What are emotions?
Emotions are a state of feeling that arise from our interpretation of events. The same event can be interpreted in several different ways. You may interpret a stranger not giving you the time of day as being angry with you, or simply in a rush with no hard feelings. You may get angry about a colleague not returning an important email because you think they’re lazy, or you may interpret the lack of response as meaning that the email accidentally went into their junk folder. You may feel hurt that your partner forgot that it was your anniversary, or you could look at this knowing that they have a bad memory and understand that they still demonstrate their love in other ways.
Emotions are a normal part of life. It is normal to feel sad when one’s pet passes away, or nervous about quitting your job, or fearful of going rock climbing. These feelings are very natural and contribute to the rich tapestry of life. Sadness, grief, frustration and fear are all a normal part of life and these are not necessarily emotions that we need to struggle with. We need to be able to make room for normal emotions without needing to push them away or fight them. We are not broken and don’t need to be fixed just because we have negative emotions. Despite conditions in western society being better than every before, the use of anti-depressants is rising each year dramatically. How many of these people are encouraged as a first line of treatment to actually learn strategies to make themselves more resilient so that they can cope with many of these very normal emotions. This of course isn’t to say that anti-depressants don’t have their place, but to medicate without even trying cognitive strategies is in our opinion at the least negligent and at the worst criminal. Making people dependent upon drugs to regulate emotions without educating them on how to self-regulate is a ludicrous as giving someone with a sore leg a wheelchair rather than sending them for physiotherapy. One is a bandaid which will help one function, the other is treating the root cause. Emotions need to be classified according to the situation as helpful or unhelpful. Fear is normal if there is a lion in front of you with no cage. Fear is not normal in an elevator if you are worried about running out of oxygen. One is based on a genuine thought of danger to ones life, the other is based on what we term ‘Mind-Junk’, which are the lies our mind spins that are not true. Sadness over a marriage breakup is normal, depression that lasts for 2 years following a marriage break up is based upon what we term ‘Mind-Movies’, which are the repetitive movies we replay over and over about the past that stop us creating a meaningful life in the present. Instead of thinking good or bad emotions, we need to ask ourselves whether our thoughts are helpful/realistic or unhelpful/untrue. This way we can then judge whether that specific emotion, in that specific instance is something good or bad.
When these feelings arise in inappropriate contexts, or become so overwhelming that they stop us from living our everyday lives, they become unhelpful. It’s fine if you never go rock-climbing, this does not stop you from doing your job, seeing your friends, or living your life. But if your fear of heights is so pervasive that you cannot stand near a window on the third floor of a building, this is when the emotion of fear has crossed the line into being unhelpful and potentially detrimental. Similarly, it’s natural to feel sad about the loss of a parent, but if you have been feeling sad for several years for no particular reason, such as in the case of depression, then it is a harmful emotion that will hold you back from living life to the full.
Some more of these unhelpful emotions are listed below:
Jealousy is a complex emotion that can include feelings of rage, humiliation, entitlement, and insecurity. Envy can arise from focusing too much on the greater success of a friend, or competing for the attention of a parent, or when a partner spends time with somebody other than you, even non-romantically. Although some people believe that jealousy can help bolster social bonds, being overly possessive of a partner often indicates a lack of trust in their fidelity. Jealousy can cause conflict and is unproductive. What other people have achieved is unimportant – you should set your own goals according to your own set of values, as this will bring you true happiness – not keeping up with the Joneses. Jealousy is one emotion that can never be classified as helpful and each time we can identify jealousy within us we need to use the strategies of the path to help us get to the root of this emotion.
The point at which fear becomes unhelpful is when it arises in the form of anxiety in response to a non-immediate danger, or non-threat. Unlike fear, anxiety is an unhelpful emotion that is an overreaction to a situation that is only interpreted as being threatening (such as introducing yourself to people at a party). The same situation can be interpreted in multiple ways. A friend not returning a call can be interpreted as them deliberately avoiding contact with you, or it can be interpreted as them being very busy with work and they didn’t notice the missed call. People who experience anxiety may avoid situations that trigger their anxiety (e.g. calling friends), which can limit their enjoyment of life.
Depression is a feeling of pervasive sadness or lowness that last for several months or even years, often with no obvious reason. Depression has a significant effect on a person’s life – people will often lose interest in activities they used to enjoy, will feel lethargic, will sleep much more or much less than they used to, and may find it hard to concentrate on work. Depression makes it very difficult to function at your best everyday. Although it is normal to feel down from time-to-time, an overwhelming feeling of sadness that lasts for several months or years is a huge obstacle on your path to happiness.
Anger is a common human emotion that we have all experienced at some time or another. You might even believe that anger can be beneficial or that it serves a specific purpose in your life. For example you might think that if you hadn’t gotten angry at somebody then they would have continued to take advantage of you. Or that anger is a natural response to being treated unfairly.
It is possible to experience anger without partaking in acts of aggression. Aggressive behaviour is just one of many ways you can deal with your anger. It is possible to train yourself to make other, more productive choices. A danger of believing that anger always leads to violence is that people often use it to excuse their actions and behaviour when they don’t get what they want. You may not be able to control how others treat you or the things that happen to you, but you can always choose how to respond to the situations and people in your life. You can always choose an option other than aggression.
Venting is not just an ineffective remedy for feelings of anger – it can actually make your anger worse. Venting solidifies an angry attitude and state of mind, escalates anger and aggression, and does nothing to help you (or the recipient of your anger) resolve the situation. Venting your anger can be dangerous because many people use this as an excuse to hurt others. Although you may feel better after venting your anger, this is likely to be a learned reaction as research has consistently shown that venting is not helpful in dissipating anger. This reaction is likely to be the result of incorrectly linking the venting of your anger to the calmness you feel after the anger has naturally passed. This connection is erroneous because your anger probably would have faded after a while anyway.
When you are feeling in pain it is common to believe that somebody else put you in that position. When you decide that somebody else is responsible for your pain you stop focusing on yourself and your experiences and start focusing on them. You feel justified in hurting others if you believe that other people are responsible for your anger. Anger is triggered by situations beyond your control but how you react to anger is your decision. Through projecting the blame onto others you miss the opportunity to reflect upon your own behaviour and make appropriate changes. Anger is often a middle step in the healing process following physical or sexual assault. Yet even in those situations, anger ceases to be beneficial when the abused person is unable to let go of it. Consuming anger can leave you stuck and unable to move forward. If anger is impacting your life overall it can become a problem.
Accepting Your Emotions
As we go through life, everybody will encounter challenges at some point. These obstacles can be emotionally taxing, but we eventually come out of these periods a stronger and wiser person, with new coping skills. Avoiding these hurdles can narrow your future opportunities and experiences. Some negative emotions must be experienced in order to enjoy the wisdom that follows. Avoiding a situation because it triggers an unhelpful emotion is not constructive. Avoiding it only increases anticipatory anxiety, which can sometimes create images of catastrophe and dread that are much worse than the anxiety experienced during the situation itself. No matter how overwhelming your emotions are, you always have a choice in the way that you act. You may be angry at the sky for raining when you need to pick your child up from school. You can continue focusing all of your attention or being angry at the sky, or you can put on a raincoat, and leave a few minutes earlier so that you can drive safely to school.
Emotional acceptance is the willingness to accept and experience the unhelpful emotion, to notice it and allow it to pass, just as every other thought or feeling in life comes to pass. You don’t need to spend your energy pushing this emotion away. Instead, acknowledge the emotion, and then act in a way that is aligned with your values.