Emotions as Guides
Though regular readers of this blog may have caught onto this already, the premise of The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings are Trying to Tell You is that all of your emotions exist for specific and protective reasons. Emotions are an irreplaceable aspect of your intelligence and your capacity to understand the world, and you feel emotions because they have something to tell you. If you learn what messages your emotions are trying to give you, you’ll be able to work with them in excellent new ways.
So far, we’ve looked at the gifts of anger, sadness, fear, and contentment. Every emotion has a purpose and is necessary to your well-being, but some of them are difficult to manage. However, if you can learn to listen closely to your emotions, you can access some of the most important aspects of your innate intelligence. Unfortunately, most of us have learned only two ways to deal with emotions: Expression and Repression (which don’t really work in all cases).
Take expression: Some emotions are good to express. Happiness and contentment are two that come to mind. Sadness is also nice to express (if it’s safe to cry). Depression can be good to express instead of bottle up. But think about rage, jealousy, hatred, or shame. You want to be able to feel these emotions (because they have a valid purpose in your psyche), but if you express them, you can hurt yourself or other people.
Expressing difficult emotions can be very problematic, as we all know. Current neurological and psychological research is showing us that constantly expressing strong emotions tends to essentially wear a pathway into your brain. If you let loose with rage or anxiety, your brain will learn how to rage and be anxious; therefore, the next time you meet a possibly enraging or anxiety-producing situation, your brain may move to rage or anxiety simply because you taught it to. The plasticity of your brain doesn’t just apply to learning new skills or new languages; it also applies to learning how to manage your emotions.
People tend to repress difficult emotions, which is a good idea if they don’t have any other skills. However, since all emotions carry truly important messages, repressing them means you won’t get those messages or learn those lessons; instead, you’ll just become less able to work with the emotions you repress. If you can envision your emotions moving forward to bring you messages and give you help, you can see that repression just shoves that help under the rug. In the case of strong emotions like rage or hatred, yes, repression is better than expression. But since rage and hatred have something very important to say to you, repressing them will actually impede your ability to understand yourself.
When you haul off and express an emotion all over the joint, you’re working for your emotions; you’re a puppet. But when you clench up and repress the life out of an emotion, you’re working against your emotions; you’re a strict taskmaster. These two responses ignore one of the most helpful approaches to your emotions, which is to work with them.
The Middle Path
Do you notice that expression and repression are polar opposites of each other? They’re black and white ways of approaching your emotions; either you’re for them or you’re against them. Luckily, there is a more intelligent, middle path you can take with your emotions: you can learn to work with them.
Knowing what each emotion is for makes working with it much easier. However, we all get truly rotten training in one or more of our emotions as we grow up. We hear constant admonishments: Big girls don’t cry! Fear is the opposite of (insert anything here). There’s nothing to be afraid of! You should be ashamed of yourself! Only sissies complain! You should be happy! Don’t be emotional! ad infinitum.
So it’s no surprise that emotions throw us into so much turmoil; luckily, there is another option — which is to turn toward your emotions and to use your intelligence to support them. In my book, I offer a question or questions to ask each of the emotions, and this does three things:
1) It helps you learn to identify your emotions, which is a first step toward emotional awareness;
2) It helps you understand what each emotion is for and why it arises, and;
3) It recruits the verbal and rational part of your brain to support the emotion and help you learn from it and take constructive, emotionally appropriate action.
Though this process is unique, the third step is vital in understanding why The Language of Emotions is so different from any other emotional management, emotional freedom, or emotional mastery technique. In this work, we use our rational, verbal skills to support our emotional awareness, and that’s a huge leap away from the old, tired “emotions are the opposite of rationality” ideology. Instead of pathologizing or demonizing emotions (or glorifying them, which is another mistake), we learn to welcome them, learn from them, and engage with them.
If we can remember that all emotions are necessary, that all of them carry specific messages and assistance, and that all can be understood rather than stomped on or exploded with, we can become fluent in the language of emotions.