You’ve probably heard the following phrase more than once. You’ll find it all over the internet, on feel-good blogs and sparkly memes for social media. It sometimes comes from well meaning friends who want you to feel better. I believed it myself once.
“Nobody can make you feel anything without your consent.”
It tells us we can avoid suffering by choosing not to be upset by things that happen to us. But feeling sad or angry when something harmful happens to us, or when we experience significant loss, is a normal biological response. It is not the result of having poor willpower.
As Marianne Williamson says in her latest book, we have a tendency to pathologise normal human suffering.
Of course there are skills we can learn to reduce the impact some experiences have on us, but these are learned skills that we may not yet have had the opportunity to develop. Even with these skills, we have feelings – the full spectrum of them including the so-called bad ones – for a reason. They help us survive.
Anthropologists studying a tribe of monkeys discovered that approximately 10% of the monkeys were depressed. The researchers decided to explore what would happen to the tribe if these monkeys were removed, hypothesising that some of the remaining monkeys would become depressed in their place.
Within six months, the entire tribe was dead It turned out the depressed monkeys were essential to the tribe’s survival. They were the canaries in the coal mine, sensing when bad things were about to happen. Before their removal, they served as a warning system for the entire tribe.
Our feelings tell us when something isn’t right. They are how we know we’re in danger.
When people who have been subjected to hurtful, disrespectful, intrusive behaviours are told to stop feeling hurt, disrespected and intruded upon, it only adds to their pain when they aren’t able to comply.
People who are doing us harm often rely on this principal – that you’re choosing to feel bad – in order to invalidate your perfectly reasonable response to their actions, and to move responsibility away from themselves.
They might also tell you you’re being ‘too sensitive’. As with the monkeys, there will always be those who are more sensitive than others. This doesn’t equate to TOO sensitive. Once again, this is survival, not just for the individual but for our species as a whole.
I believe that the more we allow ourselves to feel the pain, the greater the joy we’re able to experience. They are all feelings and if you attempt to reduce your capacity for one, you can end up reducing your ability to feel any.
The Lebanese artist, poet and writer Kahlil Gibran said:
“Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits, alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.”
We will all experience suffering. We don’t avoid it by telling ourselves we didn’t consent to it. It’s by moving into our pain, and listening to what is has to tell us, that we find the way out again – through healing, connection, and a deeper experience of life overall.