What color therapy taught me about life

Last week, I attended a workshop on “Colour therapy”. One of the things we learnt was a stress relieving technique called an ‘acrylic pour’. To attempt an acrylic pour, you would need a 3mm handmade sheet of paper, an assortment of acrylic colours and a paper cup. The first step is to choose 3 colours of acrylic paint, then you would have to pour about 2 teaspoons of each colour into the paper cup, but make no attempt to mix the colours together by stirring or shaking the paper cup.

After that, you would cover the top of the paper cup with the handmade paper so that the paper cup is squarely in the middle of the sheet. Once the sheet and the cup are in position, you would have to flip the sheet over along with the paper cup so that your paper cup is upside down on the paper and the paint is flowing down onto it. (See picture above)

After a minute or so, most of the paint would flow down from the cup onto the paper. Once there's a nice big blob of paint on the sheet, the paper cup comes off. You would then need to blow on the paint to spread it across the paper so that the entire sheet is covered in the 3 hues that were chosen earlier. There's no way of predicting how the 3 colours will meld into each other when you do this.

But it's quite interesting.

The exercise isn't complete until the entire sheet is covered in the colours and you can't use a paintbrush or even your hands to cover the entire sheet, or spread the paint across. What you can do is tilt the sheet, tap it and blow on the paint.

I had a really hard time getting the paint to cover the entire sheet like this! Most of the paint was stuck to the middle of the sheet where I’d first poured the concoction of the three colours. I was out of breath within 5 minutes of attempting this exercise and had started to feel light headed too. Eventually, I did manage to cover the entire sheet with the paint. The end result couldn’t exactly be called 'aesthetically appealing’ by any means but the experience, I realised, is a powerful metaphor for the way one experiences and expresses one’s emotions.

Some of us have a way of dealing with whatever emotions we feel — venting, ranting and getting it out of the system, thus using every fiber of our being to fully feel the emotions and then move on while others let the emotions linger and become relegated to the back of the mind from where they can resurface every now and then when least expected.

The second category of people don't let their canvas become coloured with the emotions they are feeling. I feel like I'm one of those people.

I tend to think that feeling happiness might make me too soft and feeling sadness is just too much pain to bear so I'd rather ignore it and pretend it isn't there.

Eventually what happens is quite like the sheet of paper where the paint has to be blown to ensure it spreads across the sheet, I end up not spreading the emotion across my emotional landscape. I simply let it lie at the centre thereby not making full use of the experience whether it's positive or negative.

When the emotion isn’t fully dealt with like this, it tends to pile up and weaken one area of the landscape, making it 'heavy’.

And it's extremely difficult to spread the hue out when the paint is already dry. It's the same thing with emotions. Trying to contain them or subdue them is rarely a good thing.

Letting myself feel what I'm feeling isn't very easy to do with all the conditioning I've put myself through to behave logically.

That’s why I have chosen to try out a different approach to deal with my emotions. Instead of trying to outsmart them or jump around them, I’m actually going to try and embrace them, whatever they may be — the good, the bad and the bizarre.

Once the intensity has been felt, the floodgates opened and the instinctive processes complete, I can free myself up to think up the next steps and move ahead. If the feelings resurface again after a few days, they won’t be as strong as the first time the emotions came over me.

The alternative to this may work in the short run but has a pernicious effect in the long term.

Have you ever felt awfully ambivalent and sad all of a sudden for no reason?

Or find yourself getting teary eyed while watching a kid's movie?

Or woken up in the middle of the night or have trouble falling asleep because suddenly your mind brings up something you are worried about or angry about?

That's the cost of not feeling a negative emotion. Conversely, not letting yourself feel happiness results in this numbed-out state where even the most coveted things don't seem so desirable anymore or rather this cautiousness makes it harder to be grateful about the things we have earned with great difficulty.

The result is that each day feels like a chore. Grey hues of controlled happiness/okay-ness and black hues of panic and desperation. And this constant struggle to get the ‘happiness levels’ up through buying things, experiencing things just for the ‘high’ — so many external devices aimed at correcting something that can only be repaired by looking inward.

Feeling out an emotion can come in different forms, for me, it’s writing out my thoughts or listening to music that corresponds to the emotion or mood or even just thinking about it and using a few choice cuss words to ‘let it out’. It’s easier to accept the lesson when I give myself space to do this.

This is far better than maintaining a cookie cutter image of not being swayed by any emotions and resisting whatever it is trying to offer you.

There’s no residue or heaviness this way and each day is its own day, and there’s no carryover of unresolved feelings that result in poor decisions.

I know this isn’t exactly the Pollyanna-ish enthusiasm that is normally prevalent in self-improvement articles but the truth is self-actualisation takes a lot of work. Working towards something big means that there will be lots of failures on the journey. That is indeed where the growth happens. But to never pause and learn the lesson, which includes feeling any negativity that arises during the course of the ride slows the process down overall.

To conclude, I would like to leave you with this:

"You cannot protect yourself from sadness without protecting yourself from happiness" - Jonathan Safran Foer

Author of 'How to be a Lighthouse'. I write for those pursuing excellence and meaning.

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