To Catch an Emotional Competency Thief

© Steve Whiteford 2021

One of the trickiest emotions that is sure to keep you stuck and crash your efforts to effectively manage your limiting feelings and thoughts is based in self-judgment or self-pity. Scientists call this a Meta-Emotion (an emotion about an emotion.) Mindfulness masters call it “Second Suffering.”

It’s when you’re angry, embarrassed, sad, or any of the other 1000 words we have for what we determine to be negative emotions, for having a negative emotion. Judgment-wise it might sound something like, “I’m really a terrible person because I deeply envy Sally for getting the job.” The judgment shadows your self-awareness and strengthens the “bad” feeling.”

Recognizing and accepting the emotion frees you from the cycle. It also allows you to learn from the impulse to judge it. The judgment comes from an internalized societal norm and can support positive behaviors. But we don’t have to dwell in the implied shame. Just recognize the feeling that may be tinging your thoughts and behaviorsand experience it – and let it go. Accept that you’re human.

This syndrome also applies to physical pain. A few years ago, one of my nurses confided to me that the cancer treatment I was having was one of the most painful. I hadn’t quantified the pain I experienced; I accepted it as part of the treatment. I’ve never been good at “on a scale of one to ten…” My awareness of the trap of second suffering shaped my mindset for the whole experience. If I suffered, I accepted it as part of the process and was very vigilant not to see it as life-threatening or to layer feeling bad with feeling bad about feeling bad. I think it helped. It kept me present and sane.

I made a note to carry the awareness over to dealing with emotions. I have to say applying discipline to emotions is a little harder. Pain is very direct and tangible, a bright red light flashing in your eyes. Feelings and thoughts can be subtle, like a burglar dressed in black crouching in the bushes in your front yard. They can sneak up on you, and you’re feeling bad about feeling bad before you discover they snatched your solar lights. The knack for nabbing this emotional competency thief is:

  • Stay emotionally self-aware
  • Accept all of your emotions with self-empathy – there are no bad emotions.
  • Take the information they offer and work with it.
  • Catch second suffering (take back your “solar lights” – use your emotional awareness) and let it go.

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