We like to think of our emotions, joy, anger, love, as neat and tidy labels, for the sensations we are feeling. Adding to this narrow vision of our lives, we then place judgments on our feelings, claiming some are “good” or “bad,” putting us in the unenviable position of classifying entire sections of our lives as being abhorrent. Little wonder so many people come into therapy wanting to “get rid of” their emotions, or “reduce” them, or “gain control.”
At the end of the day, when we cast our mental eyes back on our experience, it becomes painfully obvious that our emotions did not arise by our choice. Lisa Feldman Barrett says that our emotions,
“In every waking moment, your brain uses past experience, organized as concepts, to guide your actions and give your sensations meaning. When the concepts involved are emotion concepts, your brain constructs instances of emotion.”Barrett, Lisa Feldman (2017). How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 9780544133310.
We then make judgments about who we are based on our emotional experience rather than consider them from the perspective of our animal history. Anger is often labeled as “bad” and you can use your anger as a self-definition, such as you are an angry person, instead of recognizing it as an experience. Yet anger is one way of noting what is important to you, we don’t get angry about things we don’t care about. All emotions tell us whether we are supporting or undermining something we value.
Learning to be present with our emotions, while recognizing that does not necessitate specific actions, is a way to rewrite the story of your anger. When we see our anger as information, instead of the demand for an immediate and specific action, then a variety of choices become available to us.
How Emotions are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett