Growing up in a household where ‘being too emotional’ was seen as a bad thing, I learned to numb my emotions. I saw certain emotions, like joy and happiness, as good and other emotions, like anger and sadness, as bad. As a child, I would repress all ‘bad’ emotions. By the time I hit my teenage years, I had built a solid, thick emotional armor that kept me safe from any pain of vulnerability.
And I know that I’m not alone.
Many of us have been trained to believe that emotions and feelings are not good, especially uncomfortable ones. So we find ways to numb them.
Numbing your emotions and feelings is like having your hand on a hot stove and turning your head away hoping that the stove will magically stop burning and the pain will just disappear.
You can wince and grit your teeth, but guess what? Your hand is still on the hot stove and it’s still getting burned. The only way to move forward is to look at your hand, process the emotions and make a conscious choice to remove your hand.
Emotions are neither good or bad, they’re merely sources of information.
Our emotions are messengers that signal something important we need to pay attention to.
Are you using your emotions as a source of information or are you allowing your emotions to control you?
No matter how thick your emotional armor is or how much you have numbed yourself, the emotions are still there, collecting in your suitcase of emotional baggage. When the suitcase gets overfilled, you will be more apt to overreact without thinking. You are more likely to jump to judgement and blame, whether it’s towards yourself or others. You might feel overwhelmed, paralyzed, and utterly out of control, which may lead to anger, anxiety, frustration and a sense of discouragement. You will be overcome with constant negativity because the repressed emotions you’ve been stuffing into the overflowing suitcase will come tumbling out.
When you numb unpleasant emotions like fear and sadness, you also end up numbing happiness and joy.
Without one end of the spectrum you cannot have the other. How can you experience happiness without unhappiness? How would you even know what happiness means if you don’t experience the opposite?
All emotions, both the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’, merely give you valuable information. This information helps you to grow and expand your window of resilience. It’s like that hand you have on the hot stove. The pain provides you with signals and information. Once you’ve processed that information, you now have knowledge that will help you choose the best decision the next time you encounter a similar situation.
Learning to process and experience your full range of emotions is part of having a full life.
The difference between emotions and feelings.
Though the two words are used interchangeably, they are different and are activated in different regions of our brain.
Emotions are physical and instinctual. Emotions precede feelings. They can be objectively measured by blood flow, brain activity, facial micro-expressions, and body language.
Feelings are a subjective, self-perception of the emotion. Feelings are a mental portrayal of what is going on in your body and is your brain assigning meaning to the emotion.
For example, let’s pretend you’re about to give a big presentation.
Emotion: If you’re like most people who dislike public speaking, what happens to your body just before you’re about to give the presentation? Perhaps your heart starts to pound, your palms get sweaty, you might feel a slight light-headedness. Or maybe your entire body gets hot and starts perspiring. This is an emotion. This is fear. These are things that can be objectively measured: your heart rate increasing, your body temperature heating up.
Feeling: Your brain notices all these signals from your body: the sweat, the heart beat, the body temperature and it sees that you are about to give a presentation so it tells you “Warning warning! You are about to be in danger! Be afraid of this! If you don’t give your presentation perfectly you will look dumb! That will be bad bad bad!” Your feeling is the meaning your brain assigns to this emotion.
See the difference?
Dr. Sarah Mckay, neuroscientist, and author of the Your Brain Health blog explains it like this: “Emotions play out in the theater of the body. Feelings play out in the theater of the mind.”
Why does this matter? Because your emotions impact your behaviors.
Whether you’re conscious of it or not, your emotions and how you interpret them are the driving forces behind many of your behaviors–both the helpful behaviors and the not-so-helpful behaviors. This impacts how you experience and interact with the world.
Whether you blow up at your partner or children for leaving a mess in the kitchen.
Whether you wake up in the middle of the night stressed about a looming deadline.
Whether you keep saying yes to things despite wanting to say no.
Living unaware of your conditioned tendencies often leads to challenges and unhappiness.
By understanding and becoming more aware of your emotions and how you’re interpreting them, you’ll be better equipped to process the root cause of what you’re experiencing. This, in turn, enables you to learn how to make a more conscious choice in how you respond to what comes your way (rather than react with your automatic tendencies).
Three steps to tap into the wisdom of your emotions.
Tapping into your emotions requires a pattern interrupt. Here are three steps for doing so.
Step One: Pause and Breathe.
As soon as you become aware that you’re getting charged up or thrown off center stop and pause.
Take a few gentle full breaths, breathing as deeply into the abdomen as possible to create space between you and the circumstance.
Step Two: Name and Locate.
Name the emotion. Stuck? Here is a great list to expand your emotional vocabulary.
Locate the sensation in your body and describe how it is being expressed. For example:
- and so on
Really bring attention to where you’re experiencing the sensation.
Step Three: Interpret and Decide.
Interpret what the emotion is trying to tell you. Consider these questions:
- What is no longer serving you or others? What is no longer aligned?
- What needs to be changed or let go of to make space for something better?
- What person, belief, dream, or opportunity needs to be released?
- What needs to be faced?
- What needs are unfulfilled?
- What needs to be learned?
- What needs to be celebrated?
- What wants to be appreciated, acknowledged or loved?
- What wants to be created?
You have a choice to interpret the information in a way that empowers you or in a way that disempowers you. Empowering interpretations help you see the gift and opportunity in every circumstance. You will be able to navigate life in a more positive, powerful way. On the other hand, disempowering interpretations will leave you feeling powerless, like you’re the victim and feeling stuck.
Take time to truly understand what the emotion is telling you. Doing this from a place of clear, calm, laser-focused attention rather than a charged up state will allow for more empowering interpretations.
After gathering the wisdom from your emotions, make a decision on how you want to act upon this information.
By acknowledging your emotions and releasing them, you can achieve greater well-being and live a more positive, productive life.
Will things change overnight? I’ll be honest, No. But with practice, you’ll get better at interpreting your emotions with blameless discernment. And in the long run, you’ll be able to make choices that are more empowering for your life.