I want to talk about the right way to think about emotions. To do that we need to understand:
1. What emotions are and what they are for
2. The difference between emotions and mind-states
3. Why awareness is vital
4. When we can expect to experience emotions
5. When it is ok not to have emotions
6. The best way to speak up about emotions
1. What emotions are for
Briefly, an emotion is a Bodymind comment on the situation we are in. It tells us what sort of situation it is (e.g. threatening, confusing, rewarding, etc). Emotions also predict what will happen if we don’t take action and guide us towards the correct actions to take (e.g. connecting to other people, asserting one’s rights, fixing problems, having fun, etc.).
2. The difference between emotions and mind-states
States like anxiety, depression and resentment – and relaxed, calm or serene moods – are not emotions. They are states of mind. For example, anxiety builds up as Headmind indulges in worry, depressing emotions and blocking action. The sensations of agitation and panic arise because the body is reacting to negative thinking by pressing ‘the alarm button’ on the sympathetic nervous system. Bodymind urgently needs us to spring into action on the problem (which includes talking to people) but poor thinking skills mean we go over the problem again and again, rather than switching attention to the likely solutions.
The core problem is that in negative states like these, Headmind is not exercising awareness. It is not grounded in the now, in the present moment, or focusing what emotions are telling us about the right thing to do.
3. Why Awareness is important
Positive states such as Mindfulness occur when we bring our attention back to the present moment, reconnecting to the body, owning our emotions, and exercising spontaneity. We do this just by exercising awareness. We can achieve that through meditation, yoga, breathing techniques, Tai Chi, Qi Gung and in numerous other ways. In Reverse Therapy we most often use sensate focusing and breathing techniques as tools.
Practicing these techniques filters out the Headmind yada-yada-yada that pollutes awareness. And doing that enables us to move with the flow of experience as circumstances change, and our feelings dictate. There is some excellent, practical, advice on how to improve mind-states and develop Awareness on the Simple Dollar blog.
4. When we can expect to have emotions
With two exceptions, an emotional release is triggered whenever an unexpected change takes place. For example, your child is late home, your partner betrays you, or you lose someone close to you. Your body triggers fear, anger and sadness respectively. The two exceptions are boredom and frustration. Those two emotions tell you have been stuck in the same monotonous situation for too long and its time to go and do something more rewarding.
Now life is so arranged that we will frequently get sad. We lose friends, parents, grandparents and, sometimes, our children. We leave our jobs, our homes, and our partners. And when we get very sad we cry. Now some studies have shown that tears are essential for health. They wash away toxins produced by stress and they also release the hormone, prolactin, which has a calming effect.
So there is something wrong with people who never cry. My observations of clients who tell me this is that they have been conditioned into believing that tears are ‘unmanly’, ‘self-indulgent’, or ‘childish’. They just don’t have permission to be sad and they are unable to use effective thinking skills to resolve it.
5. It’s ok not to have emotions when we don’t actually have any
Bodymind creates emotions like fear, anger and sadness when it wants to alert you to an unexpected change, help you understand the situation you are in, motivate you to do something, and guide you towards the appropriate action. When your body doesn’t have any concerns about you then you won’t have any emotions.
Now, the most common myth about grief in that it is a process we have to go through. And that it takes a long time and that we have to do it in stages. This is just not true.
Sadness is not the same as grief. The first one is an emotion, the second one is a state of mind. When we go through a bereavement Bodymind will trigger sadness so that we know we need to take time out for ourselves and adjust to our loss, talk about what we are going through, honor the memory of the person who had passed on, and (most importantly) bond closer to our friends, partners and families, so that they can give us the support we need. The reason we have funeral ceremonies is so that all of these goals can be achieved.
Grief comes up when we have unfinished business with the dead person. That could be resentment, remorse, lost opportunities, guilt, injustice, regrets or a whole lot of other things. Or we were dependent on that person in some way and think we cannot cope on our own. If that is so then Headmind is unable to let go of the dead person and ceaselessly analyses the relationship that we once had. The unresolved wishes, the incomplete emotions, or the refusal to regain our independence, create the experience of grief.
Now, if we don’t have any unfinished business we will feel sad but we won’t need to grieve. This was illustrated for me by a story a client told me in Reverse Therapy last week.
She told me that when her Father some time before, it took her years to get over it. He had been a cold, bullying man who constantly belittled her. The state of mind she carried around with her was filled with things like rage, guilt, love, confusion, resentment and self-blame. She only emerged from her grief when she learned to forgive and move on.
But when her Mother died last year she experienced no grief at all. She cried – copiously – for a few days and then let it go. She and her Mother had been very close, very loving, and very honest with each other. She had already forgiven her Mother for the mistakes she had made as a parent. Besides, her Mother had been 93 and had been ill, and lonely, for a long time in an old people’s home.
Her sister (who was badly effected by grief) and her aunt (also in the same position) told her that she must be ‘heartless’, ‘sick’, and ‘abnormal’ and should see a therapist! Fortunately, I was able to reassure her Headmind and she is now busy working on her new life.
That is all I have time for today. Tomorrow, I will add to this blog and write about how to be braver in speaking up about your emotions.