The myth that we have to ‘rise above’ emotion is corrosive

The myth that we have to ‘rise above’ emotion is corrosive. Where is emotion ‘kept’ such that we could disentangle from it?

Emotions are complex biochemical events triggered by and that trigger internal and external reactions. There’s some evidence that specific molecules regulate certain emotions – oxytocin with empathy, serotonin with happiness  – although this is an emerging field and we really don’t know enough.

But its a long outdated idea that thoughts and feelings float around in space separate from the body – they are embodied within it.

Many psychologies, philosophies and spiritualities teach that emotion is inferior to reason, but this idea of pure reason is a myth. The fetishisation of reason creates damage because people waste energy trying not to think or feel as they do.

Being emotional doesn’t mean having unbridled outbursts. That’s childish. We can learn to control impulses and must to live respectfully amongst others.

We can slow down and look at a situation from many angles, if it’s something that yields to data then data may be useful in moderating our understanding of what happened and in turn, temper our reactions. All that doesn’t diminish the importance of feeling and being allowed to feel.

Learning to read and educate your emotions is, as David Brook says, one of the central activities of wisdom and it’s no surprise to me that emotional intelligence is more strongly correlated with wellbeing and success than IQ.

When we try to suppress emotion to avoid discomfort we fail to develop essential life skills including those required to deal with difficulty. But just because emotions go unexplored or unexpressed, it does not mean they go away. Instead they go underground where they continue driving behaviour.

Some people like to pretend that nothing impacts them but emotional detachment is a defence and a way of avoiding the visceral richness of life. People confuse non-attachment (not holding onto and becoming identified with an emotion) with detachment (not caring). They’re different beasts.

We live in a world that, when it allows emotion, prefers it to be of the positive variety. We’re told to be on message, on the money, on the ball. Be positive is practically an anthem.

This has created a skills deficit. A person who is suffering is told to get over it. Because people don’t have the tools to deal with discomfort (theirs or ours) they offer platitudes which however well meaning, don’t help. Slogans are easy but useless.

If we get better at experiencing and dealing with our own difficult emotions we are going to be of much greater value to others when they reach out. We can give meaningful support.

All kinds of emotions exist – anticipation, anxiety, depression, delight, love, loathing – and the whole, long list is fine. Having the feeling is fine. What you do with it is another story.

Often we rush to get over something or forgive someone just to get to the other side. It’s difficult to stay present through strong emotions. Some lash out which gives a temporary release (although 40 years of research shows that the idea that venting anger alleviates it is unfounded) but which does not deal with the real problem.

Deep down we’re scared that if we sit still we will feel discomfort. And we will. But I put this to you – you are only feeling what is already there.

If you’ve ever practiced sitting in discomfort, it’s tough, but after a time you will move out of it.

Acceptance doesn’t mean ‘anything goes’ or that you should be the trash can for others’ inability to deal with themselves.

It’s okay to feel angry. When we lose something important to us, we grieve. There is no need to get over it, get on with it and get online before the end of the week. Mark the season. That’s not overindulgence, that’s loss. Sometimes a loss impacts us so profoundly that the grief never fully dissolves. It doesn’t have to. We can live with grief in the same way that we can work with a bruise – sore but manageable.

A way to prevent over-identificating with an emotion is to remind yourself that you are not the happiness or the anger or the grief, you’re just feeling it. It’s like looking at your hand and understanding that it’s a part of you, but not ‘you’. I think it’s semantic myself given that all feelings are temporary, but if it helps then use it.



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