How did you come to study the emotions?
My empathic skills sort of forced the issue. Though empathy is a normal human skill, most of us learn to dampen it as we acquire spoken language. Most of us learn – by the age of four or five – to hide, squelch, or camouflage our emotions in social situations. We catch on very quickly to the fact that most people lie about their feelings, leave important words unsaid, or trample over each other’s obvious emotional cues. Learning to speak is often a process of learning not to speak the truth, and attaining an uncanny level of pretense in most relationships. Every culture and subculture has a different set of unspoken rules about emotions, but all of them require that specific emotions be camouflaged, overused, or ignored. Most children learn to turn down their empathic abilities in order to pilot their way through these confusing social rules. I wasn’t able to shut down, so I remained aware of emotions and studied them throughout my life.
Much of the information we have about emotions tells us to stop the natural flow of the emotions or place them into simplistic categories (these emotions are good, and those emotions are bad) – all of which mirror that early socialization we get on which emotions are acceptable and unacceptable.
This is a shame, because all emotions contain indispensable information. Sadly, we don’t treat emotions as indispensable. Instead, we categorize, celebrate, vilify, repress, manipulate, humiliate, adore, and ignore emotions. Rarely, if ever, do we treat them as important carriers of specific and necessary information. I wrote The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You to help people access their emotions and their empathic abilities again.
Your emotional sensitivity and agility – your empathy – helps you understand and connect with yourself, other people, your vision, and your purpose. Verbal skills and rationality may be what make people so smart, but it is your emotions and your empathy that make you a brilliant, decisive, and compassionate human being.
But haven’t you been hurt by your own emotions or other people’s emotions?
Absolutely! Emotions carry intensity and a motive force with them, and strong emotions carry massive amounts of force. If I’m unaware, I can knock myself (and others) down with my emotions, and certainly, other people can use their emotions to knock me down, too. But the empathic work I teach allows us to take hold of the intensity in our emotions and to use it – not to knock ourselves or other people down – but to change our lives.
Emotions are irreplaceable and necessary, and recent neurological research has shown that without our emotions, we cannot think or function properly. Therefore, our job as sentient human beings is to understand what emotions are and what they do, to listen to them, and to work with them intelligently and honorably. Of course, emotional states that repeat endlessly (or ones you can’t control) may be aspects of an underlying neurochemical, psychological, or endocrine imbalance. These imbalances need to be addressed, but it is not the emotion that needs to be cured; rather, the imbalance needs to be corrected so that the emotion can get back to its regular work!
In The Language of Emotions, we treat all of our emotions as our allies and make a pact with them – we promise not repress our emotions, and we promise not to improperly express them. This pact enables us to work with our emotions in utterly new ways – it enables us to hear the messages our emotions send, ask the proper questions, and make the proper correcting moves in response. This work also incorporates empathic mindfulness techniques that help us calm and focus ourselves so that we can communicate effectively with our emotions.
What messages do emotions carry?
We feel each emotion for a different reason. Here are four examples. Healthy anger is our sentry – our protector for ourselves and others. When we’re threatened, our anger will come forward to help us maintain our self image, our position, or the position of someone we care about. Healthy fear is our intuition – it helps us drop into our instinctive skills so that we can sense danger and act appropriately. Healthy sadness helps us let go when we need to. It brings us the capacity to relax and let go when we need to release things that aren’t working anyway. And healthy happiness is a rest stop in the psyche – it arises naturally when we manage our lives and our emotions properly. Each emotion exists for a specific reason, and we need all of them working properly or our lives won’t work.
What questions should we ask our emotions?
Understanding why the emotions arise helps us to understand which questions we should ask of them. With the protective sentry of anger, the questions are: What must be protected? and What must be restored? With the intuitive instincts of fear, the question is: What action should be taken? With the water-bearer of sadness, the questions are: What must be released? and What must be rejuvenated? Every emotion has a specific message, a specific skill, and a specific purpose. Learning their language helps you become your emotions’ ally instead of their ignorant puppet or their strict taskmaster.