It is bad enough feeling depressed, or anxious, or angry, or resentful. There are times when it is almost impossible to avoid these feelings. But then we get caught up in what my wife refers to as ‘the second level.’ You can be depressed about being depressed, (i.e. “What’s wrong with me? Why do I feel this way?”) or anxious about getting anxious (i.e., “Oh no, am I going to l have another panic attack?”), angry with yourself for getting angry, or resentful towards another person for making you resentful. Sometimes the second-level emotion is not the same emotion as the first level, like being resentful that you feel depressed or anxious.

These second-level emotions can often feel worse than the actual emotions that spark them. But the good news is they are more accessible to change. The trick, however difficult, is tolerating not only the existence of the original feelings, but their unpredictability. It is not just feeling depressed or anxious that sparks the second level feelings, it is the shame of having that depression, anxiety, or anger, and the lack of control of when these feelings will occur.

A person can feel that she is somehow inferior or defective for having such a feeling. There is the belief that she SHOULD have been able to avoid having that feeling, and that other people wouldn’t feel like that in the same situation. Inherent in this belief is some hefty self-judgment. The person believes that her inability to avoid the feeling makes a statement about her personal worth in some way.

Again, it is the unpredictability of these feelings that can be difficult to tolerate. If they are gone today, there is no guarantee they won’t be back tomorrow. There is no guarantee that if she didn’t have that reaction, or if she managed to cope well with the feeling today, that she will be able to do so again tomorrow. Inherent in the fear of ‘non-guaranteeability’ is pervasive self-blame yet again. She does not like these feelings, and she feels that she SHOULD be able to avoid them. She lives in perpetual fear of them, for she doesn’t know if or when they will come, or how she will cope when they do.

Aside from this shame and self-blame, second-level emotions are also legitimate reactions. Depression IS depressing, it makes everything….suck. When it is present, it pervades all experiences. Activities that we enjoy are less enjoyable, the future looks grim and pointless. Anxiety IS scary. The sympathetic response discussed in the previous section, What is fear anyway? is VERY unpleasant. For it to come on repeatedly and without warning (in the case of panic attacks) is truly frightening.

Anger IS upsetting. It is really disappointing to see yourself lose control and lash out. Sometimes anger is a person’s way of responding when he is feeling depressed or anxious. For some people (usually, but not always, men) it is easier to take out those feelings on others than to deal with them directly. So the second level reaction includes anger at one’s self for taking something out on another person.

At some level, there is usually some awareness that he is going too far, that even if the other person did X, that does not justify his angry behavior in response. Ironically, this can turn into second-level justification. The subconscious realization that when he calms down, he will have to acknowledge that he has behaved badly and will have to apologize even though it was the other person’s fault first… etc. can feed into the anger. As long as he perpetually remains angry, he can avoid having to look at how he is acting. The angrier he gets, the worse he yells, the more he wants to avoid thinking about his actions, the more incentive he has to stay angry.

So if these second-level emotions are legitimate reactions, what makes them more accessible? Because they are all answered by the same formula of tolerance, acceptance and detachment. If you can tolerate that the depression is there when it comes and not judge yourself too harshly, you limit its hold on you. If you can accept that fear and anxiety will come when they come, and that they only fade on their own physiological timetable, and not when you make them to go away or figure things out, then you limit their power over you. If you accept that sometimes you will not live up to your standards, and you will fall short of your ideals, and act or react in ways that you wish you hadn’t, then you can avoid the trap of second-level emotions. Unfortunately, this takes much practice and tolerance.

The good news is that by attempting to do so, you are practicing skills that will help cope with the ‘first-level’ initial emotions as well. When the second-level emotion starts to hit you, you can be depressed about being depressed, or anxious about being anxious, or upset about being upset. Or you can ‘practice’ accepting having feelings that you cannot control. You cannot force them to leave. You cannot guarantee they won’t return by ‘figuring them out.’ You can only tolerate them until they fade away once they have run their course.

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“Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves. Do not now seek the answers which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them now. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps, you will then gradually without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

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“I can’t choose how I feel, but I can choose what I do about it.”

– Andy Rooney



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