“Emotions make us human. Denying them makes us beasts.” – Victoria Klein
Have you ever…
- teared up while watching a touching movie scene?
- felt angry while viewing news coverage on a senseless act of violence?
- experienced elation after hearing about your job promotion or pay raise?
- been excited while planning a fun-packed, upcoming vacation?
- felt a sense of peace and calm while watching a sunset on the beach?
If you answered yes to any of these questions then you know what an emotional experience feels like.
But what exactly are emotions and what purpose do they play in our lives? According to Science Daily, emotion is “a neural impulse that moves an organism to action, prompting automatic reactive behavior that has been adapted through evolution as a survival mechanism to meet a survival need”.
Compared to the reactive responses of reptiles, the emotions that mammals experience are more elaborated responses of the general arousal patterns caused by major neurochemicals (dopamine, serotonin and adrenalin). These chemicals step up or step down the level of brain activity and cause physiological changes like a faster heartbeat, varied facial experience, and changes in behavior patterns.
The scientific explanation for how emotions are generated within us is indeed simple in theory, but interpreting and working through them is anything but simple. Unlike reptiles and other mammals, we possess an advanced level of intelligence that arises from the complex neural entity known as our brain.
Our emotions are significantly influenced by the dominant thoughts of our minds. Rational-emotive psychologist Albert Ellis believes that, if we are not careful, we can give in to the tendency of allowing our thoughts to create a personal reality that’s harmful to our wellbeing. He demonstrates this through the “A-B-C” model of emotions, which shows how our beliefs and thoughts influence our feelings:
A: Activating event (a friend turns you down for dinner)
+B: Belief (no one likes me)
=C: Consequence (sad mood, feelings of rejection)
According to this model, if you’d like to change your emotional experience, you need to change the way you think. You have to scrutinize your beliefs and challenge them by questioning their validity. For instance, in the given example, you might want to question the belief that “no one likes me” by looking for proof for this belief. Is it really true that no one likes you? What’s causing you to feel this way?
Yet most of us are prone to impulsive and knee-jerk reactions because we weren’t taught the art of slowing down and responding to circumstances in a calm and thoughtful way. Both parents and educators don’t pay nearly enough attention to the development of emotional maturity in kids. They seem to think that solving calculus problems is more important than handling matters of the heart!
Without this guidance, little kids grow into adults who lack the language and the understanding needed to deal with emotions in an appropriate way. As a result, they may ignore their heart and numb their feelings by overeating, overworking, getting addicted to substances, and several other ways. Pent-up emotions can also manifest in the form of stress, angry outbursts and violence.
There is, however, a big price to pay for repressing our feelings. When they aren’t channeled in a healthy way, emotions become toxic within our system. Fear-based emotions such as anger, hatred and regret can cause chronic damage to the body, especially to the immune system. As our immune system weakens, we become more vulnerable to various serious illness, aches, and stress-induced diseases.
So, no matter how talented, attractive or intellectual you are, remember that we all have the responsibility to manage our emotional wellbeing. We can do this by befriending our emotions and overcoming our fear of diving into the deeper end of the pool. In this way, we can gain a better understanding of our inner world and what we can do to shift towards a more balanced state of being.
If we are open and willing to let the currents flow through us, we’ll find that our feelings are valuable guideposts that can give us an accurate insight into how to live more fulfilling and purposeful lives. Although we can’t always change or control our emotions, we can learn how to be live peacefully with them and transmute or release them. The first crucial step is learning how to interpret their meaning.
Here is a simple 3-step process for deciphering the truth behind your emotions:
- Diffuse your emotions if you need to: During incidents when you feel particularly emotional and vulnerable (mostly right after an activating event), it’s best to first walk through the gray clouds and feel the emotions rather than avoid them. At this stage, you need to take a time-out and engage in self-nurturing practices such as writing in a journal, meditating, praying, or speaking with a loved one or trained professional to help channel this energy so that you can regain your composure and balance. I’ve written extensively on this topic in this blog post.
- Question your thoughts and beliefs: Once your thoughts are clearer, you’ll be able to perceive your feelings objectively. Going back to the A-B-C model of emotion, you’ll need to examine whether it was the activating event, your interpretation of the event or a combination of both that led to how you feel. For example, if someone at work criticized a project you were working on and you felt offended, ask yourself why you felt hurt. Did you believe that there’s some truth in their criticism? Perhaps deep down inside, you’re insecure about your work. Maybe your project really does need some improvement and your co-worker was simply trying to provide constructive feedback. As you work through it, you’ll realize that you probably need to work on your sense of self-esteem, have a conversation with your co-worker about how their words made you feel and that you’re willing to hear their ideas on what you can do to improve your project. By neutralizing your feelings, you were able to think clearly about the event and use it as an opportunity to improve yourself personally and professionally.
- Keep the positive vibes on repeat mode: Not all emotions we experience are negative. It helps to take note of all the times when you experienced lighthearted and joyful feelings. Do you have more fun with a specific person or group? Do you get more pleasure from indulging in certain hobbies? When we know what works for us, we should try to bring more of those elements into our future experiences. For example, I know that I love attending shows and concerts. There’s something magical about the world of theater and music that appeals to both my senses and soul. So whenever I’m at home or during my travels, I make a point to pencil in a theatrical or musical experience in my itinerary.
According to the scriptures of the Course in Miracles, every single emotion we choose to experience will ultimately take us down the path of either love or fear. When we walk down a path of love, our life will blossom, just like a beautiful rose. Even though the rose may still have traces of spiky thorns, we can train ourselves to focus on the sweet fragrance of the red petals while managing the thorns of fear.
All my best on your journey,
Question for you: Have you had a tough time understanding what your emotions are really trying to tell you? What will you do differently after reading this post?
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