An interview with Vivian Dittmar
We avoid feelings, says Vivian Dittmar, we avoid anger, sadness and fear. It would be better to give feelings space. In this interview, the expert on feelings talks about the power of feeling, how to deal with it competently and why it is time to cultivate compassion.
The interview was conducted by Birgit Stratmann.
Stratmann: You are an expert in the field of “feelings” and how we deal with them well. Why is that such an important issue for you?
Dittmar: We often become experts in what we ourselves have difficulties with. That is the honest answer. For a long time, I had a lot to do with emotions and feelings inside me. That messed up my relationships and didn’t allow me to be the person I wanted to be. Emotions played a role here more than anything else.
Stratmann: We need to clarify the terms for a moment: You distinguish feelings and emotions.
Dittmar: Yes, feelings are what emerge from the moment. Emotions are “not felt feelings” of the past. My image for this is the emotional backpack. We carry around emotional baggage that keeps getting in the way.
For some people, this leads to emotional numbness, meaning that we don’t feel emotions. This is not even recognized as problematic in our society. We have this idea that joy is okay, but all other feelings are better if you don’t have them, for example, anger and sadness. Emotional numbness is a symptom of emotional legacy, e.g., trauma, and is often passed down through generations.
Another symptom of an emotional backpack can also be very strong emotions that do not fit the situation. I know this from myself as well. In such moments I can’t behave the way I actually want to.
All emotions can be helpful
Stratmann: You say that there are no positive and negative feelings, but that feelings are neutral. How is that to be understood?
Dittmar: I do distinguish between feelings that are powerful and beneficial and those that are destructive. But I differentiate differently than others: For most, joy, love, happiness are good feelings and pain, sadness, anger, etc. are bad feelings. This is not true for me.
The basic emotions of anger, fear, sadness, shame and joy are all five important. They can be positive when they appear as a force. However, in their shadow aspects they are destructive, including joy. The most important distinction for me is in feelings and emotions. Feelings are something healthy, constructive, expressions of our aliveness.
Stratmann: An example would be that when we hear bad news, we react with sadness – at that moment.
Dittmar: Yes, exactly. Feelings are like bridges. Negative feelings are bridges between what is and what we would like it to be. Pain arises when desire and reality diverge. The healthy emotional forces are the medicine for this.
Let’s take your example of me getting a message that doesn’t match what I want. For example, I learned today that for my lecture tonight in Hamburg about the “Inner Navi” my books did not arrive in time. I found that to be a great pity, because I would have wished it differently. A moment of sadness helps me to accept this and to relax.
Anger generates activity
Stratmann: You say that every feeling can be good, a force. For example, what is good about anger?
Dittmar: Let’s stay with the example: When the news came, there were also moments of anger: What went wrong, how could this happen, what can we do now? The organizer came up with the idea: The helpers could canvas Hamburg’s bookstores and see if they have my book – at least display copies.
Anger says: This is wrong, what do we do now? Anger mobilizes to take action and solve the problem. In this case, I found that effort and benefit were out of proportion and said: let’s let it go. The books are not there. Too bad – and good.
We can change an emotion, for example, anger to sadness. Anger is good if there is an option for action. But if I can’t do anything, it’s the wrong feeling.
Stratmann: Can feelings be wrong?
Dittmar: Yes, feelings are wrong if they don’t fit the situation. Every feeling has a certain function. Anger generates activity. It’s useful as long as I can do something.
Stratmann: But I can’t simply turn off anger or other feelings.
Dittmar: That’s the point. When we are with pure, healthy emotional forces, we can easily change, for example, from anger to sadness by recognizing it and changing our interpretation, such as from, “This is wrong,” to “This is a pity.”
When we can’t change or control an emotion, we are dealing with shadow feelings. I notice it because I create a lot more emotional energy than I would need to solve the problem.
Then we go into drama, “It can’t be that….” and overreactions occur. These usually come from childhood, where I feltI did not receive the support I needed. If we don’t see these old burdens and then act out these emotions, we can break a lot.
We are responsible for our emotions
Stratmann: That would be the case when anger and aggression lead to violence – physically or linguistically, for example via hate speech on the Internet.
Dittmar: Exactly, here we are dealing with shadow rage. This can boil up out of the moment, but it is often coupled with old emotions. Then the rage is destructive, it destroys relationships, for example. It always comes from a claim to absoluteness: “That which is, must not be.” We don’t see that there is simply a discrepancy between desire and reality.
Stratmann: Let’s take violence by right-wing populist and right-wing extremist groups as an example.
Dittmar: Emotions also have a collective level. They can be instrumentalized, for example, when we have emotional charges or unresolved traumas. You give people simple answers that are in line with their emotions and absolutes and invite them to channel those emotions in a very specific direction, e.g., to insult or fight others.
Stratmann: Are you saying that the people concerned are not responsible for their emotions?
Dittmar: No, we are all responsible for our emotional backpack. That’s hard for many people to understand because these emotions often come from childhood or through our ancestors. Then we push the responsibility away. But the backpack is also our development potential.
Competence in dealing with emotions
Stratmann: What can we do when strong anger arises?
Dittmar: I recommend to people who are dealing with strong emotions a practice I call “conscious discharge.” We can’t meet the overwhelmed parts of ourselves alone; we need an empathic counterpart to do so. With this support, we can feel what we cannot feel alone.
Feeling the pain is where the healing happens and tension can be released. With anger, it is often the case that there is pain behind it and this is what we need to perceive: Behind the pain is the wounded child who wants to be seen. I would like to contribute to building up competence in dealing with emotions in our society. Of course we need psychologists and therapists, but they alone cannot meet the great need.
In addition, we have fewer and fewer deep relationships. Emotional intimacy, however, is a basic human need. We need opportunities to connect more deeply with ourselves and others. This is nurturing. Right now we have the image: you’re okay or you’re sick and you’re going to a psychologist. There is nothing in between.
Fear: Seeing the unknown as an opportunity
Stratmann: Let’s take another example: fear. This is a big issue in our society, even though today we probably never enjoyed such security in the history of mankind. How do you explain that?
Dittmar: I see a direct connection here. Fear occurs as soon as we encounter the unknown. And the more secure we become, the larger the area of the unknown becomes and the more fear we feel.
Fear is a natural feeling, a force to face the unknown. At the moment, we are collectively facing a great unknown, because we have no idea how to manage the crises we are in: climate change, species extinction, crisis of meaning. This triggers enormous fears. But we are no longer used to embracing the unknown and seeing it as an opportunity.
Stratmann: What would be an appropriate way to deal with fear?
Dittmar: The power always opens up in feeling, that is, that we feel what is there. Feelings primarily want to be felt and not understood.
Stratmann: But most of the time, thoughts continue to push the feelings up.
Dittmar: Many people think their feelings. Feeling is a stunted ability in our society. We don’t know how to feel, nor are we aware that we don’t know. Real feeling can start with the body, for example, and through that we come into the present moment. Feeling always happens now.
Giving space to feelings is healing
Stratmann: Do you mean the practice of mindfulness?
Dittmar: Mindfulness is a good start to bring attention away from thoughts into the present moment, e.g., to the body, to the breath. Then we start to turn to the phenomena inside us and perceive the inner happening directly, without naming it. How does it feel now, how does it move, where is it tight, where is it wide, where is it pressing?
The great learning is to give more space to unpleasant feelings. Because reflexively we always want to push away the unpleasant, make it smaller, not feel it. We do this by distracting ourselves, thinking, and consuming.
The great discovery is: When feelings have more space, their intensity decreases, it becomes less unpleasant. Feelings begin to release. Learning to do that is very important.
From feeling to empathy
Stratmann: We not only have to deal well with our own feelings, but also with those of others. What skills do we need for this?
Dittmar: The greatest medicine, but also the greatest challenge, is to develop compassion. Compassion is the next evolutionary step. It is now our task to cultivate skills and states of consciousness, that’s what I call it. These include compassion, genuine love, gratitude, devotion, trust in life. We all have these as potential within us, but they are not there automatically. And even if we have developed compassion and the ability to love, we are not permanently in a state of compassion.
If we want to develop as human beings, we have to develop compassion. It doesn’t arise on its own, but by practicing it, for example, through concrete practices like Buddhist loving-kindness meditation.
Stratmann: Are we doing anything to strengthen compassion?
Dittmar: Yes, many people make an effort to be compassionate. We see it, for example, in how the relationship between parents and children is changing. Here, the ideal of love is developing that goes beyond the biological, instinctual level.
Couple relationships are also a field for cultivating genuine capacity for love. The frenzy of love subsides after a year and a half. Then, if attachment is to develop, we are challenged to learn to love. That means we love the person as a whole, not just their good points.
We are at a turning point
Stratmann: Do you believe that social transformation begins with the individual or at the political level?
Dittmar: I see a lot of interactions there. Some are working through trauma or cleaning up internally. Others are looking at technical solutions or getting involved in the education sector. Everything is intertwined.
Stratmann: Do you look to the future with confidence?
Dittmar: I think we are at a tipping point, but it seems to be tipping. We will soon have a critical mass of people together who want to make sure our world is a good place for everyone. This could encourage others to join in as well.
I feel that the love force that wants to come into the world through us is getting stronger. Every action that springs from this force strengthens love and is not in vain, no matter what the future may be. Our task now is to connect deeper and deeper with our heart and to act from the heart.
Vivian Dittmar is founder of the Be The Change Foundation For Cultural Change and author of several books on feelings, relationships and consciousness. Her childhood and adolescence on three continents in different social contexts allowed her to develop an early awareness of the global challenges of our time and are her drive to find and implement holistic solutions. Her book successes include The Power of Feelings, The Emotional Backpack and Your Inner GPS.