Death to Meta-Feelings

Emotions are great. Emotions about emotions aren't.

Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash

Recently I've really been enjoying Mark Manson's thoughts on the "feedback loop from hell". His piece is based on Alan Watts' "backwards law", which says that the more we try to achieve or possess things the less we achieve or possess them. Manson applies this insight to our emotions and makes the point that our attitudes towards our unpleasant feelings are much more damaging than the feelings themselves. 

So anxiety is one thing, but noticing how often you get anxious and feeling anxious about the fact that you get anxious so often is another (anxiety about anxiety). Anger is one thing, but getting angry at yourself because you get angry so easily is another (anger about anger). 

Then there's experiencing guilt over your constant feelings of guilt, or worrying about your worry, or getting sad and lonely thinking about how often you feel sad and lonely. As soon as you start feeling things about your feelings, you're setting yourself up for feedback loops that repeat endlessly: I'm angry a lot, I'm angry because I'm angry a lot, I'm angry because I'm angry because I'm angry a lot. 

I've noticed acute anxiety-about-anxiety in myself before ('what if I stay anxious forever and go off the deep end???') and described it to myself as "meta-anxiety". Manson's helped me realise that every feeling has its own judgemental meta-feeling, and they're guaranteed to make any problem worse. Basic emotions like sadness, anger and fear are good, wholesome and deserve space in your psyche to express themselves to the fullest. But meta-feelings are a complete waste of time. 

Why? Aren't all feelings equal? Don't mindfulness people tell us to be constantly aware of our thoughts and emotions, and isn't it better to worry about your anxiety levels than to be oblivious to them? At least when you acknowledge the problem you can do something about it. 

The trouble is that noticing feelings is only half of mindfulness. The other half is refraining from commenting on them. You don't judge them. You don't resist them. You don't panic about them. You don't catastrophise about them, use them to predict the future, or act as though they sum you up in any way. 

These feelings aren't you, they're in you - temporarily. They'll be gone tomorrow. The only way they'll outstay their welcome is if your mind tricks you into clinging on to them - for example, by creating a meta-feeling feedback loop to prolong the suffering forever. So ironically, being afraid of your fear is exactly what will make your fear stick around. If you're fine with it being there, then pretty soon it won't be. Behold the "backwards law" in action. 

(The English language isn't much help with mindful detachment: I've always thought "I am angry" and "I am sad" are much less accurate than French's "I have sadness", or even better, Irish's "sadness is on me".)

An old counsellor of mine told me that the mind is filled with positive thoughts and negative thoughts that are constantly doing battle, like white and black pieces on a chessboard. Our temptation is to identify ourselves with one or the other side - I'm an awful person; wait no I'm not I'm great, I gave to charity today; but I'm still bad because I snapped at someone; but hey I'm not all bad because I sent my best friend a birthday card…

Mindfulness' job is to remind you you're not the white or the black team, you're the chessboard. All you have to do is watch both sides duke it out without intervening. 

The paradox here is that the more your mind makes your feelings very important and the subject of endless obsession, the less you'll actually feel them - you're so busy with all the judgemental meta-feelings that you've lost sight of the real feelings that inspired them. But if you observe your feelings with detachment you can actually feel them fully. Detachment doesn't mean telling an emotion 'I'm too chilled out to feel you properly', it means saying 'I'm going to let you wash over me in all your glory because you don't threaten me'. 

Sounds simple, but it isn't. Meta-feelings are powerful, dynamic, whizzing, seductive things that take over your mind the second you relax your vigilance. They're very good at telling you they're vitally important and deeply true and that you have to pay attention to them now so you can figure everything out or something awful will happen

'I may be a jerk who's depressed/tired/angry/resentful/anxious all the time, but at least I'm not letting myself away with it. At least I'm constantly berating myself so that I can work out how to be better, or at the very least punish myself for being so awful in the first place.'

The temptation with intrusive negative scripts ('I'm angry all the time which makes me a bad person') and the meta-feelings they create ('I'm angry at myself for being such an angry person') is to either succumb to them ('So angry'), fight them ('I'm not a terrible person! Here's a list of all the good things I've done recently!') or bury them ('I'll distract myself with something'). None of these approaches work - at least not in the long term. 

The method for dealing with meta-feelings is the exact same as the method for dealing with legitimate feelings: dispassionate observation. Oh look, I'm anxious because I've been anxious a lot recently. Oh look, I'm anxious because I'm still anxious about the fact that I've been anxious so much recently. Oh look, I'm anxious because I've realised I'm even capable of being anxious about the fact that I'm anxious because I've been anxious so much recently. 

To me "dispassionate observation" just means "refusing to get swept along" or "keeping a bit of distance", and it can take a few different forms. There's complete impassivity - the realm of calmness, patience, clinical analysis and plenty of deep breathing. There's humour - after all, aren't all these meta-contortions kind of ridiculous? Isn't there something funny about the hyperactive way feedback loops go on?

Then there's full-on compassion. I think of self-directed compassion as a healthy sort of self-pity - not the kind where you feel resentful and tell yourself bitter stories, but the kind where you just take pity on yourself ('You've been going through a lot recently. That's hard. I'm here for you').

One of my favourite Twitter people, Dennis Tirch, is a big advocate of the compassion method, and he even applies it to the part of you that causes all the meta-feeling-feedback-loop trouble in the first place: your inner critic. Strange as it sounds, the critic is doing the best it can. It's trying to help you. It just isn't very good at it. 

Or as Tirch puts it: 'Dear inner critic, you’re in pain & feel threatened, and I get that. Please remember that it isn’t your fault. Despite your criticism, I hold you in kindness & have a real wish for your happiness and well-being. It’s okay for you to feel this way. Signed, the compassionate self'.

I love this approach. After all, if you go after your inner critic for ruining your life, all you're doing is turning into a critic criticising your critic - and hey presto, you're trapped in yet another "meta" feedback loop. Like I say, these things are very hard to avoid. 

So be patient, be a friend to yourself, and be prepared to spend the rest of your life at this.