emotions

Difficult Emotions

December 8, 2017

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Emotions are slippery. For the past 5 years I’ve been in somewhat of an emotional supernova. Life has been about coping with the big ones; fear, grief, sadness, anger, guilt… you know. Somewhat coming out of the emotional fog (but not completely) I’ve embarked on a journey to find out exactly what emotions are. And what I’ve discovered is that they are complicated. They are both natural and constructed, personal and societal, psychological and physiological.

Our emotional intelligence starts at a young age and we learn very quickly how to get the things that give us pleasure and how to avoid the things that are unpleasant. We have a fully formed alarm system as a newborn that sets off the stress response whenever we are in discomfort. Our cortex for rationalizing and understanding that stressful situation however, isn’t fully formed until much later in life. So we look to our mother, father or those close to us for feedback. We learn at a young age the fears of those close to us and our brains and nervous systems are wired accordingly. Our brains preface storing strong emotional memories over anything else and those memories live in the alarm center, which is the oldest part of the brain that is responsible for survival functions. This is why our response to difficult emotions can seem so unconscious. It was programmed long before we had rational cognition.

Fast-forward to life as an adult and the flood of emotions that are released when we are in a stressful situation can seem uncontrollable. Some people feel that they are a slave to their emotions, and that they just have to get through it. Luckily that’s not entirely true. There is a way to put space around the emotional response and to choose a different action over the familiar reaction we have been prescribing to our whole lives. There is even a way to change our relationship to our emotions and this is the thing that I found most fascinating of all.

In their essence emotions are our feedback system letting us know about how the world around us is meeting up to our expectations and goals. Emotions are released when the mind observes something that it has tagged as important. Emotions are how we interface with the world. Can you imagine a life without emotions? Surely that would be a good thing with the absence of anger or sadness right? Not so. The degree in which we are able to feel the lows also expands our ability to feel the highs. Difficult emotions can help to keep us safe, help us to maintain healthy boundaries and point us to what’s important in life.

There is a beautiful quote by poet Khalil Gibran that cuts to the essence of this dichotomy.

“Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”

With practice of awareness and turning towards our inner experience, difficult emotions can become allies and guides along the rocky journey of life. They can bring us deeper into our hearts and generate genuine states of compassion for ourselves, and all who are experiencing hardships and pain.



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