Meta-Emotions: The Downward Spiral to Unhappiness and How to Avoid Them

Seeking happiness is getting in the way of happiness.

A strange statement! I thought to myself when I first came across it. And yet the truth is evident, there on so many levels. Some might say seeking means striving, and striving means discontentment with where you are right now. And since the now is all we have, this striving is getting in the way of our happiness.

And that is so true – peace comes from an inner acceptance; accepting whatever is arising inside you. Peace might not come immediately, but it will – for with acceptance something has already begun to change.

But there is another level to this. No one is happy all the time; what if we are unhappy, angry, frustrated? We seek happiness, we run away, instead of accepting it. Almost as an ingrained response, we push the other way – and the trouble begins.

Emotions About Emotions

A simpler post today; possibly unnecessary or common-sense for many readers, so please forgive me if this does nothing for you. Yet for others, those in the middle of a deep darkness, this post will prove extremely important one, for it brings awareness – the first step to change – to a very strange thing: the meta-emotion.

And what is a meta-emotion? Essentially, an emotion about an emotion. The prefix meta is a Greek word meaning “after” or “with”.

Why this post?

Many years ago, meta-emotions contributed sharply to a downwards spiral into the darkness of my depression. I was upset, and I felt I shouldn’t be. My family worried about me as I locked myself in my room; I felt guilty for hurting them. Some friends said my troubles were too minor to be depressed about; I felt weak for feeling sad. I had no energy or motivation to do anything; I felt like a waste of oxygen. It was a vicious cycle – without awareness, I simply let each of these emotions add to the dark haze that haunted me every day and every night.

Meta-emotions will be easy for some to detect, extremely hard for others. The first step was awareness, it always is. How can one fix what we cannot recognise? Many people I have talked to were shocked – is that what I’ve been doing the entire time? Sometimes, this realisation was enough – the meta-emotion began to dissipate almost immediately.

This post simply aims to bring awareness, to highlight some of the deliciously subtle ways a meta-emotion can arise. The techniques needed to deal with these emotions will be linked out to.

The Minor

So let’s begin with the minor. This path can be a paradox, for unmasking these feelings requires awareness. Awareness almost always requires self-development, a dedication to mindfulness and emotional work. And yet those who have been on the journey feel they have to be more – more mature, more spiritual, more compassionate. It is this very need that can cause the meta to arise.

A small example – but it shows how much power a meta-emotion has, how much it can force us downwards. A few weeks ago, I was trying to concentrate on my work. Deadlines were looming, I was tired and needed sleep. The phone rang; it was a telemarketer. I politely told him I was not interested, and made an excuse to hang up. Back to work. A few minutes later, another call, another telemarketer, another interruption to my thoughts. Another polite excuse, and back to the computer.

A few seconds passed. Another call – another interruption. I forced a cheerful tone, and picked up the phone. Another telemarketer! Yet another polite excuse to get rid of him, and I tried to refocus.

Just as I finally gathered my thoughts, the phone rang once more. I slammed the desk in frustration, and picked up the phone. My attempts to sound upbeat didn’t work very well. Yet another telemarketer! I slammed the phone down in exasperation before he even finished his sentence.

The thoughts began swarming in – “The poor guy was just trying to do his job; I was too rude.” I pushed my guilt away and tried to handle my deadlines. But the thoughts continued, and they started getting worse.

“I’ve been doing so much emotional work – does that mean I have failed? Is this a reflection of the hidden anger I have inside me? Oh! How much do I have left? Am I a fraud? I write about compassion and love, and yet here I am slamming the desk over something so small!”

My mind raced on. My mood got worse, anger began rising.

Suddenly I realised what I was doing – I was sliding down the same path I had in my depression years.

The Little Lessons

A few days later, I took up pencil and paper and did an Irritability Quotient test found in Feeling Good, a manual on cognitive therapy. I was surprised at the results – I was one of the “select few”, the small percentage of people who hardly ever experience anger and annoyance. It reminded me of all the other times I had felt a sensation of frustration – they passed within seconds.

Why did those disappear so quickly; why such a deep contrast over this situation? Then a minor revelation – meta-emotions sometimes meant the difference between a brief sensation and prolonged suffering. Wanting to be happy all the time is a deadly belief. By not allowing ourselves the chance to be human, to feel the full range of emotions – we are keeping ourselves in hell.

Further Reading:

Guilt over Depression, Anger over Anxiety

Again, that was a minor example. But let us look deeply at the other end of the spectrum. I’ve mentioned how meta-emotions contributed to my depression – and my story is certainly not unique. Many others have remained trapped in their own private hell for lack of recognition.

Could you recognise this in yourself? Please do not get locked into these examples; the blends would be nearly endless – frustration over anger, anger over depression, depressed over anxiety.

Feeling guilty over being depressed is a common one. One of my friends has a history of depression. One day her son did something minor – things that all eight year olds do – and I noticed that she began sounding a little different.

Her mood worsened considerably over the next month or so – it felt to me like a relapse into her depression. Concerned, I rang her one day and asked her to tell me what was wrong. I was prepared for the worst, and was shocked when she told me what really happened – her son had a secret stash of candy that he ate before dinner, which ruined his appetite!

But in and of itself, it was not the cause of her sadness. In her eyes, she saw herself as a failed mother – she felt she had raised a liar for a son. She was so angry she ignored him when he asked for help with his schoolwork. Soon afterwards, she began to feel guilty about that – it had reinforced her false image of failure. Days later, the cycle got so strong that she was moping in her room, lying in bed and looking at the ceiling. The more she moped, the less she did as a mother, and the more she felt guilty. A vicious cycle with no real cause – yet to someone trapped in it, it is their reality.

The point of this story? The meta-emotion does not have to over the feeling itself – it could be over the consequences. My friend’s guilt was not about her depression, it was over her passiveness, her inability to fulfil her duties. Once again, the possibilities are endless others might experience a meta-emotion over making their family worry, or for being unable to satisfy their spouse in bed.


There are a few variations that I am aware of. Perhaps meta-emotion is not the proper term for them; and yet they are similar enough to include here.

Are you seeking approval for your troubles? Many of us subconsciously cling to our sorrows, for they get us the attention we desperately crave. Perhaps friends and family go out of their way to be nice to us. In the same way a child might feign illness to gain increased affection from her parents, we might indulge in our anguish in a bid to get special benefits from those who love us.

At stronger levels, our sorrows become an escape from life, an excuse to hide away. Perhaps your family supports you financially while you are struggling with your suffering – and there is a subconscious fear of losing the money. Again, use this example as a springboard for your own recognition what are you getting out of it?

Pride is another meta-emotion, a very strange one, certainly! Why would one feel proud over being anxious, over being angry, sad? But if you look deeply, you will see the truth, and it might shock you. An ego will do anything to feel special, even the most ludicrous! I have low self-esteem and you don’t; I have major depression and yours is only minor; I cut my wrist every few days and that proves I am tough!

What are yours? Can you think of any more?

Further Reading: Why do we cling to unhappiness?

The Second Step

And so we’ve established the first step: awareness. It is easy to know your primary emotion, for that requires one step back. But that is where the troubles begin, for that first step leads us into the meta, and many fail to take another step backwards.

From there – I have found the usual tools to be sufficient. For some, recognition is enough for it to dissipate. For others, emotional or cognitive work is needed.

The deeper sorrows can last for years. Guilt is a prime example of this – a slightly different approach, a different recognition, might be needed.

I hope this post has made some small difference in your journey.

Casino Update

For those of you who were following the fun in the last post, I’ve decided to take the gambling advertisements off my sidebar. Thank you for all your input! (PS if anyone tells me the Home Refinancing ad goes against Right Livelihood my head will explode.)

Link Love

One of the advertisers who had paid me to put up a gambling advertisement was very cool about the whole thing. I offered a pro rata refund, and he asked me to give it to his favourite charity. So a special link love today – to the charity he is supporting: Help the Children of Malawi, Africa.

Loden Jinpa is a monk (a real one, not a fun one like me) in the Tibetan Gelug tradition. He is a fantastic person and his blog contains a great mixture of topics from modern to ancient traditions, contemplative science, and western psychology. A recent post: Scientist studies brain from the inside out.