Understanding Emotions Part 1: All the feels

Our emotions need to be as educated as our intellect. It is important to know how to feel, how to respond, and how to let life in so that it can touch you.
— Jim Rohn

Emotions are powerful forces that colour our lives and influence much of what we do. By coming into a conscious relationship with them, we can learn to have our emotions rather than them having us. Let me help you bust through some of the emotional myths that are holding you back from doing so, and explore how emotions can be shifted to create a more positive experience of life. 

 

IMPORTANT UNDERSTANDING ABOUT EMOTIONS #1: THE ONLY BAD EMOTION IS AN UNEXPRESSED EMOTION

There is a highly damaging myth of modern society (gleefully pedalled by marketing companies trying to sell us stuff) which tells us we always need to feel good. 

That is: that there are some emotions such as happiness, joy, excitement, and love, that we should be feeling. And others, such as worthlessness, blame, hate, anger, or sadness that we shouldn't feel at all.

And what I want to offer you in this post, is permission to banish this myth from your life completely, and step into a sense of personal freedom instead. 

You won't believe how freeing it is to simply stop believing that it is bad or wrong to feel whatever it is you feel. 
Full stop. No exceptions. AAAALL the feels are okay.  

Now, before I get myself into trouble, let me just say that there is a difference between consciously feeling an emotion and mindlessly reacting to it.

For example, allowing yourself to feel anger might mean letting the heat of fury rise up within you until you see red. And fully expressing it might mean consciously channeling that powerful feeling into some activity, such as writing or running.  

Importantly, allowing yourself to feel anger does NOT mean following whatever crazy impulses it inspires in you in that moment. In fact, feeling and expressing your anger on a regular basis will actually prevent those painful situations where months or years of repressed anger bubble up and cause you to lash out in ways you really wish you hadn't. 

That's the trick – in order to consciously shift your emotions, you first have to come into relationship with them by feeling/expressing them over time. Why is this so important? 

Emotions are at their core, energy, and you cannot remove energy, you can only work with it.

And in order to work with emotional energy you must first connect with it ... otherwise that energy will always be out of your control, and able to control you!


IMPORTANT UNDERSTANDING ABOUT EMOTIONS #2: STIFLING EMOTIONS NEVER ACTUALLY WORKS

It’s so common in our culture to stop ourselves from feeling what we feel. 

'Calm down, it's not that bad!' we say. 

Or 'Get over it, it’s time to sleep!'

Or 'Stop feeling confused/lost/angry/in love and just move on already!’ 

However, denying our emotions in this way, never actually works. Not in the long run, at least.

Denied or ignored emotions never simply disappear. They linger inside us instead.  

When we stuff emotional energy down inside us, it shows up in all sorts of funky ways such as headaches, backaches, insomnia, and mood swings. It shows up as compulsive habits that distract us such as overeating, overwork, or addictions (to social media, for example). 

Repressed emotions also show up as an underlying dissatisfaction with life. When we choose to disconnect from our difficult or ‘bad’ emotions, we disconnect ourselves from the ability to feel the expansive ‘good’ ones as well. Our bodies and brains are simply not set up to allow us to feel one set and not the other. 

Emotions are also intricately linked to all manner of higher-level consciousness.

Scientific studies link the emotional part of the brain to our ability to make decisions, distinguish right from wrong (morality), develop relationships, move about socially as part of a wider community, and maintain our sense of security and self. 

Put simply: To be emotional – to love, to care, to despair, and to hope –  is as natural to us humans as it is to breathe. 

Trying to control our emotions might seem like a good idea in the moment, but stifling that life energy over time actually robs us of many of the inner processes and sensations that make life feel meaningful, fulfilling, and safe. 


IMPORTANT UNDERSTANDING ABOUT EMOTIONS #3: EMOTION = SENSATION + THOUGHT

There are the two components of an emotion: an emotional feeling or sensation that occurs in our body and an emotional thought. The interaction between these two components is part of the reason why emotions often seem so complex. 

Let's start with the sensation: 

  • When allowed to run their course, emotional sensations take approximately 60-90 seconds to flow through your body. 
  • They will come in a wave which starts slowly, leading to a crescendo that will potentially feel incredibly powerful and overwhelming. E.g. the sensation of sadness, which might rise up from within your chest, and feel like it might drown you as it overtakes your throat and face. 
  • If you allow the sensation to flow with openness and without judgement, however, it will come to a head E.g. tears and heavy breathing, before naturally waning, and dissipating as quickly as it came. 

In addition to the sensation, however, there will also be thoughts associated with an emotion. Something like:   

  • 'Omg, this is the worst thing ever.'
  • Or 'Omg this is great.'
  • Or 'Omg, I can't handle this. I'm such a mess.'
  • Or 'This is tough, but it will pass. I'll be fine.'

It is with our thoughts that we create meaning out of our emotional sensations. It is with our thoughts that we define the story of our lives. 

Importantly: 

  • Certain thoughts can act as 'hooks' which keep emotional sensations cycling in our lives.
  • Cycles of negativity arise when we allow constricting or disempowering thoughts (e.g. judgement, denial, powerlessness, or condemnation) to run amok E.g.:
    • 'I shouldn't be feeling like this.'
    • 'There's no point.'
    • 'It's always the same with him. I hate it so much!'
    • 'I shouldn't complain so much. I'm so useless.'
  • In comparison, more expansive or empowering thoughts (e.g. compassion, curiosity, acceptance, nurturance, courage, support) will work to break cycles of negativity over time, particularly when we are willing to step up and take ownership of our lives E.g.: 
    • 'It's OK for me to feel overwhelmed right now.'
    • 'I feel so powerless. I wonder what could help me get out of this funk?'
    • ‘I’m not going to let him control my life.'
    • 'Everything I feel is OK. Now I wonder what's been making me so sad?’

What is interesting to note, is that exactly the same emotional sensation paired with expansive thoughts ('It's OK', 'I get to feel whatever I feel', 'I'll support myself through this', etc.), will result in a completely different experience of life. 

Regardless of how we feel in any one moment (which often cannot be changed – not immediately at least), we always have the power to change our fundamental experience of life by changing the nature and focus of our thoughts. 


Closing note

There is so much more to discuss around the complex topic of emotions. However, the main thing I want to offer in this introductory post, is permission to positively engage what you feel, even if that feeling is 'bad.'

Emotions like grief, fear and despair are as much a part of the human condition as love, awe and joy ... Each of these emotions is purposeful and useful-if we know how to listen to them.
— Miriam Greenspan, psychotherapist

To help you do this, let me point you to a really valuable tool called the Tiers of Emotion (PDF download). 

Provided by the wonderful peeps at Lucid Living and Concept Synergy, this is a map of 21 major human emotions. Take a look, and know that a healthy human being will naturally feel every single one of the emotions in this diagram as they go about the task of living their lives.

By developing the ability to recognise how each of these emotions shows up in your life, and empowering yourself relate to each of them in healthy ways (i.e. starting with more expansive thoughts), you can free yourself up to live a full and powerful life run by passion rather than fear. 

If you would like further support in connecting and working with your emotions, sign up for a free 'Get connected' coaching consultation.   

A note for anyone struggling with especially difficult emotions: You're not alone. Approximately 1/4 of our population will struggle with a powerful emotional imbalance in their lifetime, and I'm sure you know there are resources available if you need them (here are some New Zealand based ones). If at any time it feels too much while exploring your emotions, have compassion for yourself and don't push it ... go back to your usual way of dealing with your feelings, and return to try another day.  

With love and commitment, 
Liz Busch