5 things to know about emotions that could make a difference in your life:
1. Emotions are completely natural. They are not anything to feel ashamed about!
Many of us have come to believe that acknowledging, feeling and expressing a particular emotion is wrong, dangerous, or a sign of being immature or unspiritual.
This makes sense if we have a history where some if not all of our emotions were judged, feared and suppressed by parents, teachers or peers. This tendency is further reinforced by gender stereotypes in films and other media. For example, the lead man who is tough and powerful, but insensitive due to being out of touch with his more vulnerable emotions. Or the lead woman whose femininity and emotionality is associated with her attractiveness, yet who is unempowered due to unintegrated anger.
While emotions are natural and normal, so is reacting to them with suppression, judgement or indulgence. So lets add that one too. To react to the presence of emotions is entirely normal, and again nothing to feel ashamed about. That said, feeling ashamed about reactivity to emotions is also very common.
2. It is possible to have a healthy relationship with all of our emotions.
The definition of “healthy” will depend on the context, culture, etc. With respect for those differences, I would say a healthy relationship with emotions includes the following:
• Emotional Awareness: A developed capacity to spot and name the specific emotion/s that are present in one’s experience.
• Reactivity Awareness: A developed capacity to spot when we are reacting to our emotions, and how we are doing it. As an example, we may react to anger by suppressing it, feeling afraid of it, judging ourselves for feeling it, by merging and identifying with it, or indulging in it through unhealthy expression.
• Discernment: The ability to discern between a call to action, the need for appropriate expression, and a call to the inner work of awareness. Sometimes our anger is informing us of a limit we need to set with someone, sometimes it is unfinished business from the past coming up to be welcomed and related to (by us) compassionately and skillfully.
• Emotional Responsibility: The willingness to take responsibility for understanding, working with and resolving our own unhappiness. This starts with the view that other people or situations do not “make us unhappy,” but that it is our response or interpretation that does. (Please do not put this on anyone else. If someone is working through serious trauma, such a viewpoint may only trigger more shame and be harmful rather than helpful.)
• Appropriate Expression: The ability to communicate emotions in a way that is effective, respectful and appropriate to the situation. To do this well likely requires a significant mastery of all of the above.
3. Each category of emotion such as anger, sadness, fear, shame, joy has within it a very rich palette of feelings and emotions that can vary greatly in intensity and shade. Consider a robust color palette that can be created from just a few primary colors. Consider the difference between mild irritation and homicidal rage, or between feeling a subtle sadness versus deep and unbridled grief, or between feeling delighted and feeling ecstatic.
4. Being intimate with our emotions can be a deeply spiritual practice. If you are interested in Awakening, you are ultimately interested in awakening from the illusion of a permanent, separate self that we may call “ego.” Transcendence itself is not difficult and can happen in an instant. However, the complete undoing of the illusion of our separateness requires much more. Noticing unhappiness and working through our emotional reactivity offers a cell-deep way to undo more of what is mistaken and reveal more of what is true and real and authentic.
5. Emotion does not equal unhappiness. We can experience emotions without unhappiness. However, if we feel unhappy, there will be emotions present, consciously or unconsciously. Making this distinction opens the door to discovering that it is possible to be happy with the experience of an emotion, even as it is noticed, felt and expressed. I encourage you to consider this possibility without making it a “should.” If you are on a path of deepening spiritual and psycho-emotional awareness, this is one of the fruits you can look forward to.