Correcting Your Emotional Airbrushing

Yesterday, we discussed anger, and how it can be a major creative block. Before that, we talked about how we are all, in fact, a sucking drain on the universe (but that’s totally okay).

Today, we’re going to connect those two ideas in a hopefully helpful way.

One particularly destructive type of anger is not triggered by a specific, objectively unjust event. Let’s just call this anger “You Owe Me.” It is the anger of unmet expectations.

A week ago, a post on why millenial yuppies are unhappy was circulating the blogosphere. It’s an interesting read, but I would posit that the phenomenon of unmet expectations is hardly confined to one generation.

In general, we all tend to wildly overestimate what we contribute to the world, and grossly underestimate what the world (and specific other people) provides us. We have this skewed worldview where we see ourselves as majestic unicorns who deserve everything good, while the big, bad world and all the mean, ordinary people in it are constantly out to get us.

It creates a profound sense of envy, because clearly everyone else is doing unfairly better than we are. Not coincidentally, envy is the “traditional sin” of Type 4 personalities. The traditional antidote to envy is gratitude. Or alternately, the virtue of equanimity. I think we all know what gratitude is. For those who didn’t spend their childhood absorbing the Encyclopedia Britannica, and whose high school nickname wasn’t Webster, equanimity is the state of being content regardless of circumstances.

Ooh. Sounds pretty intriguing, yes? And kinda scary? Because if we’re not tortured angsty souls, can we still create art?

HELL YEAH WE CAN. In fact, you might be veeery surprised at how much all that angst is getting in the way of creating art.  See also Steven Pressfield’s concept of the “shadow novel.” Or Julia Cameron’s idea of “keeping the drama on the page.”

Fortunately, this is not a generational problem. It’s a human problem, and lots of tools have been developed by smart people over the centuries to deal with correcting the mental airbrushing we use when looking at ourselves. Some from different spiritual traditions. The Catholic church in particular has some nice tools for self-examination. Yes, tools for inducing guilt are not without their own problems. Anything powerful that can be used for transformation can also be used for abuse.

But guilt gets a bad rap. Guilt is in many ways, the flip side of anger. Anger tells you someone else has wronged you. Guilt tells you that you’ve screwed someone else over. As we said earlier, all feelings, no matter how unpleasant, have their uses. Guilt is your “you screwed up and should make it right” alarm. Which we tend to hit the snooze button on with great enthusiasm.

Weirdly, we often latch onto feeling guilty for things that actually aren’t our responsibility. But that’s probably a whole other post.

In a healthy mind, you’d feel both guilt and anger on a regular basis–life presents us with lots of situations where we wrong others and are wronged. We could use the information to seek reconciliation, forgiveness and the path of peace and justice. But that almost never happens.

In the interim, it might be a helpful exercise to consider closely the three questions (this is called a naikan reflection):

  • What Have I received from [a specific individual/the world]?
  • What Have I given to [a specific individual/the world]?
  • What Troubles and Difficulties Have I Caused [a specific individual/the world]?

The more specific you can be, the more effective it is. Try narrowing it to just a single day or week, if you’re weighing yourself against the world. Or if it’s a particular person, maybe just think about the most recent year, or the earliest year you can remember.

If this sounds similar to the practices of confession and repentance and counting your blessings, well… yeah. Apparently, smart people ranging from Japanese samurai to Christian desert fathers to modern psychotherapists have thought self-examination was a passably good idea over the years. 

Go figure.

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