I have been staring at a blank page for over twenty minutes now. I am not feeling inspired to write or do anything for that matter. It’s Friday afternoon and I am in a Café sitting by the window sipping a latte, but my heart is feeling heavy for no particular reason. The good news is I no longer feel the pressure to always be joyful, peaceful, or grateful but rather acknowledge and explore all my emotions — the good, the negative, and all the in-between. There was a time in my life when I used to feel sad for feeling sad or get anxious for feeling anxious, thinking something must be terribly wrong with me. Like many Ethiopians, I too have grown up in a religious household where I was told from a very young age that having joy, peace, kindness, and love are in fact the hallmarks of true believers and anything less than that reflects incompleteness and some sort of deficiency. But even if you didn’t have the same upbringing as I did, I don’t think many of us are adequately equipped to deal with negative emotions such as jealousy, anger, or hatred.
Let me ask you this. Can you remember a time in your life when you confessed to your parents or friends that you are in fact burning with envy instead of feeling content for your friend’s success and you don’t know what to do with yourself? Even if you had mustered up the courage to be honest with yourself and share this truth with your parents or friends, what type of responses did you get? My hunch is you were never praised for acknowledging your feelings but perhaps got reprimanded with words or actions for having such a wicked nature — as if you were the one who deliberately manufactured the feeling just to see yourself get tormented by it. Let’s stay with envy for a while. Because of all the negative emotions, in my view envy is probably one of the seven deadly sins that is least talked about. In a refreshingly candid piece, author and journalist Jennifer Senior, recounted times in her life when she felt consumed by envy. When she was younger, it was one of her girlfriend’s good looks and self-assurance that used to deeply threaten her and recently, she recalled how she felt when a good friend of hers with whom she worked for over twenty years told her that his recently published book had been chosen by Oprah. No sooner had she congratulated him for his remarkable success than she noticed feelings of envy bubbling up on the inside of her.
Not long ago, a good friend of mine told me about her recent get together with her old college friends. It looked like every one of her friends had something new going on in their lives— one was four months pregnant, the other one had just gotten a new car, and another invited them over for a housewarming party. My friend then shared with me, “I was so happy for my friends, and I know each one of us have our own individual path in this life, but I also couldn’t help but feel a bit down after my meeting with them.” I responded, “It’s perfectly human to have felt that way.” Because I too had been caught by the comparison trap more times than I could count. One time in particular was when a good friend of mine couldn’t just stop talking about his newfound relationship every time we were on the phone; he was falling deeply in love, and his entire universe was revolving around his romantic affair. At that time, I was in graduate school buried under unfinished dissertation and feelings of burnout, and my source of pleasure for most of my days was the cup of coffee that I used to get from my favorite coffee shop. It had been such a long time since I was out on a date that I was beginning to forget the dating etiquette. His tales of love saturated moments were a constant reminder of what I had wanted but sorely lacked in my life.
Looking back, I highly doubt my past self would have come to acknowledge, let alone verbalize those feelings. I also don’t know if our friendship would have survived had it not been for his commitment to our relationship and my transparency with him. The point that I am trying to make is that no change or growth can come from hiding from oneself or avoiding and numbing some parts of ourselves. If we believe that it’s the truth that liberates us, then it begins with telling it to ourselves how uncomfortable the truth may be. The advice that I often give my students and others is to treat their emotions with curiosity and self-compassion instead of shame and self-loathing. As the Russian novelist Dostoevsky famously wrote, “Above all, don’t lie to yourself.”
Written by Feven Seifu
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