When was the last time you felt an emotion rise within you? It could be feeling of joy, surprise, sadness, worry, excitement, anticipation, wonder. Now that you shift your focus to think about it, you may realise it was probably moments ago that you felt an emotion. If you further reflect upon your entire day, it is likely you would be able to recall experiencing several emotions throughout the day. Emotions are an integral part of how we experience the world around us. They are the most fascinating proof of us being alive. We show the world how we feel through expressing our emotions. The more deeply we know our emotions, the more awareness they bring to us about ourselves. However, as frequently as we may experience them, we do not intimately understand them. In other words, we spend a lot of time responding to them, but we do not spend enough time trying to understand how we create them. This could especially be true for unwanted emotions that cause us to behave in ways we may not want to behave. If we are angry, we would scream or yell or misbehave. If we feel sad, crying comes easily to us or if we are afraid, we tend to be stressed or anxious easily. When we feel our emotions are negative, we either try numbing them or overreacting to them. The problem with numbing is that we can’t selectively numb pain without numbing joy. When we numb “negative emotions”, we also suppress emotions like love, passion, warmth or desire. In contrast, when we overreact in response to our “negative emotions”, these emotional outbursts cause regret and shame and may end up hurting our loved ones. The question arises, how do we draw a balance between the two? How do we find ways to feel our emotions in a way that is empowering and enables us to have meaning, texture, depth, and purpose in our lives?
Our ability to feel emotion is part of our human heritage. Emotions provide us with information and help us survive and thrive. Let us first establish that there is no such thing as a negative emotion. The only thing that is negative is how we choose to behave in response to an emotion. It is easy to blame our emotions for the way we behave. However, it is not the emotion that decides the behaviour, but it has more to do with how we are used to behaving when that particular emotion is triggered. For example, if we believe that it is our anger that causes us to shout and scream, then based on that belief, we will most certainly always scream and shout when we are angry. However, the question is, how did we come to believe that? Was it that while growing up, we always noticed our parents screaming when angry? What if instead of screaming we saw them laugh when they were angry? Would we still have the same belief about anger, and would we still choose to scream whenever we got angry?
We have all been afraid of something while growing up. Fear is an emotion that helps us avoid or reduce harm. When we are young children, we do not have access to the logical brain and solely rely on our emotions to process any situation. A situation that induced fear in us will probably trigger fear every time, the same situation is encountered or remembered. For instance, my daughter once accidentally stepped on a bull ant’s nest and was bitten by a few of them. As she grows older, the actual situation may no longer be remembered, however, the subconscious mind is quick to induce fear when a similar visual is encountered. It has been 2 years and whenever she sees an ant, she is afraid to go near it. As we are growing, fear is our fight or flight response to a situation that helps us survive. What is important is to understand, is what is the cause of the fear. Is it our subconscious triggering fear based on events from the past that no longer hold true or are we genuinely in harm’s way? If, instead of simply giving into the emotion and responding to it, we start focusing on the cause, we will be in a much better position to deal with it and respond to it effectively. It is important to note that in my daughter’s case, fear is only helping her survive. Stay away from ants as they bite. It is important to make her understand that the reason ants bit her was because she stepped on their nest and they jumped to act in defence. They would not attack her each time she passes them by. Understanding the cause with proper reasoning helps us reduce the associated fear. Instead of running away from every ant she encounters (her response to her fear), she needs to avoid stepping on an ant’s nest (much easier to manage and removes the fear of all ants).
Sadness is another “perceived negative emotion” experienced by us all. What causes us sadness varies greatly based on our interaction with the world and our emotional connections but broadly speaking it arises from a sense of loss of something or someone. While sadness is often considered a “negative emotion”, it serves an important role in signalling a need to receive help or comfort. Our tendency to avoid sadness is almost instinctive. We attribute it to a sign of weakness. In addition, most of us harbor a lot of old pain from our past and have implicit memories of difficult emotions we experienced but were too young to make sense of. Just like fear, we also tend to suppress the emotion, but the associated pain gets easily triggered when we encounter similar situations from the past. Just like fear, sadness also has its benefits. While fear helps us survive, sadness increases our perseverance and our ability to move past a challenging situation. Sadness may result in crying which is an emotional release. It helps relieve our body of countless toxins and hormones that contribute to elevated stress levels, allowing us to release stress and emotional pain.
It is important for us to know how to language our emotions. Do we know whether the emotion we are experiencing is really what it is? Let’s take the example of shame. When it comes to shame, we all have it and it makes us feel bad, flawed or not good enough. We often use it interchangeably with guilt, humiliation and embarrassment. However, there is a vast difference between them. Let us try and distinguish between these emotions. Embarrassment is an emotion we experience when we feel bad about a social or personal mistake. It is caused by our own actions. When we are embarrassed, we do not feel we have lost our sense of connection. We may be able to see some humour in it and laugh it off. We may be able to speak about it and share it. Embarrassment causes unease in us but is not long lasting and we have the ability to get over it. Humiliation is a response to another person’s behaviour towards us. It is an emotion that arises when another person mistreats us. We may disagree with how we were treated. We believe we did not deserve to be treated this way. We may try to overcome this emotion by placing blame or speaking ill of the person who caused it. This emotion can cause us to want to disconnect with people. Guilt or regret is caused when we realise that we have done something wrong intentionally or by mistake. It is caused by our own action and just like embarrassment we claim the responsibility and regret what we did. However, unlike embarrassment we do not like speaking about it. When we are guilty, we have the ability to distinguish between the action we took and our feeling of self-worth. While we regret the action, our feeling of self-worthiness is not dampened by the situation that caused the guilt. Shame in comparison, causes a feeling of inadequacy and loss of worthiness. We do not want to speak about this emotion and try our best to keep it a secret. When we feel shame, we use destructive ways to combat it. We may try moving away from people by withdrawing, disconnecting, disengaging with them. We may try moving towards people by trying to please them or we may try to move against people by claiming control, gaining power, abusing, blaming, criticising just to feel better about ourselves. Shame is a strong emotion and causes great impact within us. The more shame we have the less love self-love. Hence, to combat shame is to be kind to ourselves. Show ourselves love and compassion. Know that we are only human. Accept ourselves despite our mistakes. Now that we have established an understanding of some of the emotions we like to avoid, here is a 3 step guide to mastering these emotion:
Step 1: Learn to language your emotions correctly
What we do with our emotions depends on how well we know them for what they really are. We must be able to language our emotions correctly. Ask yourself questions like what is happiness for me? How do I understand sadness? What makes me scared? What makes me wonder? Is it just one emotion I am experiencing or is it a multitude of emotions? Am I just sad or am I angry and sad? Learning to language our emotion gives us an incredible insight and awareness about our feelings which in turn lets us connect with our inner self much more powerfully and we are able to respond to our emotions in a much more informed way.
Step 2: Learn to understand the sensations in your body
We need to connect with the sensations in our body that create these emotions. What happens to our body when we feel happy or angry or sad? Where do we feel it in our body? What happens to our heartbeat? Our expressions? Our tone? Our physiology? When we are able to understand the physical sensations, we are able to be more intimate with these emotions and embrace them wholeheartedly.
Step 3: Understand the cause
Our emotions are an integral part of our being. They help us respond to the environment and survive. When we are trying to understand what caused the emotion then instead of responding externally, we are connecting with ourselves internally. Asking questions such as, what made me angry? Could I have avoided it? Is screaming the only way to deal with this situation? You may find that once you try to understand the reasoning for the emotions, your response to how to manage the emotion may be very different.
The reason why following these steps help is because of the way our conscious and sub-conscious mind act as a team to let us deal with our situations. Every time we encounter something new, our conscious mind acts to respond to the situation. If the response helps us survive the situation, it passes this information to our subconscious mind. This means, each time we encounter a similar situation again, the sub-conscious mind jumps into action and gives us the response that helped us deal with it previously. How do we become better at managing these emotions? The steps mentioned above help us shift the focus of our conscious mind towards creating better responses to our emotions then what our sub-conscious knows.
We need to work on our inner world as well as our outer world to manage our emotions effectively. For our inner world, we must first understand that these emotions are an integral part of our lives and serve a purpose. We must establish an intimacy with them in how we contain them and express them. We will also be able to see them for what they are. We must be able to relate to them rather than just relate from them. We must also allow ourselves to be fully vulnerable. We must refrain from blaming them for our behaviour. For our outer world, it is also important to have relationships where we can openly and easily share our emotions. The best way to overcome an emotion is to talk to people who love and care for us. We must be emotionally transparent and non-defensive when talking about our emotions. Talking about our emotions with our loved ones helps us understand how these emotions play a vital role in everyone’s life. It expands our awareness on how others look at them and manage them. This in turn helps us establish emotional intimacy with our emotions, which is critical if we want to live a wholesome life.