Written by Grace Bullock PHD
People who meditate to feel better, not to be present with however they’re feeling, could be setting themselves up to feel even worse.
“It’s one thing to use meditation to be more open, expansive, and present to what arises,” says Dr John P. Forsyth, Professor of Psychology at the University at Albany, SUNY. “It’s another to use it to fight a war with your emotional life, history, and the thoughts in your mind.”
But in cultures like ours, which emphasize the suppression and control of painful thoughts and feelings, it’s not surprising that mindfulness has been interpreted as a clever way to be happier, and less depressed, stressed, or anxious. Moreover, mindfulness apps and marketing frequently augment the messaging that emotional discomfort is a problem that must be fixed.
“When we struggle with our pain, it causes suffering,” says Forsyth. Emotion regulation science, which aims to evaluate how people influence the experience and expression of emotion, suggests that resisting your psychological or emotional pain tends to magnify it and could contribute to long-term suffering.
“Paradoxically, the relief comes when you’re just here,” explains Forsyth. “You’re not in your head; you don’t have an agenda. It’s essentially like dropping the rope in the tug of war.”
Emotional Control Vs. Acceptance
Forsyth, who works with mindfulness-based therapies, found that many of his clients were using contemplative practices to manage emotions and decrease stress. Some were frustrated because they weren’t getting the results they expected.
“There’s been a lot of talk that mindfulness is helpful, and I certainly agree with that,” says Forsyth. “But the concern was about how you use it.”
One of Forsyth’s graduate students, Eric Tifft, conducted a preliminary study to see how relatively new meditators use the practice. Ninety-eight undergraduate meditators reported their intentions guiding their meditation practice (to increase experiential or emotional control, or to increase acceptance or openness to their emotions and experiences) and completed a series of assessments.
“If you try to suppress positive emotions, you don’t feel better. But if you suppress negative emotions, you tend to feel worse.”
Dr. John P. Forsyth, Professor of Psychology at the University at Albany, SUNY
The majority, or 58.2% of participants, indicated that they meditated to control or manage unpleasant private experiences. As expected, these participants also reported more significant thought suppression, worry, negative affect, trait anxiety, depression, and lower dispositional mindfulness than their acceptance-guided counterparts.
Anxiety, stress, and depression tended to be common motivators to meditate, says Forsyth. But once students were asked whether they saw their anxiety as a problem or an experience, the ones who saw it as a problem were much more likely to use meditation to control, regulate, and avoid their difficult emotions.
The study authors caution against generalizing to other populations, including practitioners with more meditation experience, and emphasize that they haven’t established cause and effect.
“Regardless of how this goes down the line, this is a really important way of thinking,” says Forsyth. “It’s how you stand in relation to your emotional and psychological life. There’s an important distinction between seeing our experiences as a painful experience to be had versus a problem to be solved.”
What Comes Next
Tifft, who led the study, is currently following two groups of meditators to ascertain whether deliberately influencing how people use mindfulness meditation impacts their emotional life. Forsyth says it would also be interesting to examine whether mental health professionals or teachers of mindfulness or other contemplative traditions check in regularly with their clients or students. Even mindfulness apps might add a prompt for the user to check on how they tend to use the app.
Many contemplative traditions teach, as Forsyth says, that feeling good is, in fact, a consequence of taking a more accepting, open, nonjudgmental, present moment awareness stance. It doesn’t come by going after feeling good directly.
In other words, “The teachings of these practices go against the grain of everything we learned growing up,” says Forsyth. He’s certain even contemporary traditions wouldn’t recommend approaching mindfulness, yoga, or anything else as a quick and easy way to eliminate difficulties.
While more research is needed, the study points to the idea that using meditation to try to control our emotional experience may be counterproductive. “If you try to suppress positive emotions, you don’t feel better,” Forsyth says. “But if you suppress negative emotions, you tend to feel worse.”