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Every Emotion, However Unpleasant, Has A Payoff

by David B. Wolf, PhD


Spiritual traditions maintain that the inherent nature of our being consists of qualities such as joy, vitality, consciousness, clarity, radiance, compassion, connection, confidence, balance, playfulness, fulfillment, and power. Also, a fundamental quality of the self that accompanies consciousness is self-determination, or freedom of choice.

The following are some emotions that people commonly consider to be unpleasant: anger, confusion, fear, feeling like a victim, humiliation, embarrassment, worthlessness, hurt, pain, sadness, resentment, guilt, bitterness, shame, anxiety, inadequacy, pressure, suffering, jealousy, disappointment, frustration, discouragement. Nobody actually likes to be troubled by these emotions.

Assuming we have freedom of choice, and that our nature is vibrant, bright, powerful, and free, why would we choose experiences such as depression, bitterness, anxiety, worthlessness, fear, guilt, and confusion? I'm guessing some of you are saying, "Hey, I don't choose these emotions." For a moment, stay with the premise that you do have a choice, that you are the creator of your experience. "Okay," you ask, "if it's true that I'm choosing these negative emotions, what reason would I have for doing this?"

Digging for the Reasons

Go ahead and answer this. If your first response is, "It's just a habit," then dig deeper. We form habits for a reason. How come today, at this moment, you choose to accede to emotional habits like resentment, depression, or discouragement? Why do you choose to be influenced by conditioning that results in sadness, pain, and victimization?

In my seminars, when I ask people to delve more deeply into the underlying reasons, they come up with answers such as getting attention, gaining sympathy, feeling superior, feeling right, not having to take risks, self-protecting, manipulating, maintaining an image, avoiding responsibility, and reinforcing and justifying beliefs.

We will refer to the items on the unpleasant emotions list as "grungies," and the items on the reasons list as "payoffs."

Examples of Grungy-Payoff Interaction

For as long as she can remember, Ricki has felt worthless, as if she has no value. She knows this is related to the way her father treated her. Still, in considering why she holds on to this feeling of worthlessness she has realized that she uses it as an excuse for not taking risks, to avoid the possibility of failure, and also to get sympathy from others.

Alan repeatedly finds himself in situations—within relationships, in his profession, and throughout his life—where he is the victim. He recognizes that being in a victim role gets him attention, and even admiration, when he dramatically recounts his victim stories.

Jan lives in fear. Intellectually she knows that most of her fears are irrational. Reflecting on why she holds onto fear, she acknowledges that it serves her in several ways—such as not taking responsibility for the results in her life and protecting herself from hurt in relationships.

Karen carries heavy guilt, for the way she treated her parents when she was a teenager, for a financial indiscretion with a friend last year, for immaturity in a romantic relationship a decade ago, for not knowing what to say at the committee meeting yesterday, and for a multitude of events throughout her life. Shame and guilt are major coping mechanisms for her. When asked about her payoff for guilt and shame, she says that she receives the reassurance of others, who assure her that she is a good person and encourage her not to be so harsh with herself.

The states of being on the grungy list are not always grungies. They have their natural place in healthy human emotional life. For example, suppose someone dear to you passed away, and the next day you felt no sadness or grief. That would be unnatural. Sadness in this case would not be a grungy. Now, imagine that ten years after this person passed away, you are still so grief-stricken that you cannot function, hardly able to rise from bed each morning. That sadness would likely be a grungy, with corresponding payoffs. A grungy is an unpleasant way of being that we do not rectify. We might complain, gripe, and grumble about it, but we hold onto it.

Letting Go of the Grungy-Payoff Habit

Using a grungy to obtain a payoff is a type of duplicity at the expense of straightforward expression and communication. The price paid for this duplicity includes missed opportunities, loss of vitality, loss of health, lowered energy, loss of aliveness, loss of intimacy, and loss of genuine self-expression.

As a recommended exercise: (1) share with the other person the grungy you maintain; (2) reveal to the person your payoff(s) for using this grungy; (3) commit to the person that you won't run this grungy-payoff racket anymore; and (4) declare to the person what is essentially important in your relationship.

Here is an example:

Spouse to partner: "I sulk a lot so that you'll feel sorry for me and stop being angry with me. I won't do this anymore. What's actually important in our relationship is that we create a loving, cooperative spirit in which to raise our children and set a good example for them."

Note that the spouse is not justifying the anger or other behaviors of the partner. This process is not a matter of right or wrong. Rather, the spouse is taking full responsibility for his or her contribution to the relationship. This spouse might still have issues with the partner's behavior. Instead of sulking, however, the spouse could learn a healthier, more effective means to address concerns.

Recognizing grungies for what they are—as a way to get a payoff from hanging on to these unpleasant emotions—is a great first step toward honest communication.

* * * * *

David Wolf, PhD is a life skills coach and social worker, a workplace communications specialist, and the author of Relationships That Work: The Power of Conscious Living (Mandala Publishing, 2008, $14.95). He teaches transformative communication with Satvatove Institute (www.satvatove.com), an educational nonprofit organization he founded in north Florida.


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