is "given" to us by the Holy Spirit when we are honestly willing to let it replace our own.

This is what the Course refers to as the miracle, or forgiveness.

It is a perception that is, in fact, already present in our minds. It is the way we naturally see things when we are in our right minds, when we are aware of and experiencing our connection with love, with God.

In true forgiveness we do not try to force ourselves to feel loving and open-hearted toward someone whom we inwardly continue to fear or resent.

Forgiveness has occurred when we literally see the person and see what happened differently—when we see in such a way that our natural feeling response is one of peace, connection, and love, for one whom we recognize as our brother or sister, a beloved child of our Father.

Negative Emotions Are Not a Sin

The Course makes clear that feelings of anger, depression, hatefulness, and fear are the inevitable consequence of accepting the belief in separation, of buying the ego's bill of goods and choosing the ego in place of God. Because everyone in this world has done that, those feelings are a part of everyone's life experience and journey of healing.

It is so easy for students of the Course to fall into the trap of thinking that choosing for the ego is a sin. If this were so, it would follow that feeling negative emotions would also be a sin—which would mean we should feel guilty about feeling angry, hateful, depressed, or afraid.

This in turn would lead to being afraid of these feelings and would reinforce our need to defend against them through suppression, denial, or projection. Employing these defenses serves only to delay the process of correcting the faulty perceptions and beliefs in our minds that gave rise to these emotions in the first place.

It cannot be stated to emphatically or too often that this is not what the Course teaches. In fact, this very way of thinking is the basic mistake the Course seeks to help us correct.

We need to remember that only the ego would condemn our choosing to side with the ego—because only the ego condemns anything.

The Holy Spirit does not condemn. The Holy Spirit sees our choice of the ego's way of seeing as a mistake, not a sin—and sees all mistakes as calls for love.

We need not feel guilty about our feelings of anger, fear, depression, or hate.

We do need to be willing to see them as our own call for love—as a sign that we have temporarily lost sight of our connection with God, temporarily forgotten the perfect love within us that is our true nature and the perfect peace that is our inheritance.

The Question of Expression

A question that often arises with respect to "negative" emotions is whether or not we should express our upset feelings to the person they seem to be directed toward. There are widely varying theories and opinions, both in psychology and folk wisdom, concerning the value of expressing anger.

What would be the perspective of the Course?

The Course asks us to think of everything in this world of form as neutral.

The only question it makes sense to ask of anything in the world, the Course teaches, is

"What is it for, what is its purpose?"

The meaning or value of anything depends entirely on the purpose we choose for it, on whether we give it over to the ego or to the Holy Spirit to use.

Whatever is placed in the hands of the ego will further reinforce our experience of separation, guilt, and fear.

Whatever is given over to the Holy Spirit will serve healing.

Behavior is a part of the world of form, and expressing emotion is behavior.

It can serve either the purpose of attack, the ego's basic purpose, or the purpose of communication, the Holy Spirit's sole rule about whether or not we should express our emotions in a given situation, because it is not the behavior itself, but the purpose of the behavior that matters.

We all know from experience that sometimes the expression of painful emotions serves only to reinforce and strengthen those emotions in us.

Other times expressing our emotions is a helpful and essential step in letting them go.

Our job is not to decide on our own what is right to do. Our job is merely to decide between serving the ego and serving the Holy Spirit.

Looking for rules for behavior,such as it is always good to express our upset to the person involved, or it is never helpful to express our anger directly, is most often an ego device to prevent us from turning to the Holy Spirit to guide us situation by situation.

If we think we already know what to do, we will not bother to ask for His direction.

When we are upset, we certainly need to be truthful with ourselves about what we are feeling.

We need to recognize that we are upset because we have already sided with our ego and that we need to join with the Holy Spirit if we want to regain inner peace.

We need to bring our feelings and thoughts to the Holy Spirit, to be willing to look at them with neither judgment nor justification. We need to ask for healing and help, for a miracle, for another way to see.

And then we do whatever seems right to do, trusting that the Holy Spirit will direct us toward healing of all concerned and trusting that if we do make a wrong choice of action the Holy Spirit will help us recognize our mistake and correct.

All healing, the Course teaches, is release from fear and guilt.

People who have been afraid of their feelings may well need to learn that they can get angry or upset and that God will not abandon or punish them.

Getting in touch with negative feelings and expressing them can be a necessary and important step in our healing process—not for its own sake, not to glorify or increase our investment in these feelings, but because it is essential to learn that our ego thoughts and emotions do not destroy God's love for and in us.

They simply block God's love and peace from our awareness at a given moment because we cannot hold two opposing perceptions simultaneously.

But the loving, healing perception of the Holy Spirit remains available to us as an alternative—always.

And the joy and peace of God remains but a choice away.

Healing Our Pain

In a practical sense, there may be lots of times on our healing journey, in the course of a day, when we are able to work with this approach to our upsets and fairly easily make a different choice.

Yet there are also experiences and challenges that seem much greater, that strike closer to the core of our ego identifications and attachments, where the prospect of changing our minds and letting go of the painful perceptions seems much more difficult.

In these situations our subjective experience is often like peeling an onion. We release one layer of pain or anger or grief only to find another waiting below.

We have, in fact, developed layer upon layer of defenses to keep the core of the ego thought system intact. And our healing experience, even in a given situation, may seem to move through these layers.

The essential thing from the standpoint of the Course is simply to remember that the basic principles of healing remain the same, whether the situation is tiny slight or a profound loss at the level of the world.

The Course teaches that fear brought to love will always yield to love.

All of our painful emotions are expressions of fear, whatever outer form they seem to take.

And only love can heal them by correction them at their source.

Little by little we bring our pain to the Comforter given us, and little by little we let His unconditional acceptance and love—rather than our own efforts at manipulation and control—work the healing in us. Weeping may endure for the ego's night, but joy comes with God's dawning.


Love Always Answers by Diane Berke The core practices of A Course in Miracles are forgiveness and listening to the Holy Spirit, our inner teacher, the voice for God within us.




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