“In the middle of the journey of my life I found myself inside a dark forest, for the right way I had completely lost.” (Dante)

The way of the negative emotions is a mysterious dynamic through which our life unfolds. Not everyone enters upon the mysterious way of the negative emotions; instead, we may linger in a life of quiet desperation, bound by boredom or hedged in by guilt. Conforming numbly to what is expected, we may never take leave, never launch out into the deep of our fathomless feelings.

When we do dare embark, we quickly detect the spiritual exercises required of us, especially those of presence and participation. Out of the “dark forest” we travel toward presence—becoming more attuned to the history that has moulded our emotions and more aware of aspirations abandoned along the way. We bid farewell to the myriad techniques of distraction through which we had sought to absent ourselves from feeling. We journey, too, out of passivity toward participation. From the status of victims who bemoan our bad luck and dysfunctional families, we become actors in our interior life, acknowledging our complicity in the guilt or resentment we still harbour. Along the way, we begin to perform our passions, shouldering the risks of a life both passionate and responsible.

Stage One of the Journey: Patience

To receive the surprising gifts of the negative emotions, we need much patience. We will have to suffer them actively and in full consciousness. We will have to feel as bad as we feel. Patience trains us to savour our life; tasting our painful emotions rather than simply swallowing them.

Paying Attention

The pain of a negative emotion gets our attention. Patience arrests our flight from feeling, helping us stay attentive. Paying attention is a learned discipline and a developed skill. The ability to focus our attention on painful feeling sets us on the way of the negative emotions. As attention attunes us to the turmoil in our heart, we become aware of its acoustics.

A Question of Acoustics

In the Greek language listening and obeying share the same verbal root. In its most basic sense, obedience means not meek submission but careful listening. We cannot obey unless we first pay attention to what is being said. Patience and attention are ways that we listen to our life; they are modes of our obedience.

The Greek word for listening and obedience (akouein) also gives us the word acoustics. Acoustics refer to the factors in an environment that allow us to hear what is going on. Some buildings have acoustics that distort music and muddle public announcements. Some hearts, too, have bad acoustics; crackling static and the feedback of judgmental voices make it almost impossible to attend to one’s experience. For such a life, being patient and paying attention will be difficult. To set out on the healing way of the negative emotions demands we improve the acoustics of our heart. Only by listening well can we honour the laments and invitations being sounded there.

Stage Two: Naming the Emotions

Even though words may bend “emotions like sticks in water,” the need to name our passions is urgent and universal. Our ancestors in ancient Greece and Rome used names to personify the forces of the heart. Startled by the beauty of a poem or melody, they judged a muse had assisted the artist. An exceptionally gifted person was thought to be possessed by a genie; such a person was named a genius.

But malevolent forces, too, invade the heart. When people became furious, our ancestors believed, an enraging spirit—a fury—had invaded them. The Christian Bible recounts stories of demoniacs—persons possessed by some destructive power. Negative emotions erupted in such people, turning them into savages. To control the demon, one had first to find its name. Jesus confronted a deranged person who had been chained among the tombs, demanding of the demon within him: “What Is your name?” (Mark 5:9). When the demon had given up its name—“My name is Legion for we are many”—Jesus was able to cast our the harmful spirit. Muses, genies, furies, demons: powerful forces moving within us. Anger, guilt, shame, depression: volatile inner energies waiting to be named and tamed.

The discipline of naming our emotions offers a three tiered challenge. First, what is this disruptive feeling? Second, what assumptions lie concealed in the names we assign? Does anger already imply an unacceptable feeling? Does lonely carry an evaluation of inferiority? In this second discipline, we must identify the often hidden judgments accompanying the names we assign to feelings.

A third challenge concerns the origins of our emotions. We may know that we are angry, but have no idea why. We may feel ashamed of our body, but have no clue as to the source of this shame. Full naming includes awareness of the origins of our feelings.

The way of naming our emotions is fraught with peril. We frequently fool ourselves by assigning the wrong name or naively believing that simply naming a mood brings its cure. Yet naming is the only way through the thicket of emotion. Humbly, allowing for mistakes and self-deception, we continue to name the feelings that surge through us. Naming our emotions we are less their victims, even as we surrender the fantasy of becoming their masters. Gradually bringing these feelings to light, we see what we must do.

Stage Three: Taming the Emotions

Negative emotions confuse and frighten us. If our feelings are “wrong”, then surely we must master them. If emotions simply inflict pain, we should avoid them or at least numb ourselves to their injury. But if they offer both revelation and transformation, we will look for a more friendly means to tame their energy.

The central challenge in taming is to honour the adversary. We honour negative emotions by allowing ourselves to feel them and by taking the effort to name them. We honour disruptive feelings when we use their energy to support needed change. The arousals of guilt and anger, the distress of shame and even depression help purify our lives. Taming our emotions requires learning the disciplines that release their energy creatively. The way of the negative emotions takes us on the journey from arousal to action.

Maintaining Sanctuaries

Sanctuary is a place of safety. An emotional sanctuary is, by design, a place that allows us to fully experience dangerous feelings. But just as words may distort emotions, sanctuaries can become places to hide. The rituals of a religious institution may provide us with a hiding place to avoid our painful feelings. Refusing the demanding tasks of naming and taming, we instead bask contentedly in the ready-made sentiments of empty ceremony.

To tame our negative emotions, we seek out sanctuaries where we can genuinely experience our feelings. Effective sanctuaries appear in many guises: the comforting quiet of a chapel, the privacy of a counsellor’s office, the safe shelter of a hospital room. We find haven in a support group’s acceptance or in the solitude of confiding our thoughts in a personal journal.

The Warrior’s Sword

In the protected space of a sanctuary, we undertake a second task of taming: learning to distinguish healthy from unhealthy sentiments. Is the guilt we feel authentic or the residue of a distorted idealism that we must move beyond? Is our fear a response to current danger or the scar of an unhealed wound from the past?

Swords are dangerous but useful. In the hands of the healthy warrior, a sword cuts clean, severing authentic emotion from its distortions. The sword separates healthy shame from fear of sexuality; it severs anger from resentment and the lust for revenge. The sword’s edge pares away the jealousies that clutter our heart. Only when we know the difference between healthy and unhealthy emotion, can we trust our instincts and dare to act passionately.

Stage Four: Living With Passion

If the way of the negative emotions has no finish line, it does have a goal: to live with passion. The arduous disciplines of patience, naming, and taming teach us to trust our instincts. Knowing the difference between vindication and vengeance, we can afford to feel our anger. Having faced depression and discerned our grief, we can allow ourselves to mourn. No longer poisoned by toxic shame, we can dare to trust our emotional response.

Trusting our own responsiveness enables us to “nurture tiny desires.” Early in life, much energy goes into defending ourselves or accommodating to others’ demands. In the crush of duties and distractions, we lose track of our own best desires—deep longings still too fragile to make a claim on us. Grounded in no authority other than our slender hopes and tentative dreams, these tiny desires lie buried under the busy agenda of job and family and civic life.

Decades later, a crisis or illness or loss brings us to a halt. In the pause, our gaze is altered. We recognize longings we have long ignored.

Our wants often fly in the face of a familiar, well-developed social character, the solid shape of our responsible public persona. “The uneasiness they occasion” reminds us of passions long ignored. As we tame our negative emotions, we dare to listen again to tiny desires that show the way to a passionate future.

Eating Our Shadow

Living more comfortably with passion helps us reconcile ourselves with our shadow. The metaphor of shadow refers, of course, to the underside of our personality. These are the conflicted humours and less than noble thoughts that we prefer to keep in the dark. Our shadow includes the petty jealousies, the habits of sarcasm, the taking delight in another’s failure. The shadow is also the reverse side of our strengths. Good at initiating plans, we have difficulty following projects through to completion. Or we are able to see through unjust political structures quickly, but have little tolerance for anyone questioning our opinions or our motives.

Each of us casts a long shadow. Often we push these unsavoury parts of ourselves outward, projecting the dark outline of what we dislike in ourselves onto others. If we remain unaware of these projections, they cloud our relationships and encumber our life.

The shadow in us has its own history. In the energetic idealism and enthusiasm of youth, like Icarus we fly directly toward the sun. This assertive posture safely hides our shadow behind us. It is utterly out of our view as our eyes focus on the light ahead.

As we mature, the shadow swings out from behind us. Now the sun no longer blinds us. Out of the corner of our eye we catch sight of our shadow. From the angle afforded at mid-life we spot a sombre outline that looks disconcertingly familiar.

In a season of depression the sun swings behind us, leaving us face-to-face with our shadow. Our faults and limitations loom large; we cannot lose sight of them. Our shadow stretches out in front of us, absorbing our attention and obscuring our path.

As we touch the wounds of anger or guilt or shame on the way to healing, we begin, in the imagery of Robert Bly, to “eat our shadow.” More comfortable with our weaknesses, we can now consume what we had been projecting. More familiar with our faults, we have less need of earlier defenses. A mid-life executive recognizes that he has been successful precisely because he has been so driven. Working hard, he has pushed himself toward achievement and pushed others away. Now he notices the shadow of this strength—-the compulsiveness of his Life. Gradually he lets up on himself. He begins to eat his shadow.

Gradually we let go what we no longer need. Since our shadow is part of us, we cannot completely jettison it. But gathering it back into ourselves we find that our shadow, embraced, is strangely nourishing.

Holding Our Emotions

The way of the negative emotions returns us to the metaphor of embrace. Before starting on the way, control of our emotions and our world seemed imperative. Bur crossing the bridge of sadness we learned that “to follow Jesus [is] not to change the world but to embrace it.” Gradually we let go our ambitions of mastery, learning that losing control—as the Gospel predicted—brings us surprising gains.

Pledged to a God of desire, we do well to return to Scripture to taste again Yahweh’s anger and compassion, Jesus’ disappointment and joy. Here we learn again how to hold the negative emotions, patiently in touch with the mystery that transforms our troublesome feelings into fruitful passions.


WHITEHEAD, E.A. – WHITEHEAD, J.D., Shadows of the Heart, (U.S.A. 2003), 175-187.