Owning emotions versus identifying with emotions

I just got asked a really interesting question over email about the mindful approach to emotions. I thought I’d share my answer here.

My friend was asking whether there is a conflict between how we’re encouraged to engage with emotions in mindful meditation and the idea of ‘owning emotions’ which is common in psychotherapy and counselling.

Basically they had understood the mindfulness approach to be that you objectively note things that arise (thoughts, emotions, sensations, etc.) without identifying with them (this is my anger, my thought, etc.), and also noticing them fall away again.

But in psychotherapy and counselling they had come across the idea that it is important to ‘own’ emotions. This is important in terms of recognising that we do experience the full range of emotions (rather than having some we don’t acknowledge due to messages like ‘it’s not okay to be angry’ or ‘boys don’t cry’). It is also important because we often see our emotions as being somebody else’s fault (‘you made me angry’, ‘I’m jealous because of you’). Owning emotions is about recognising them as ours and not somebody else’s, and taking responsibility for what we do with them.

This is my answer to the question that the email posed, but I’d be very interested to hear whether others have different thoughts on this issue:

“As I understand it, the gist of the mindfulness practice is to allow thoughts, emotions and sensation to emerge (and go away again) without either trying to avoid them, or identifying with them and grabbing hold of them tightly. So we are aiming at a ‘middle way’ path between aversion and attachment. Our standard way of relating to difficult feelings is to grasp them, or to hurl them away from us, so this is a valuable practice for finding another way of being with them – sitting with them but without thinking that they define us completely (such that we have to react immediately).

I think that can potentially work with the idea of ‘owning emotions’ because what that is all about is taking responsibility for our own feelings (and what we do with them) rather than projecting them onto other people and blaming them for them (‘you made me upset’, ‘it’s your fault I am jealous’, etc.) The distinction here is between ‘identifying with’ emotions (‘I am angry, that is all I am and all I will ever be, that is who I am and I must act on it right now’) versus ‘owning our’ emotions (‘I notice that anger is bubbling up inside me, it is my anger – no-one else has made this happen – and I am going to sit with it and allow myself to experience it without trying to hide from it, but also without getting stuck on it or proliferating it and failing to notice everything else that is going on’).

Another part of this relates to difficulties people have in owning certain feelings (which most of us have): A mindful approach would treat a troublesome emotion in the same way as an pleasant one – sitting with it, listening to it, but not fixing on it at the expense of other aspects of our experience. So we can use the practice to become more – rather than less – able to be with (or ‘own’) all of our emotional experiences.”

As an additional thought I guess the idea of ‘owning’ emotions could run counter to Buddhist thought in that it does suggest a ‘self’ who can do the owning. Here we might turn to recent understandings of ‘affect’ as opposed to individual, internal emotions. Affect is something that perhaps flows through us, or is in relation (between us and others, or us and the world), rather than being an internal thing that belongs to us or defines us. That understanding may be more compatible with Buddhist understandings of the self, and may also check our tendency to over-identify with and individualize emotional experience. Under an affect perspective we might shift from idea that it is good to ‘own’ emotions to an idea of being open enough to the various possible affective flows, rather than blocking some and allowing others. Being more attuned to noticing them should also open up further possibilities for how we respond (rather than following old habitual reactions).

Just some very preliminary thoughts!


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