Dealing with (Sometimes Difficult) Emotions. How Emotionally Aware Are You?
Do you consider yourself an emotionally intelligent person? Can you tell whether someone is feeling happy, sad, troubled, or stressed without resorting to either stalking or conversation? What about tuning in with ease into the nature of your own feelings and emotions? Would you say that you're always aware of the actual nature of what you're feeling? In short: how emotionally aware do you think you are?
After some conversations with friends, peers, and a few random people, we have come to realize that though we are constantly dealing with (sometimes difficult) emotions at home, at work, and in life in general, we are not always necessarily aware of the nature of the emotions we experience; and because of this, we don't really always know how to deal with what we're feeling. Identifying emotions is something of a skill, an ability, that for many of us requires some training. But in a world with such a huge cultural stigma around speaking of our (sometimes negative) emotions, sharing our real feelings with ourselves and others is not always an available option.
As a result, negative emotions, repressed sensations, and traumatic memories stick with us for way too long, festering in the 'basement' of our hearts and souls. So, we thought we'd dive right into the topic with a blog entry exploring the importance of learning to develop greater emotional sensitivity and awareness, and thus nurture greater resilience towards emotional unrest.
Balancing the Heart
For us, a well-balanced person is someone who has learnt to deal with life’s unpredictable ups and downs maintaining a certain degree of emotional sanity. In a world where all kinds of emotional and spiritual bypassing are routinely on offer by all sorts of licensed life coaches and healers –as well as many a Yoga teacher too– there's something to be said in favor of learning to cultivate and practice equanimity on our own —aka, the ability to remain calm during moments of great emotional turmoil— while still developing a certain familiarity with our own 'inner wounds.'
Embracing the exercise of patience, non-attachment, self-study, and self-love is essential when addressing our emotional world, but there is a certain way in which our 'real life education' has frequently failed to provide the type of supportive environment necessary for us to lean into the development of these most basic life skills.
For those of us on the luckier side of things, for example, emotional awareness and resilience may have unfolded naturally thanks to either nurturing family surroundings or life's own sometimes gentle and progressive learning curves. For others, however, the ride is often bumpier. But even in the case of those of us who are innately more in tune with our inner world, learning to accept and welcome all kinds of emotions, including negative emotions, can take some actual work. It is precisely in this part of the job where the majority of us get stuck; because, we have not always been raised to properly identify our emotions, allow ourselves to feel whatever we are actually feeling –however ugly, unpleasant, or guilty– let alone deal with the not so pleasant parts of being sentient beings.
Hung up on the Highs
To say that we are culturally hung up on the highs, then, is an understatement! Because, the truth is that a great deal of our current mental and emotional health crisis actually derives from our endemic inability to feel what we feel. Those of us coming from developed parts of the planet, for example, have been frequently raised to consider certain types of emotions –things like our wounds, pockets of sadness, our anger, and all sort of soft-spots– something of a sign of maladaptation and weakness –a predictable scar, but one you don't display or show. Thus, we don't often like to speak about our pain. Staying with the highs and the highs only has thus become part of our cultural ethos, an expression of who we think we must become.
Needless to say, this type of 'thinking' is not entirely our fault. Emotions and passions have for centuries been considered the lesser sister of an ‘all-mighty reason' purportedly said to be the solution to all human problems. And so, our predilection towards rational over emotional thinking has come to dictate that it is not very efficient, nor smart, to blatantly display our emotions or loose control over them. This is how a great majority of us have grown to believe that showing too much of who we are and what we care about, or how we truly feel in places like work, in relationships, or at home is too risqué: a dangerous game that can only lead to either overexposure or vulnerability. And this is how we have cornered ourselves into extreme, utter isolation.
This kind of thinking has made it very hard for many of us to dare to open our hearts to ourselves and others and thus become actually acquainted with the nature of our own emotional world. As a result, we have grown up into adulthood with a very underdeveloped ability to deal with our emotions, listen to the often unpleasant truths at the heart of our own being, and feeling overall unable to bring ourselves back to emotional sanity when life gets rough.
Doing Emotional Sanity
The reality is that the amount of stressors in our lives has increased over the decades as we have lost the ability to connect to the world around us and to our own hearts. And somehow, we have learnt to cope with this. We have learnt to stoically put up with unhappiness at work, anxiety in our relationships, loneliness elsewhere, fear towards important life decisions, problems with self-esteem, and an almost epidemic lack of time to do more of the things we actually enjoy and like.
Emotional unrest is thus partially rooted at the heart of our identity as modern individuals, being by now perfectly interwoven into the fabric of how we think of and do life. So much so, that we have desensitized ourselves from our own emotions in a move to somehow forget our otherwise evident existential distress.
As a consequence of this, many of us unconsciously react to life’s emotional challenges with abusing a number of substances and routines –from drugs to exercise, sex, or alcohol– and often also through our bodies. We are, after all, sentient beings that use their bodies and senses to perceive and adapt to the world around them. So this is why many of us end up with non-digested emotional side-effects. From tensional headaches, to migraines, breakouts, rashes, stammering, untraceable stomach aches, back pain, numbness, sleeplessness, sore joints, palpitations... The variations of our 'somatic disorders' are proportional to the amount of emotions and feelings we have learnt to swallow undigested, and then repress.
We all have at least one friend or colleague, for example, that is always exhausted or dull, lacking energy or being overall apathetic. Someone who cannot trace these outward expressions of an inner condition to anything in particular –be it diet, work, personal life, or lifestyle. There is actually many people out there who feel they could spend the whole day sleeping, entire weekends on the sofa, and that no amount of actual sleep could ever really quench their 'sleeping thirst.' Yet, they go about it as if this were normal, completely desensitized to the actual abnormalcy of this state.
On other occasions, it is ourselves the ones who feel empty, lost, numbed to our reality, or simply sad to the pit of madness without an apparent reason for it. Indeed, faced with a sudden problem or a prolonged stressful or dissatisfying situation, the tendency for many of us still is to shut down perception, push emotions to the periphery, and focus intently on practical matters –aka, working, eating, and delivering according to preeminent social standards. We rarely like to focus our attention on the root of the problems themselves.
While there is something 'natural' to this strategy —to prioritize what’s more urgent, leaving for later what can wait— the doubt remains whether or not our emotional well-being and health can be considered a negotiable priority. At the end of the day, emotional unrest is nothing but the symptom of a larger personal 'iceberg,' one having its foundation in our unwillingness to connect with our emotions and ask real and necessary (perhaps painful) questions of ourselves: Do I really want this? Am I happy with my partner, career, family, job? Do I feel supported by the people around me? Where does my sadness, stress, or dissatisfaction come from? Do I really want the things I have come to desire and strive for? Are the dreams I am pursuing really my own?
Sad Isn't Always Bad
Granted, not all of these questions have easy answers, but whatever answers there may be, they are all already part of ourselves. Pretending we are not unhappy, sad, confused, or anxious doesn't really make any of those emotions and sensations go away. On the contrary, distracting attention from whatever it is we are experiencing at any one point may do us a great disfavor if we don't accompany the practice of detachment with some measure of self-study and self-love.
One way to tap into the reality of our emotional world without getting absorbed in the whirlwind, is to develop greater emotional awareness by becoming the non-judgmental observer of our own Self. Yoga, when adequately practiced, can help us get there. But then again, not everybody wants to practice Yoga and that is also OK. The key, regardless of what rocks our boat, as mentioned at the beginning, lies in combining the practice of equanimity and detachment from whatever we experience, with a certain permissibility: allowing whatever must surface to surface, however intense the feeling. Learning to observe the transitory nature of all emotions, both the positive and the negative, is fundamental, as well as not shying away from the messy and rough bits.
We must, we should, learn to stay, however long, with the discomfort without rushing 'bad' or 'sad' sensations away. Sensations and emotions are just sensations. Temporary expressions that will also past, when the moment is right. So honor your sadness, acknowledge your pain; and don't identify with them. To grow into healthy, and emotionally balanced adults, we must learn to admit that, sometimes at least, both sadness and pain are necessary parts of life and of ourselves. Ultimately, life is generous with those who choose to pay attention and work earnestly to find their true essence, honor their truth, and stick with whatever is present for them.