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Emotion: A Few Observations

I’ve been thinking about emotions lately: if/how I feel them, which ones I avoid and project onto others and why; observing how quickly they come and go and shift and morph from one feeling to another; naming, noting, theorizing, wondering. All of it. And I’ve learned a few things I thought I’d share here, in hopes they resonate with you too.

2. First (and this is so quasi-Buddhist of me, but here goes), we are not our emotions. Yet, we use language that consistently affirms the opposite of this. I AM sad. I AM anxious. I AM happy. But it’s all a ruse. Emotions are instead energies that flow through us, brought on by experience, memory, programmed beliefs. We are vessels for their expression, but we’re not defined by them. This is why so many meditation teachings remind us to “note” our feelings when they surface.

  • Huh, fear is here. How does it feel right now in my body? What brought this on?

  • My heart feels heavy and the lighting in the room seems dimmer. This is how my version of sadness presents itself.

After noting these emotions, mindfulness teaches us to feel into them; to really take a few minutes to sit with them and let them infiltrate our current state. Where does fear like to hang out -- does our throat tighten? Are we short of breath?

What about sadness -- in our chest, maybe?

Then, we sit with all of that and...ride it out.

Because here’s the thing. For most of us, these feelings don’t last. They come, hang around for a bit and then move on. And they most certainly don’t characterize who we are.

*Public Service Announcement:

I want to emphasize this is not true for everyone. Many of us truly suffer from depression, anxiety and general instability with our wellness. I am very aware of this, and speak to this stuff only from my own life experience and perspective.

2. Emotions are not mutually exclusive of one another. In fact, two (or more) opposing emotions are quite often felt at the very same time. We can feel sad about the mistreatment of our environment and happy about a beautiful sunset at the same time. We might be frustrated about our children and proud of our parenting choices, all at once. Angry, fearful, joyous, bewildered, exhilarated -- they are all on the table; they can all be felt in our hearts and minds simultaneously. Paradoxically.

A couple of months ago, I had a tough conversation with a friend (see my newsletter on Words), where this became really clear to me. I had to explain that I needed a break from our friendship. I’d been hurt too many times, and needed to make the extremely tough decision to draw a line in the sand -- in order to protect my own heart. It was one of the hardest conversations I’ve had, and I wish it on no one.

But even as I was taking a literal step back from our friendship, my heart was also full of love and admiration and gratitude for her and for the two of us together. The tears came and the words were said, and every single bit of it was painful. And loving. And painful again. Simultaneously and paradoxically.

3. Emotions are real. This may seem contradictory to my first point, but stay with me here. We are not our fear/anxiety/sadness, but the feeling our emotions solicit are very real and shouldn’t be taken lightly. They are deserving of our curiosity and attention.

I see this most clearly with my kids. It’s so easy to brush off what we consider irrational fears or unnecessary hurt feelings. Oh Bud, you’re fine -- don’t be so sensitive or You have nothing to be scared of… These are the kind of dismissive responses that lodge in our memory and haunt us well into adulthood.

Instead, maybe we turn “you’re fine” into “wow, looks like that really hurt your feelings” and “you have nothing to be scared of” into “tell me more about why you’re afraid...”

I’m no guru on this, but so far, just being more attuned to my kids’ feelings — staying grounded and asking more questions — has gotten them talking just a little bit more with me about their emotions.

Emotions are tricky to manage, but they’re beautiful too. And they can teach us so much about ourselves, each other, and how we collectively relate to our world. Ignoring them will only perpetuate their hold on us; numbing us from healthy connection. And I’m no psychologist, but there’s one thing I know for sure: we need that connection (with our own hearts and with one another) now more than ever.

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