To this day, emotions remain mysterious.
There is no doubt that emotions play a powerful role in shaping your life, but what are they? Biochemical in nature, they are primarily in response to perceptions in your environments, but there is much more to the story. Why do some people seem to be more moved by them than other people? Are there differences in the way that our gender influences how we experience them? Where are they in the body? How is it that we are able to unconsciously suppress them? If our unconscious is able to interact with that part of us, does that mean there’s some underlying part of us that is able to protect us and keep us from suffering? Strange.
While a lack of total understanding continues, the underlying function of emotions in our existence appears evident. They are to get us to act toward things that drive satisfaction or away from things that elicit dissatisfaction. The emotion of love makes us connect, form bonds, raise families, and stay safe. Happiness moves us to achieve, relax, and play. Anger is activated when we sense a threat and perceive the need to protect ourselves or others. Sadness provokes reflection and processing. We are designed to respond to the world around us and emotions are our guides.
Like your thoughts, your emotions are an internal sense. And, like thoughts, since they are internal, they are subjective and therefore impossible to validate from any source other than yourself. It can be tricky to truly know if what you’re feeling is actually the label that you’ve learned to give it. I meet people all the time who have no idea that they are carrying around a ton of shame and anger. It is also very common for people who, after some honest searching, realize that they have no idea what love actually feels like. They’ve always thought they knew what love felt like, but realize that they’ve never actually felt it.
If you were brought up in an environment where emotions were judged, minimized, or silenced, you are likely as an adult going to have difficulty expressing or even being aware of your emotional experience. On the other side, if you were raised in an environment where emotions were overly expressed such as through raging, shouting, or violence, then you are going to have to learn that emotions aren’t something that need to be feared or avoided.
As a little added twist, we also have the ability to have emotions about emotions.
These are called primary and secondary emotions. A primary emotion is the initial response to a stimulus and a secondary emotion is the emotional response to that initial reaction. For example, I’ve met many people who feel angry about feeling sad or guilty about feeling happy. This can all be tricky stuff!
However (and this is a big however), emotions are all based on perception. How you perceive a situation dictates the emotion that will follow. This means that, while your emotions are always real, they are not always accurate in response to the situation that is being presented to you. This is critical to your understanding of your emotional self. Just because you feel fear, doesn’t mean there’s danger. If your partner is experiencing anger at something you’ve done, that doesn’t mean you need to feel fear. That person needs compassion. Fear would be an inaccurate response.
Your emotions are a vehicle for your internal universe to interact with your external universe and this interchange can be a vulnerable process. If you express how you’re feeling, you run the risk of others judging you negatively. You’re naturally going to want to avoid that perceived discomfort. But if you don’t give any meaning to the idea that you’re going to be judged unfavorably, then your fear is again inaccurate. More broadly speaking, if you practice not perceiving danger, then you are simultaneously practicing a lack of fear.
Fear is a huge driving force in our species. We are designed to keep ourselves safe and socially accepted. But far too often the ability to detect threat and produce fear is wildly inaccurate. Try noticing the subtleties of your fear response and practice challenging its accuracy. Hesitation in walking into a dark room? Challenge the fear of the unseeable. Don’t want to ask your boss for a raise? Challenge the fear of having a voice and being rejected. Resisting the urge to tell your partner that he or she chews with an open mouth? Challenge the fear of eliciting another person’s embarrassment.
Practicing being vulnerable with how your internal and external selves interact will help you tremendously. You will find that you have much more control over your emotional well-being than you think. Life in general becomes less intimidating to interact with because you will be able to use your emotions to guide you effectively rather than to be at their mercy.
This is a much more peaceful way to be.
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