I Feel, Therefore I Act
As much as we like to think of ourselves as logical and calculated beings, our emotions can quietly rule over our judgment and decision-making. According to Dr. Antonio Damasio, a leading neuroscientist, our decisions are the products of various brain regions, not just the “higher order” regions such as the prefrontal cortex. He asserts that the emotional regions of the brain, namely the limbic system, are hugely influential in our decision-making processes. Thus, a state of emotional unawareness can mean the difference between a promotion or a lay-off; a break-up or a make-up; a moment of regret or that of pride.
Despite the importance of emotions, we are frequently told, “Suck it up and move on.” Or, “Never bring your emotions to work.” Or even the seemingly innocuous, “Don’t worry, be happy!” We live in a society that encourages us to suppress our difficult emotions, yet now more than ever, we feel them on a daily basis. Many of us were never even taught what emotions are exactly, but we are expected to manage them. Granted, it’s an elusive concept – we feel emotions all the time, but how do we define them?
Put simply, they’re our body’s instinctual, physiological responses to stimuli, which can be internal, such as a thought/memory, or external, such as an event that we see/hear. The stimulus triggers a reaction in the body, whether it’s the release of certain hormones or neurotransmitters, or a change in heart rhythm or breathing. It’s important to note that “feeling” is not the same as “emotion,” but is rather our subjective experience of emotion. The process from stimulus to feeling could look like this:
- I am threatened by the coronavirus pandemic (stimulus).
- Fear arises in my body (emotion).
- I feel worried and anxious (feeling).
What Can Emotions Do For Us?
Our basic emotions (i.e. fear, anger, joy, sadness, surprise, disgust) are universal, shared by all humans. Emotions have survived the test of evolution, so we can assume that they serve an important purpose. This purpose is to provide us with valuable information from which we can make better decisions. Take a look at the table below to see examples of emotions and the information they can provide us. Anger, for instance, can tell us that our boundaries have been violated and that we must do something to restore this boundary. While this may seem obvious, I can bet there have been many times in your life where you felt anger, or any other emotion, without understanding what it meant.
For some of us, we never receive this important information because we’ve become so used to avoiding our emotions. For others, difficult emotions can hook us into ruminating: we think so hard about what’s triggering us that this thinking becomes cyclical and pointless. This can last for days, months, even years, and this, too, robs us of valuable information. With mindfulness, the goal is to intentionally look at emotions without getting lost or overwhelmed by them. From a place of inner calm and clarity, we can then gather relevant information and make better decisions.
(Table adapted from the book, The Language of Emotions by Karen McLaren.)
In my last blog post, I describe Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s 90 Second Rule, which asserts that the physiological experience of our emotions lasts only 90 seconds. If we continue to feel these emotions after 90 seconds, it’s most likely because we are choosing to keep thinking about them. This understanding gives us an extremely valuable foundation from which we can build a healthy relationship with our emotions.
If you ever feel triggered or would even just like to understand and explore the subtler emotions that you may be experiencing, the following process may be helpful for you.
Calm the mind: This practice always begins with at least 90 seconds of bringing attention to our breath, bodies, or anything that helps us ride the wave of initial reactivity. During this time, we simply feel whatever it is we’re feeling without resistance – emotions are natural and to feel strongly is to be human.
Examine our emotions: After this 90 seconds of centering, we can start asking ourselves a few simple questions and examining our emotions without judgment. What are we feeling? Can we label it? Where in my body am I feeling this? By asking these questions and reflecting for a few minutes, we not only gain a clearer understanding of our feelings and emotions, but we also separate ourselves from them and regain a sense of control.
Examine our thoughts: After settling in and looking at our emotions without judgment, we can ask ourselves what exactly might have triggered the emotions. Was it something someone said? If so, what was it about the thing they said? The content or the delivery? These are just some examples of the types of investigation you can do for yourself. By understanding precisely what triggered you, you can finally identify appropriate actions. Ask yourself now, how will I proceed?
Take action: In completing this practice and then committing to a skillful action, you will be responding from a place of inner calm and reason rather than reactivity and distress. Though unpacking emotions can seem cryptic and burdensome, there is real practical value in doing so. Evolution did not intend for us to swallow our emotions. After all, our decisions depend on them, and our decisions are what keep us alive.
A Few Words Of Caution
In the initial stages of developing skills in emotional awareness, we may find that in examining our emotions and thoughts, we are overcome by them. If you find yourself going down a spiral, disrupt this examination and shift your attention to something positive and wholesome or something you’re grateful for, or use other senses like sight to look at nature or the sky. We can recognize when emotions are becoming overwhelming by paying attention to the body – the breath may become shallow, the heart starts beating faster, or we start to sweat. You can discern when to continue inquiry and when to shift your perspective if the inquiry becomes too much for you. When you feel calm again, you can continue with the investigation.
Start Your Practice Here
You can use the above process any time you’re facing a challenging emotion or if you’re being triggered and would like to calm down. If you’d like a guided meditation to deal with difficult emotions or a challenging situation, you can use the free RESET meditation audio on my website.
Additionally, check out my past few blog posts on strategies that can help you cope with the stress and uncertainty of COVID. Below, you’ll find a video recording of a live session that I do every Friday over Zoom (you can join in for free this Friday). The guided meditation starts at around 17:00 minutes in this video – feel free to follow along.
Thank you for reading! Post any questions or comments below!