Destructive Emotions



“If you can’t love everybody today, at least try not to hurt anybody.” Unknown


The first step in learning to act with love is to make a vow of no harm—of others or ourselves. This means abstaining from all addictions and getting into total recovery. It also means eliminating toxic people, places, and things from our lives. We choose to engage with life-promoting forces rather than life-destroying forces.

The practice of no harm is all about managing destructive emotions. All of us experience destructive emotions from time to time. The difference between a destructive life and a constructive life lies in how we deal with our destructive impulses.

There are many types of destructive impulses. One focus is on the practice of managing addictive impulses. Addictive impulses arise out of our instinctive drive to push away pain or grasp for pleasure. They arise out of desire—a desire to feel good and not be in pain. Desire is thus the first destructive emotion, to the degree that it causes suffering. With addictive desire, we want to feel better by doing something that in the end makes us feel worse. What makes addictive impulses destructive is the fact that we do what “feels good” regardless of the harm to others or ourselves. We compulsively act on the addictive impulse with a disregard for what is true, right, or good.

The antidote to addictive desire is recovery. Our first no-harm act is to get into recovery from all of our addictions. We commit to managing our distress in ways other than our addictions, with the help of others as needed. We commit ourselves to a higher set of principles beyond immediate gratification, realizing that the temporary pleasure or relief from the pain of addictions is no substitution for true happiness and fulfillment. In the end, we manage addictive desire with a commitment to do what is right, regardless of the addictive impulses we experience. We learn to do this through the practice of mindful awareness of cravings as they arise in our awareness and pass away. This gives us a certain space and freedom to abstain from acting and think through the consequences of acting on addictive impulses. We also develop our ability to do the right thing by sharing our experience with others and asking for help.

A second common destructive impulse is anger. When we feel anger, we experience an urge to hurt others. Hurting others never makes things better, only worse. Anger begets anger. Hurt begets hurt, trauma begets trauma. To act impulsively on our angry impulses not only harms others, but ourselves, as we are all part of one interconnected web of life. To harm others is to harm ourselves.

Anger arises out of failed expectations. Each of us has set of expectations about how we think the world, including others, should be. When the world does not meet up with our expectations, anger arises. Before anger, there is hurt, frustration, or disappointment. Someone has let us down or hurt us. Something has not gone as we wished. We have lost something. The world is not the way we want it to be.

The antidote to anger is humility. We are not in charge of how the Universe operates. Our work is to drop our expectations of things being other than exactly as they are. What is, is. That is all. When we see and accept this, our anger fades. We are now ready to respond constructively, with a cool head and a calm heart.

The third destructive emotion is fear. Fear can be healthy when it mobilizes us to take action to protect ourselves. Fear becomes destructive when it stops us from taking effective action. When we are paralyzed, we cannot do what we need to do to prevent harm from befalling others or us. Fear, such as a fear of failure, or a fear of being alone, can make it difficult to improve our situation. Like an ostrich with its head in the sand, we can actually make things worse for ourselves when we do not act directly to deal with the problems we face.

The antidote to fear is surrendered action. This means that we do what we can, and let go of the outcome. Things may or may not work out well. What matters is that we not let fear paralyze us, but simply do the best we can. Surrendered action requires a certain faith in both ourselves and Life itself. If we do the best we can, the best possible outcome will likely result, even if this is not the outcome we want. When we surrender, we honor the fact that we are ultimately not in control. Nothing is guaranteed. The only thing we have some control over is our actions. We can certainly influence the probability of events through our actions, but that is all. When we look at our fear, we see that it is also tied to strong desires for how we want things to be, specifically, safe, successful, and secure. When we see that we can never guarantee our safety, success, or security, we can again move into a peaceful acceptance of our lack of complete control. It is important to realize all we have is this present moment. The future is not guaranteed. It also helps to see and accept that life involves loss; in the end we lose everything, including life itself. With full acceptance of this reality, what is there to fear?

Desire, anger, and fear make up the three main emotions that cause us to harm others or ourselves. With patience and persistent practice we gradually learn to manage these destructive emotions intelligently, rather than letting them wreak havoc in our lives.