“If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are livingin the moment.” Lao Tzu
How many of us have found ourselves feeling overwhelmed, confused or inconvenienced by our emotions? We may find ourselves flaring up with anger “out of nowhere”, suddenly feeling sad, reacting to something someone has said or up all night worrying, not even sure what we are worrying about. How many of us have found ourselves wishing we could just get rid of these pesky emotions so that we can just get on with our daily routine and on with our lives? How many of us have done something or reached for something to distract us and help us to feel better? How many of us are aware of the cost of pushing feelings down, out and away and how this can lead to self-defeating and self-destructive behaviors?
LET’S START WITH THE BASICS
Emotions are part of the human wiring. They are wired into us biochemically. 70% of our emotions are transmitted through chemicals called peptides. Feelings of sadness, joy, anger and anxiety are part of being human whether we like it or not. In their purest form, emotions are motivators. They help us survive. They communicate to us, at a basic level, to tell us as human organisms what to do and how to react to our environment. Fear tells us to be careful or to avoid something, anxiety tells us to prepare for action and love tells us to bond, nurture and connect. Often we are having several emotions at the same time. Have you ever found yourself excited about going somewhere, feeling nervous about something that might happen there & annoyed with your spouse --- all at the same time? When you think about it, that’s a lot of internal communication to take in at one time. In order to receive the communication accurately, we have to be connected on some level to what we are experiencing emotionally. Some of us are aware of what we are feeling and are very “in touch” with our emotions. Others are less aware or not aware at all.
WHAT GETS IN THE WAY OF BECOMING EMOTIONALLY CONNECTED AND RESPONSIVE?
A lot of it depends on what we were taught about emotions when we were growing up. Without being aware of it, we all take in thousands of message about emotions while we are growing up that we carry on in our adulthoods. If we were lucky, we grew up seeing our parents express how they felt openly and honestly and saw others in the family responding to each other appropriately on an emotional level. We saw positive emotions (excitement, joy, pride, love) and negative emotions (anger, frustration, fear, sadness) expressed, accepted and dealt with. We might have seen parents being loving to each other but also expressing anger in a non-destructive way and working through problems. We learned to be able to identify our emotions, were taught that feeling them was normal, were emotionally responded to and were taught what to do with our emotions. The positive ones were accepted, shared, encouraged and enjoyed. The negative ones were given an emotional home and we learned how to handle feeling bad, how to get support and what to do about it. On the other end of the spectrum are the homes where some of us were brought up with negative messages about emotions. We might have picked up that emotions were considered weak, wrong, bad, too painful or better off unacknowledged and unexpressed. We might have even been shamed, criticized or abused for our feelings. Parents in these homes were probably raised with these negative messages about emotions and about themselves. In homes like these, children learn suffer silently, feel ashamed or wrong for their feelings and do not have healthy, productive ways to feel their emotions and deal with them. They have not been modeled or guided to understand the messages that their emotions are wired to send them and how to respond to these internal communications. These are homes that produce varying degrees of dysfunction which can be passed down through many generations. The emotions are still bio-wired into the members of these families but the internal communication may be distorted and blocked (they are not in touch with themselves selves emotionally) and family members may not know how to respond to their emotional cues (they don’t know how to “handle” their feelings or how to deal with their relationships when things get emotional). These are homes that lead to shame, abuse, eating disorders, addictions and many forms of dysfunction.
GET CURIOUS ABOUT YOURSELF
Most of us were raised in families that were somewhere between these two extremes. Take a moment to evaluate your experience growing up. How did your parents deal with their own emotions? What were the messages (spoken or communicated non-verbally) about emotions in your family? How did they interact with you, with each other, with others? What did you do as a child when you felt scared, happy, confused or hurt? Did you feel free to talk about how you were feeling? Did you go to your parents when you were struggling emotionally? What did you do to feel better? Did your feelings overwhelm you? Did you suffer silently and try to figure out yourself what to do with how you were feeling on your own? These are some of the questions that can help you better understand your own emotional coping style and evaluate how it is working for you in your life today.
WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?
We as human beings suffer when we do not know how to connect with, respond to and deal with our emotions. We struggle and suffer when we don’t know what to do with our pesky emotions. We are bio-wired to want to feel better when we are in pain. Those of us who did not have the support or guidance to learn healthy ways to deal with painful emotions are prone to addictions, eating disorders and other dysfunctional and destructive ways to feel better. Unfortunately, when we get good at numbing, distracting or pushing down painful negative emotions, we also greatly diminish our capacity to experience all of the positive ones. They are a package deal. We are also prone to depression, anxiety and stress-related medical problems. We struggle in our relationships with others and with ourselves. Over time, these unhealthy ways of dealing with emotions lead us to unhealthy life styles that get more and more reinforced.
COMING: PART II --- TOOLS FOR BEING EMOTIONALLY CONNECTED & LIVING IN THE MOMENT