by Sandra Kacher, MSW, LICSW
Can you remember the skills training you received in your family and at school for working with your emotions? If your answer is something like, “Don’t be such a baby,” Or “Nothing is worth getting that upset about,” you are in the majority. It is also possible that you don’t recall any conversation about emotions at all, and you draw a blank as you realize, “We never even talked about feelings.” If that’s the case you’re in the Upper Midwest majority. Of course, being in either of the majorities is a booby prize.
There are so many reasons that people have trouble dealing skillfully with their emotions—family modeling, negative religious messages, school troubles, being bullied for being vulnerable, are just a few of them. By the time we are adults, we usually have compiled a list of acceptable emotions that might have ten items on it. For some of us the list has only two items—“I feel bad, or I feel okay.” This is sad considering that the longest list of emotions I was able to find on the Internet offered over 300 possibilities. Just imagine how much variety there is beyond feeling okay or feeling bad.
The good news is that all of us are capable of expanding our emotional repertoire at any time of life. Step one in the process of opening is to identify just how it is for you right now. How much of the world of emotions are you at ease with and how much is uncomfortable for you? In The Chemistry of Joy Workbook, we identify emotional responses as falling somewhere along a continuum that looks like this:
Disconnected Resistant Open Fixated Flooded
An exercise in the workbook provides a very partial list of emotions and you are invited to reflect on them and place each one on your particular continuum. For example, you might realize that you distance yourself from any emotions-- like irritability, frustration and rage-- that fall into the anger spectrum. Others might be open to anger but feel flooded by emotions in the fear spectrum.
So many feelings seem threatening, even dangerous. If it were possible, we might happily sign up for a rage-ectomy or purchase a Groupon for five sessions of laser shame removal. However, a life of emotional richness requires us to open to a wide range of experience. We may hope that we can eliminate grief or anger and we may even have some success at repressing them. However, there is an unintended side effect: our joy and vitality are depleted. Our best option is not to remove anything but to create a larger space in our hearts and bodies for us to hold more and more.
Many people in our classes have sincerely questioned the point of opening to more emotions. The idea is frightening to them, not liberating. But imagine a life without emotions: no joy at the birth of a new baby, no grief at the loss of a loved one, no compassion at the plight of hurricane victims, no fear to warn of danger or anger to motivate the fight for justice. No morning delights at the sight of a cardinal outside the window or that first cup of coffee on the porch. A life without emotional breadth and depth is an impoverished life. And a life where we spend our energy trying to pick and choose the dishes on the emotion banquet is a life of increased anxiety and decreased choice. Rather than being actual feelings, depression and anxiety can in fact be symptoms of emotional shutdown.
If you’d like to experiment a bit with befriending some emotional exiles, select from the following lists of emotions one that you are not comfortable with. Maybe there is one that you already suspect constricts your life because you try to avoid experiencing it:
I might choose envy as an unwelcome feeling. Envy is flavored by a sense of inferiority and resentment. It calls to mind what I don’t have and feel like I should. Perhaps additional thoughts come along that suggest that if I had it I would be much happier. I may even have the sense that people who have that thing are actually stealing some of my happiness. In order to avoid experiencing envy, I might decide to avoid people I might be envious of. Therefore, I can’t spend time with anyone who is especially beautiful, fit, wealthy or funny—or who gets to travel a lot, or who has grandchildren, or who can sing well. This list could go on (and it does, I’m afraid), but can you see how narrow my life could become if I make decisions based on avoidance of envy (or any other unloved feeling)?
Current neuroscience research offers us both an explanation and a way out of this narrowed life. Neurologically we are wired to automatically seek pleasure and avoid distress. Our reptilian brain deliberates for a nanosecond and then gives us one of two signals: this is food (good) or threat (bad). Our limbic system is more complex, but it is still constantly evaluating whether something is to be approached or avoided—even when that something is an experience that exists within us. At this level of processing, we aren’t deliberating; we are reacting. We are only reacting.
Not only do we have conflicted attitudes and conditioned reactivity, our brains have an almost magical ability to delegate choice to the unconscious. Research suggests that the incredibly versatile skill of mindfulness is helpful here. We can start by bringing in mindful awareness in two ways. We can learn to be aware of what we are sensing/experiencing in our bodies and, at the very least, we can learn the name of the feeling. Naming something restores some of our power over it. Once again, becoming adept at stepping a bit back from the flood of experience and strengthens our ability to reflect and choose. Whenever we practice the skills of mindful observation, no matter what the object of our observation, we liberate ourselves bit by bit from the prison of reactivity.
So, how would it look to bring mindful attention to an emotion?
Returning to the envy example, I have learned that when I feel envious, the muscles around my eyes tighten and my eyes narrow; there may be a sinking feeling around my heart area, followed by a clenching of my jaw; and there is a bit of despair that shows up as a lump in my throat. I know this experience well enough now that I can say, “Aha, envy is here.” In the past I would have first become aware of a judgment about the person who has what I long for. I might even have rejected them based on nothing but my own jealousy, so I consider recognition and naming to be good progress. Perhaps you remember the movie, The Shawshank Redemption? In it, the unjustly convicted…works everyday at digging a tunnel through the wall of his cell. No one would know it because he has a poster in place over it, but one day, the guards come into his cell, to find that the poster has been torn down, and a light from the other side of the tunnel reveals that …is free. So it is with our efforts to free ourselves from our mental and emotional prisons.
You can engage your reflective, problem solving, curious mind to gain more confidence in your ability to be present with a wider range of emotion. For example, when you’ve identified the feeling you want to work with, you can ask yourself these questions:
1. What do I fear would happen if I fully experienced this feeling?
2. What happens in my body when I consider letting this emotion into my life?
3. Can I tolerate the body sensations for just a bit?
4. What happens when I allow these sensations and direct my breath and awareness to them?
There are a number of wonderful practices for working with emotions, but they all begin with a willingness to tolerate a particular kind of discomfort. The special discomfort of fear, embarrassment, hope, desire, anger, grief can all be managed, but only if we are willing to feel more, not less.
What do you need in order to feel that willingness? What would change in your life if you became confident of your ability to work with your rejected feelings? Is there anyone who would be unhappy if your life were to change in this way? Who will be happy for you when your life changes in this way?