Viewing emotions as discrete entities allows us to box them up, set them aside and ignore them. Or at least attempt to do so. Quite often we look at them as obstacles to overcome, giant boulders on the path of life. We move forward using the supposed power of reason, swinging the sword of logic and embarking on a quest to change our thoughts. Within this framework for personal progress we experience a sense of being overwhelmed, overcome by or otherwise brought down. Emotions are then a beast to be slain. However, like the beast from the fairy tale, the perceived monster hides a deeper truth.
Emotions Are Thoughts
“In fact, every supposed emotional brain region has also been implicated in creating non-emotional events, such as thoughts and perceptions.” (Barrett, 2017)
Our minds are predictive devices, attempting to set up an accurate enough framing of our upcoming experience to guide our behavior to meet it. To do so, our past is linked with input from our current context. This combination requires constant evaluative processes, often fast and far more rarely, slow.
With this in mind, we can look at our emotions as the initial conclusion of a fast evaluation. Our bodies react and, depending on the context, the sensation is immediately evaluated as an emotion. This allows us to have those instinctive or intuitive responses of trust or distrust when meeting someone new. And, because the same or similar body sensation can be linked to multiple emotional evaluations, a gut-feeling can point to us being possibly sick, excited about a romantic evening, or be wary of a new job. Our emotions, rather than being detrimental to our behavior, are the initial set-up for deciding how we will respond to new environments.
Emotions Are Agents of Attention
“The “emotion circuits of the brain” that are activated when we have an emotionally engaging experience also serve as evaluative centers that directly influence our focus of attention and our state of arousal.” (Siegel, 2012)
Carried with the emotional evaluation is a broader mental framing. While our intuition may leave us wondering why we felt a certain way, it only takes some time to come up with a story as to why. How much time is dependent on how fast we perceive the need to do so. Walking down a dark alley and feeling a sense of dread will be accompanied by a very quick story of potential danger. Saying yes to a new romantic connection will carry with it a sense of apprehension or excitement, followed by a story of life’s difficulties or successes, depending on how the date went.
Important to keep in mind here is our stories are just as fluid as our emotions, they respond to the current information at hand. This is constantly shifting. Only by simplifying our relationship with our internal lives do we create a sense of ‘I always knew that’ or ‘of course it turned out that way.’
Emotions Are A Relationship
“Feeling is not bad or dangerous or unhealthy.On the contrary, not feeling or fighting against what we are feeling is a more formidable threat to our health and well-being. Our relationships with our feelings are often at least as important as the feelings themselves.” (Mahoney, 2005)
We can see our lives as full of potential or as a halting walk from one wall to another. Either will find support based on how we view our internal life of emotion/thought. Seeing our emotions as obstacles to overcome sets up a constant battle. We will never get rid of our emotions nor their influence precisely because they are not separate items in our minds to be discarded at will. Seeing our emotions as part of how we construct our perspective on the road to acting out our lives allows us to accept the entirety of our humanity. We can then commit to exploring our stories, finding the nooks and crannies waiting for the light of discovery to illuminate and step into new visions of who we are.
For help and support in working through your emotional life, check out counseling and coaching
Barrett, Lisa Feldman (2017-03-07). How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain (Kindle Location 523). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
Mahoney, M. (2005). Constructive psychotherapy: Theory and practice. United States: Guilford Publications.
Siegel, Daniel J. (2012-04-26). The Developing Mind, Second Edition: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are (p. 73). Guilford Publications. Kindle Edition.