Emotions Aren't Our EnemyNov 13, 2022
Emotions get the blame for a lot of things.
It makes sense in a way because they happen right before action. So when our effort is less than desirable, and we look for something to blame, emotions are an easy target.
The solution is often to get rid of emotions, and then we'll be better off. If only I didn't have these "bad" emotions, I wouldn't have "bad" actions. So we do everything in our power to suppress or eliminate feelings.
What if emotions aren't to be blamed? We put feelings into categories of good and evil, positive and negative. Imagine if we no longer judged emotions. If emotion were just emotion, we'd have the space to be intentional about our actions.
When I started my career as a psychotherapist, I worked with individuals transitioning from prison back to society. There was a lot of anger present, so I spent a lot of time talking about emotions. My clients were always surprised when I validated the feeling - of course, they felt angry; there was a lot to be mad about when childhood trauma, food scarcity, and domestic violence were present.
But the conversation can't end with feelings being valid. We need to explore what action happens as a result of anger. Anger gets us to act, yell, say what we're thinking, punch things, kick, etc. All these have in common: expelling or expressing energy - a release. So the emotion of anger allows us to let out feelings and release the pressure valve.
Back to my earlier question - what if emotions aren't to be blamed? If anger isn't to be blamed, it can be seen as a sign that there is energy that needs to be used and thoughts that need to be expressed. So now we can be curious about how to respond rather than being angry, judging ourselves for being angry, which leads to an enormous blow-up.
If your goal is never to be angry because it's a "bad" emotion, you aren't prepared when it shows up. However, if you can see it as a natural part of the process of our brains, you can now create ways to take action that don't harm you or others. It's fair to say that anger is a complicated emotion. It holds all that energy mentioned in the above paragraph.
One of the most harmful ways we try to suppress emotion if we judge it as "bad" is by using substances, mindless eating, or endless scrolling to numb or utterly eradicate it. In the Internal Family Systems model, an emotion we suppress is referred to as an "Exile" because we distance ourselves from it. A feeling not allowed to be in our lives but instead banned to an isolated island for exiles.
It might feel overwhelming to imagine just allowing your emotions to happen. Yet, a fantastic thing happens when you can observe, not judge, your feelings. The emotion doesn't linger. It comes, and then it goes. It's our struggle with it, the desire to get rid of it, or anger at ourselves for having the emotion that makes it stay. We engage emotions in a struggle, therefore, prolonging its visit. It becomes an internal game of tug-o-war.
Here is a mindfulness activity you can do to shift away from judging your emotions:
Imagine yourself sitting beside a stream. As you watch the water flow past, you observe leaves that have fallen on the water. They don't get taken under but float on the surface, being carried downstream. As you see a leaf pass, you imagine putting emotion on the leaf and watching it float away. You do it again. You place your feeling on the leaf and allow them to be carried away. The emotion comes, and then it goes, not with a struggle or a fight.
This mindfulness activity allows you to practice noticing an emotion without getting overwhelmed by the intensity, sensations, or judgment. If we aren't ready to act on emotions, we can allow them to float downstream. It takes the pressure off and prevents us from exiling feelings to a place where we no longer remember they exist.
So as you look at your own emotions, ask yourself if you have exiled a sentiment of our fear for the action it might instigate. It's not the emotion that's bad, but the effort it potentially leads you to feel hurtful. So pause, observe, and look at what the emotion evokes and once you decide on an action, let the emotion go.
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