Do you love your emotions?
Do you look forward to days on which a depression visits? Do you eagerly await the arrival of anxiety? And do you enjoy moments of anger, jealousy or shame?
Perhaps these questions strike you as absurd? Who on Earth looks forward to feeling such emotions? Rumi may have. But maybe you prefer the “positive” ones: happiness, joy, contentment?
Like me, I bet you’ve come across dozens of articles on how to deal with anxiety or anger, but not one on how to manage happiness. Why is that? Why is there this lopsided preference for some emotions over others?
And what is the single most important thing you can do to become better with emotions?
These are questions I’ve been interested in for many years. Like most people, I received no formal education related to managing emotions — and in all my years of schooling the subject was never even mentioned.
I’ve since read dozens of books on the subject. Some of them were too academic and offered nothing practical. Others instructed me to focus all my energies on cultivating gratitude, compassion and happiness, as though they were the only emotions that counted.
I’ve since cobbled together an understanding of emotions that helps me to navigate them a little more intelligently, and I’d like to share a few of the key points here.
Of course, none of these ideas are my own. If you’d like to explore them first hand, check out the following books.
Anyway, there are a number of things you can do to become better acquainted with — and more skillful at managing — emotions (which I’ll discuss below) but if there was just one thing that you could do right now it would be to STOP valencing them. In other words, stop regarding some emotions as negative and others as positive.
Although many scientists and psychologists, much of the media and most of your friends are probably guilty of dividing them into two camps (positive or negative, good or bad, pro or anti-social) emotions can only be valenced according to the context in with they arise or the attitude with which they are regarded.
They are not intrinsically positive and negative.
Nor are emotions random things visited upon us. Each of them has a very specific purpose. As Antonio Damasio asserts: emotions are action-requiring neurological programs. By this, he means that emotions are a function of the nervous system. As such, they evolved over millions of years as a means of interpreting environmental cues and communicating to you the information needed in order to survive and to behave appropriately in the social milieu.
A shameless person can’t do this (behave in socially appropriate ways). And someone who doesn’t listen to their guilt might find themselves even worse off — perhaps without friends at all. Similarly, a fearless person won’t necessarily earn your respect. Instead, they may not even make it through their teens. These so-called negative emotions are extremely important. You might even call them life-saving, or, dare I say it, positive!
Considered in this light, emotions work much like your body’s other neurological programs: hunger and thirst. Consider hunger. That’s your body’s fuel gauge — a little warning signal telling you to eat. You can ignore hunger for a while, but if you do the feeling will come back later, probably with greater intensity. Hunger won’t go away until you’ve eaten. Similarly, emotions surface when required, communicate some need — and suggest some course of action. If you ignore them, they may temporarily ‘disappear’. Eventually though, they’ll resurface. And they’ll continue to resurface — with increasing urgency — until you’ve responded appropriately.
For example, imagine that you ask your son to put his socks in the laundry (instead of leaving them scattered on the lounge floor). He says ‘Yeah’ but two hours later he’s still got his face buried in his iPhone. You probably felt some irritation just at seeing the socks (and you took an appropriate action by asking your son to put them away) but now you might be tempted to bury your growing annoyance (perhaps thinking it inappropriate to get cranky over such a small thing). If you do that though, the original irritation is likely to be compounded. By failing to address your son’s transgression the ‘neurological program’ intensifies, manifesting as aggravation, exasperation, and eventually hostility or rage.
This emotional escalation may seem absurd or shameful. It was just a sock. But you can’t blame the emotion. You were the one who didn’t respond appropriately.
Viewing the emotion as negative (or destructive) makes as much sense as calling hunger negative. And just as it would be crazy to wish your hunger away, it’s madness to dismiss an emotion — because no one emotion can do the job of another.
As Karla McLaren says: “Happiness won’t tell you when you’re in a dangerous situation. Only fear can do that. Anger won’t tell you when something in your life is not working. Only sadness can do that. Contentment won’t let you know when you’re underprepared. Only anxiety will do that.”
From this perspective, dividing your emotions up into positive and negative makes no sense. It would be like a handyman insisting that there are only two or three good tools and that the rest should be kept locked away. And this is exactly what happens when you view an emotion as ‘negative’. After all, why would you listen to an emotion that’s ‘bad’, or seemingly without purpose?
Emotions, despite what you may have heard, are as necessary as hunger and thirst to survival. They provide you with information about what’s happening in the world, and they help you to maintain your safety and wellbeing.
This is why it’s so important to stop regarding emotions as positive and negative. It’s far more helpful to regard them simply as messengers — for then you can begin to hear your emotions — and to respond to the messages they’re trying to communicate.
In other words, ALL emotions have their place. They’re a natural, normal part of being human. Without fear, for example, you’d probably drive like a maniac, choose Iraq or Syria for a holiday destination and generally neglect your health and safety. Fear might arise when you’re confronted with a spider or a speaking engagement too. That doesn’t mean it’s bad. It just means it’s uncomfortable, as it’s meant to be.
We call emotions ‘negative’ when they make us feel uncomfortable. But feeling uncomfortable is not necessariliy a negative thing. Without the discomfort of hunger you’d starve. Without the pain of injury you’d bleed to death or destroy your body. Being uncomfortable keeps you alive. Why not consider your unwanted emotions in the same light? If you’re feeling overwhelmed by an emotion remember that it’s just a messenger, and likely a helpful one. You can attend to the emotion without telling yourself that it’s bad, or that you’re bad for feeling it.
Managing Your Moods
So that’s step one: reframe your emotions as messengers or warning signs (instead of calling them negative or unacceptable). Now, what else can you do to become a master of your moods?
Imagine what it would be like if you had one of these (graphic equalisers) for your emotions?
What if you could dial any of your emotions up or down in order to find a balanced and harmonious state of mind?
In truth, that might be asking a bit much. Emotions are powerful and can’t really be controlled (just as you can’t control other functions of the autonomic nervous system, such as your heartbeat). Even the Dalai Lama gets angry (as he should, if the circumstances require it). Nonetheless, while the capacity to control your emotions is limited, you can certainly respond to them in ways that influence their expression. Emotions aren’t just switches that get turned on or off. They’re more like dials which cover a whole spectrum, just like colours. They come in a range of intensities. Red can be deep, rich, vibrant and intense. Or it can be regular stop-sign red. Or it can be dull, faded, soft red. Indeed, all the colours can get so washed out that it can be hard to differentiate between one and another.
It’s just the same with emotions. If you fail to attend to them they tend to become richer and more intense. When the volume is turned right up emotions become unavoidable, overwhelming and obvious to you (and probably everyone around you). If you’re better acquainted with your emotions you might notice them earlier, say when you’re feeling mildly blue, or a little green with envy. But emotions often hang around in much more subtle flavours too. They’re present right at the low end of the spectrum, where they can be difficult to discern. They might even look like something else, just as a very faint pink or peach belongs on the red wavelength but looks quite unlike maroon or scarlet.
Once you’ve decided not to label your emotions good or bad, the next step might be learning how to become aware of them at various levels. Check out Karla McLaren’s emotional vocabulary list for a list of words that help in this regard. Interestingly, research has shown that if you’re able to accurately name your emotions you’re better able to regulate them.
And since emotions are with you all the time (you can’t make any kind of decision without the influence of emotion), you can learn to check in with them regularly, instead of waiting until they become overwhelming.
We’re used to just listening to emotions when they get to the mood and intense states, but it’s much easier to work with them when they’re in the soft, flowing state that most of us don’t associate with emotions at all.
I have mixed emotions about emotions. Perhaps you can tell from the way I was mixing my metaphors in the section above. This wasn’t just bad writing, it was a deliberate illustration of the way emotions work. Rarely do you experience an emotion in a pure, unadulterated form. They often travel in tandem or trios. In fact, I’m surprised there’s not a collective noun for emotions. Perhaps a cocktail?
Feeling more than one emotion at the same time is normal. Unfortunately, we (who use the English language) don’t have many words which adequately describe the nuanced, dynamic, compounded interplay of emotions. Sometimes a poem or song or image can better encapsulate what you’re feeling. Furthermore, because emotions are integrated into every decision we make or action we take, they’re often operating beneath our awareness.
If you want to be good with emotions, it’s good to be aware that you might not even be aware that they’re there.
Meditation and mindfulness help in this regard too, because by taking time out to listen to your thoughts and emotions you can develop a more nuanced and accurate appreciation for exactly what cocktail of emotions happens to be present.
What to do with Emotions
As long as you’re alive you’re going to have emotions. Some of them will be pleasant. Some of them will be harder to handle. And some of them will probably throw you completely off balance. Being human, you’ll probably prefer the former, but whether you like it or not, they’ll all make an appearance at some point. If you’re like most people, you probably repress your emotions in some situations and express them in others. Repression (pushing an emotion aside instead of attending to it) and expression (acting in an explosive and uncontrolled manner in order to get rid of the emotion) can be useful strategies, but a third — and perhaps more skillful option — is also available. You can learn to direct your emotions. Like a conductor or choreographer, you can work with the emotions you’re feeling, so that when they arise, they’re attended to and acted upon in a conscious, empathic, and respectful way.
As a ‘director’ you realise that although you can’t really control your emotions (and you certainly can’t get rid of them) you can choose how to respond to them — and you can learn how to frame them in new and more helpful ways. Realising that emotions have lives of their own, it can also be useful to cease trying to resist or reject those emotions that feel discomforting. Counterintuitively, the recognition that you’re bound to feel discomforted by emotions means that you can be more accepting of them. This makes them seem less oppressive.
When I ask people if they remember the subject Emotional Literacy from school, nearly everyone looks at me with blank incomprehension. That’s not surprising because most of us were not taught anything about emotions, either at school or home. What we did learn was picked up from family, friends, and peers and was likely to be largely dysfunctional, perhaps as a result of the generally ‘negative’ light in which emotions are regarded in our culture. “You’re so emotional” is not a compliment and we’re encouraged to use our intellect rather our emotions when making decisions of any import.
Recent research has shown that no such thing can be done. Our so-called rational and emotional brains are co-workers on a tightly integrated team — and people who have damaged the emotional centers in the brain cannot make decisions at all.
Having grown up in a time and culture where emotions are a kind of taboo, you’re likely to find yourself struggling to accept many of them. This is often because we’ve bought into the culturally condoned messages about them:
- Don’t cry sweetheart. Nothing’s the matter.
- Don’t you get angry at me young man!
- Stay positive. Let go of negative emotions.
- Don’t be scared.
There’s even a very well known and respected book entitled Destructive Emotions.
These messages and the associated stories about emotions contained within often operate unconsciously within us, working like an internal censor that intercepts and rejects the messages our emotions try to send through.
In order to work appropriately with your emotions you ‘ll need to recognise and question this cultural conditioning; otherwise these largely dysfunctional messages will continue to sabotage your efforts to become a master of your emotions.
- Think of emotions as uncomfortable if you must, but regard them as messengers, rather than as intrinsically negative (or positive).
- Practice identifying your emotions at the various levels of expression, from subtle through to intense.
- Practice finding the exact word, or combination of words and images that describe the way you’re feeling, remembering that it might not just be one, but a cocktail of emotions that are present.
- Remember that you are not a slave to your emotions. You can respond to them skillfully, by acting upon them in conscious, thoughtful ways.
Finally, give yourself time to practice these steps for becoming better acquainted with your emotions. A meditation practice can be a very good place to start. Allow all your emotions to surface during meditation and be willing to hang out with them for a while, even if that’s only for a few moments longer than you might normally. Counterintuitively, you may find that your emotions become less troublesome when you begin to welcome them.
Meditation is probably one of the safest places in which to explore your emotions. Other people won’t be able to judge you for having them, and you won’t have to immediately act upon them. Have listened to your emotions, you can take the time to reflect upon what action (if any) to take in response. Meditation provides a perfect environment in which to get curious about your emotions, knowing that they are there for a purpose, although that purpose may not be immediately obvious.
The more exploration you’re wiling to do, the more comfortable you’re likely to become with your emotions. They’ll start to make more sense and you’ll intuitively know what action to take to restore balance and harmony to your world.