Emotions – a useful source of information

by Bernadette Healy

emotions bernadette

It is normal to experience times when your emotional life causes you great discomfort. This is a part of life. Emotions are a source of information about yourself and your experience of the world and they can act as a kind of bookmark, calling your attention to meaningful moments. That is, the feeling of an emotion is an opportunity to learn something about yourself including, for example:

  • what matters to you (for example, having a surprising feeling of sadness as you are making an effort to recognize another person may be due to your own efforts not having been recognized at some earlier time, in which case the feeling of sadness gives you a chance to acknowledge that effort to yourself); or
  • what threatens you (for example, a feeling of jealousy when someone else’s career is fostered at work may be connected to an underlying belief that you are not good enough, or that a reward for another means no reward for you, i.e. that rewards are finite. In both cases a recognition that the feeling of jealousy only concerns you is required; this recognition will usually be sufficient to enable you to exercise caution regarding your behaviour when in the grip of that emotion); or
  • what you cannot own as part of yourself (for example a feeling of inner outrage whenever someone pushes themselves forward at work may be about the fact that you haven’t honestly acknowledged your own ambition. Once you become conscious of this, you will likely find that the ambition of others ceases to be a source of outrage for you).

Emotions resist being overly organized. That is, while we need to learn how to control our emotions, we must also be aware of the danger of seeking always to control or hide them or, more problematically, of constantly ignoring them. Although emotions will bide their time for a while, ignoring them on an ongoing basis will tend to result in negative repercussions. One of these repercussions is the experience of emotional ‘stuckness’ – an awkward description for an awkward experience.

Emotional stuckness is characterized by a number of features: an intense emotional reaction which is accompanied by a sense of one’s emotions being out of control; a sense of being afraid of the emotions or perhaps of what they might lead to; there is a lack of understanding about the reaction; a sense of helplessness with regard to moving forward; and a lack of ability to see any potential productiveness or growth-orientation in the experience.

Most people have no problem allowing positive emotions and are able to count them as a part of themselves that they like and even admire. Difficult emotions on the other hand are often treated as if they are not part of us, as if they belong to someone else or as if they are an enemy. Paradoxically, the way forward through a time of emotional stuckness – which inevitably includes many negative feelings – involves welcoming difficult emotions as if they were honoured guests: who you would acknowledge, listen to and treat inclusively and with respect.

The following are examples of emotional stuckness:

  • a destructive pattern of speech with your partner (including not speaking)
  • feeling as if you are not making progress
  • decision-making crisis

Working through times of emotional stuckness generally includes the following stages: containment; data collection; active allowing; cycles of reflection and review; and acknowledgement.

Containment is about achieving a feeling of emotional safety for use when the level of felt emotion in quite strong. Commonly used physical techniques such as breath-awareness and muscle relaxation may be applied at this stage. Mindfulness techniques designed to heighten the awareness of the physical environment may also be used as a means of lowering the arousal level of a strong emotional state. Individual strategies should also be identified. Confidence in one’s ability to self-soothe at times of strong emotion will increase through practice of the various techniques.

Data collection refers to the process of learning to notice yourself as you are actually in the midst of experiencing particular moments or situations in your life. In the first example above this would mean paying attention to how you are when you are with your partner (and in the lead-up) in order to identify elements in the interaction such as feelings, attitudes and values. This takes time and effort but will provide you with the data necessary for analysis and reflection.

Active allowing refers to the practice of letting yourself have your feelings as you become aware of them; not doing anything to avoid them or to dull them or suppress them; not judging yourself for having them; and letting them come and go. In the second example above, taking the time to quietly sit alone and allow yourself to have the feeling of not making progress may be enough for the stuckness to shift. Or doing so over a period of time may lead to further information, for example that you have an underlying belief about making progress that is holding you back – such as that to be a worthwhile person I must always be progressing.

Cycles of reflection and review, are about repeating processes of reflection and testing out new knowledge about yourself. The processes include questioning and the use of techniques for exploring a particular situation and for tracking your progress.

Acknowledgement is about treating the process and your efforts seriously – for example with regard to the decision-making crisis example, acknowledge the existence of the feelings, allow them, treat the ongoing feeling seriously by giving yourself time to explore questions such as: what might be impacting your decision-making; what decision-making means to you; and how your family viewed the ability to make decisions. Establish a baseline measure (in your own way and style) and then acknowledge the process as you go through the stages above, and if it becomes clear that change is required, recognize all increments towards such change.

A key ingredient to overcoming emotional stuckness is to recognize that all feelings are valid and need to be acknowledged. The need for action or change, however, is not necessarily suggested just by the existence of feelings, even if those feelings persist over an extended period. When a feeling of emotional stuckness is present to the extent that there is discomfort and disruption to daily life, a process such as described above will help you to make sense of the experience. This may or may not lead to the need for change.