Thinking about Emotions

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Funny how the things we need to think about keep coming up in multiple places, in multiple ways. It seems sacrilegious to admit it, but I have this picture in my mind’s eye of God wielding a baseball bat, saying ” . . . There . . . now do you get it?!?” On days when I feel more enlightened, that image morphs into a sense of The Benevolent One, smiling wistfully, dropping hint after hint about something, hoping I’ll catch on. Waiting, patiently, but not beyond dropping a bomb now and then, if that’s what it takes.

Recently, information and thoughts about emotions have been coming at me from books, conversations, movies — seemingly everywhere — enticing me to reexamine just what they are and how they play out in my life.

In Healing Through the Dark Emotions, Miriam Greenspan challenges current ideas about emotions. She discusses the concepts presented by Daniel Goleman’s widely known book, Emotional Intelligence, including the idea that we have two brains, one that thinks and one that feels, calling the former “the Manager.” Greenspan contrasts this idea with the work of pioneering neuroscientist Candace Pert, author of Molecules of Emotion: Why You Feel the Way You Feel. Pert’s research reports biological data based on measuring endocrine functions, neuropeptides, receptors, etc. Okay . . . she could lose me quickly here, but this is her conclusion: “Emotional intelligence hinges not on one part of the brain dominating another, but on a smoothly flowing system of emotional ‘infoenergy’ throughout the body/mind.” She goes on to say, “Emotions don’t need to be ruled; they need to be tolerated  and expressed. They have an intelligence unto themselves, not when they are dominated, but when they are free-flowing.” (The word “emotion” comes from the Latin word movere, to move.) “Emotions are energies that move us — to feel, to express our feelings, to act.”

Emotions, it seems, live in our bodies, not in our minds. And they need to be “tolerated.” To “express” emotions is not a new idea to me; to tolerate them changes the concept, somehow, in an intriguing way. As long as they are moving, emotions give us valuable information and work to help us understand our circumstances. When we deny them, however, the motion stops, and we get stuck.

It gets more interesting: Greenspan says we suffer from “alexithymia,” the scientific word for an impaired ability to name our emotions. (Quick: make a list of  all the emotions you can think of. How long is your list? One of my life coaching worksheets names 17, with anywhere from 15 – 30 nuanced variations listed below each of those major categories.) Children are emotionally fluent, but as we grow up, we are socialized into “controlling our emotions,” which basically becomes synonymous with neutralizing or negating them. Oh, true, a little unabashed joy here and there doesn’t escape our attention, but let sadness show its face, and we set out to quash it.

Corollary: we are better at describing our emotions than we are at feeling them.  We talk about them, which is less threatening than actually experiencing them. Those of us who suffer from verbal diarrhea wax poetically with drawn-out narratives about how we are feeling. About, as an intellectual exercise, rather than physically owning these roiling emotions that we cannot force to do our bidding. It may feel safer in the moment, perhaps, but dissociating from what we feel is also less effective in moving us along our path.

Second corollary: Emotions are not mutually exclusive, meaning you can feel multiple things at the same time, even opposite emotions, like happy/sad, angry/compassionate. Counter intuitive, but true. Own them all, a glorious, messy potpourri, without trying to rationalize or organize them. Simply feel them, with curiosity: What is the message here?

What to do, what to do . . . A good first step is to recognize what is going on. Next is learning to tune into our bodies, and note what we feel. As in “my stomach is tight,” or “I feel prickly all over.” Learning to do this was eye-opening for me. I had not realized how often I was “braced” all over, my body’s way of expressing anxiety. My symptoms are a classic description of those triggered by the so-called “fight or flight” response. The pertinent question when feeling this (of course, first I have to notice that I feel it) is whether there is any  actual threat present that merits this red-alert mode. This overall tension had become such a familiar part of my personal landscape that I did not even notice it, and not noticing means nothing changes. Stagnation. Noticing means I can examine why I am feeling that way. Is there sufficient reason, or is it simply that I have blocked genuine experience of this emotion because I am subconsciously afraid of it?

This is where “meta-emotions” kick in: that is, how we feel about how we feel. (our emotions) Bear with me . . . I’m almost done with this technical stuff. Here’s the thing: If we try to control how we feel, that’s what’s taking up our emotional energy. We tell ourselves stories about what’s going on. Rather than “feeling sad,” for example, we may try to deny sadness, explain it in hopes of dissolving it, or tell ourselves to “buck up.” Or, we might engage in a furious round of self-flagellation because we’re such weak people, or, or . . . These judgments about our emotions cause further layers of emotions. Soon we’re one stuck mass of concretized emotions, and we have no idea what has paralyzed us.

The confluence of exposure to these various ideas created a huge “aha” for me. Specifically, I realized that fear of sadness is worse than the experience of sadness. Fear — unnamed, unexamined — goes on and on and on, leaving me permanently braced and vigilant, lest sadness strike. Sadness — no picnic, mind you — comes and goes in waves. (That’s the “motion” part of “emotion.”) This is true of other emotions, as well. They come and go. They are part of our evolutionary equipment for dealing with life, designed to give us valuable information. There aren’t “good” ones, or “bad” ones — all have a positive purpose. Our job is to feel them and allow them to flow. The thing to remember is that emotion (e.g. sadness) comes and goes; unrecognized fear of sadness (e.g. the “meta emotion”) is relentless, endless.

There’s magic — no, make that “grace” — in understanding these things about emotions. When we allow them, they dispel, they morph, they flow. As they pass through, they show us what we need to see, and leave a residue of calm, an over-arching equilibrium, even in the presence of turmoil. There is a sense that “All shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”  (Julian of Norwich) “Fight or Flight” dissolves into “Tend and Befriend,” or “Rest and Digest,” as we learn to honor our emotions and work with them instead of against them. Hallelujah!

 

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