Feelings and emotions are a big part of being human, but how often do we consciously bring them into our day to day living? How much have we been taught about emotions and how to handle them?
The answer to both of those questions is usually, "not much", often only choosing to exploring emotions fully when our relationship to them causes problems.
What is an emotion? According to Wikipedia:
Emotions are biologically-based psychological states brought on by neurophysiological changes, variously associated with thoughts, feelings, behavioural responses, and a degree of pleasure or displeasure.
In short, they are physical responses to our environment, which includes the internal environment created by thinking and memories.
For example, hearing a beautiful and symbolic piece of music is likely to trigger an emotional response just as much as standing out in a thunderstorm when lightening strikes. Both are a response to an external stimuli, both create biochemical changes in the body. The first may produce happy tears, the second may make you run!
Emotions have historically got a bad rap
It is incredibly important to talk about emotions to counteract the sometimes negative messages we have been taught about them.
I remember as a child hearing the phrase: "If you girls don't stop fighting, I am going to bang your heads together!" It never happened, but from the first time I understood that sentence I took it mean that being emotional was bad and if I was to express them without permission, something bad might happen.
From that event plus others, onwards I learnt to repress my emotions and not show them. Hurt, sadness, anger, joy, happiness - if you stifle one, you stifle them all.
Here's why an unemotional approach needs a rethink and why emotions are important.
Are part of a healthy response to life
Help us to stay safe
Communicate what is important
Share how we feel
A way to bond and connect
Give us the energy we need to live.
So how do we have a healthy relationship with our emotions?
The first step is to make peace with them. To accept they are a part of life and OK to have. The second is how we are with them when they are here.
Emotions need us to be open to feeling the full spectrum of being human. If we think of our bodies being like a radio antenna that receives messages about and knows what an emotion is, but isn't the emotion it is aware - of we begin to be able to put some space between the experience of an emotion and who we are.
It is not uncommon for us to say "I am sad" or "I am happy", but this is infact a case of mistaken identity. A more accurate statement would be, "I feel sad" or "I feel happy". The later statement acknowledges we are seperate from the emotion we are experiencing, and it also alludes to the emotion being temporary.
Emotions are 100% temporary. They are like a cloud in the sky, just passing through. No matter how long an emotion sticks around, emotions are a response to life circumstances. Remove the trigger stimulus for the emotion and the emotion will disappear. Even if an emotion is with us for years, it is still temporary and it will go when it is no longer needed.
How to deal with difficult emotions
Emotions such as hurt, sad, anger, shame, guilt and disgust tend to be considered the more difficult emotions that we'd rather not experience. This can cause us to push them away and distract ourselves from them being there. Whilst this may work in the short term, long term denial of emotions usually means they escalate into something more significant.
Emotions form a useful warning system something may need our attention. They often contain within them a hidden gift that facilitates action such as the energy to defend ourselves, run away from danger or have a difficult conversation. Emotions can show us where we have gone "off track" and are no longer honouring our values. They can also show us where we have become attached to life looking a particular way when we need to be more open minded and flexible.
Think of the value of emotions through the example of a blocked drain. The first you might learn of a blocked sewage drain is through an unpleasant smell (the emotion). Left un-experienced and not seen as a call to action, the blockage continues to grow until you have a much bigger problem on your hands! Yuk!
In real life terms, ignoring our emotions can lead to an unnecessary health condition, major life event such as divorce or job loss or even something that calls our life short.
So emotions are worth getting a handle on and embracing if we want a life of freedom and health. A great exercise to glean the value of what an emotion is trying to share is to invite the emotion to sit at a table opposite you. Imagine welcoming it to your table like a valuable friend with an important message. From a place of absolute serenity and peace, allow the emotion to share what message it brings and receive it with openess and curiosity.
If you find the exercise difficult, go gently with yourself. If you are not used to experiencing emotions in a neutral way it will feel strange and unfamiliar to you. With practice the exercise gets easier as you work through they layers of represed emotions from yourself and those you have experienced from others.
Giving ourselves and others the gift of emotional freedom is one of the most important things we can do. It increases our chances of being healthy, improves the depth of our relationships, improves our creativity and is part of being alive!
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