Always let your (emotions) be your guide

Emotions get a bad rap. I’ll be the first to say I was not always on-board with listening to, feeling or otherwise acknowledging my emotions. It was drilled in to me at a relatively young age that emotions are superfluous, unnecessary, messy, inconvenient, and certainly not fit for public consumption. Not to mention – they certainly said a lot about you as a person and what you cared about.

The kid who cries because he didn’t get what he wants? What a brat! And also his parents suck because how dare they allow their kids emotions be on display. Or the kid who gets angry and throws, hits or kicks to demonstrate just how clearly upset she is.

Perhaps those are poor examples, after all, they’re kids. Kids are notorious for having unstable moods and flipping from ecstasy to despair faster than you can blink. I’m actually witnessing this right now in my own kids. “You can have a piece of cake (YES!!!! Full ecstasy!!), but not for breakfast (NO!!! Utter despair!)”. Part of growing up is learning about all these different states called emotions and learn how to engage with them. Anger is okay – biting is not. Sadness is okay – but maybe we don’t need to sob on the floor of the grocery store. We learned when emotions are acceptable and what behaviors are acceptable outlets of those emotions.

Unfortunately, sometimes the messages we receive about emotions get a little scrambled, and by the time we’re grownups, we don’t necessarily have the best handle on them. Instead, we learn various strategies to “cope” with the emotions, some of which may be harmful, some of which may be completely ineffective, and some of which may be preventing us from living our lives as fully as we would like.

Examples:

  • Growing up in a family who viewed sadness as a weakness. The sadness is still there, but now can’t be expressed and instead is made visible through different means: engaging in self-harm, using substances, developing an eating disorder, etc.
  • As a shy person, feeling highly anxious about social situations and so avoid places or environments where social interactions are likely: weddings, reunions, meetups, dates, etc.
  • Not liking how uncomfortable certain emotions make you feel so learning to control your environment so that you aren’t forced to experience anger, fear, sadness, embarrassment, etc. When you are put into a situation outside of your control (cough cough, covid19), the overwhelm feels almost unbearable.
  • Coming from a family that never shows emotions and meeting the person of your dreams, who happens to come from a highly expressive and confrontational family. You realize that you don’t know how to communicate in such a way that the other person can even hear you.

Emotional Guidance System

What we rarely learn in childhood or elsewhere, is just how useful and important emotions are. And I don’t just mean in woo-woo, self-awareness sense, but also in a practical day to day to sense. What no one tells you (unless you go into therapy), is that emotions are our guides. We have developed these internal systems to alert us about the outside environment and how what’s happening IN THIS VERY MOMENT aligns or conflicts with our core values.

Sadness – Indicates there has been a loss, that something you want in your life is missing

Anger – Indicates a threat or that boundary has been violated

Guilt – Indicates that you have done something wrong which needs to amended

Fear – Indicates a threat or some kind of danger

Anxiety – Indicates a potential threat in the future

Joy – Indicates that things are good

How awesome is it that we were equipped with these? Also awesome – that we’re a social species, so while our emotions communicate something to us about what’s going on, they also communicate to those around us about what’s going on, so that we better know when to stay away and when to approach and offer help.

The one caveat to this whole emotional thing is that in order to receive the message from your guidance system, you have to be listening. That’s often where many of my clients struggle. We have been taught to tune out, ignore, “control”, or otherwise minimize the signals we receive from our emotions. Learning to tune back in can be a challenge. You might not hear anything. So instead, I offer this suggestion:

Observe your behaviors

Just like our emotions are our guides to how things are going in our lives with respect to our values, our behaviors are our guides to our emotions. Thankfully, behaviors are WAY more obvious that emotional signals. Anytime you find yourself having an urge to do something, that’s the time to check-in.

Last night, I got my kids to bed, it should have been time to relax. Instead, I had a very strong urge to eat chocolate. Like, a lot of chocolate. Okay, check-in time. Was I hungry? Nope. Was I tired, yeah, somewhat. Was I angry? sad? Nope and nope. But I was tense. And a little jittery. Ah – that one is anxiety. The president of Uganda was making yet another speech about the current state of the country-wide lockdown. My social media feeds were blowing up. Some young men were loitering on our street, taking pictures of our house. All of this led to a general sense of unease.

This leads to another important part of emotions: they guide us to action. Anxiety alerts us to a potential threat, so what is the potential threat, and can I do anything about it? The threat is that no one knows where this whole covid thing is going. No one knows how the people of this country in particular will handle sweeping movement restrictions. And I don’t know if those guys are plotting to attack my house or are posing for their instagram feed. What can I do? I can’t change the president’s edicts, but I can limit how much social media about it is streaming into my head. I can’t chase those guys off the street, it’s public property, but I can alert our guards (all houses/compounds here have guards) to their presence and them to keep an more vigilant eye out. I can ensure all my doors/windows are secured and that our outside lights are working. This is all helping to address the potential future threat. For the future threat I have zero control over? That’s where relaxation and breathing techniques come in. Remaining in a over-hyped state is not useful. It breaks down the body and actually limits the cognitive functions you probably want online should shit hit the fan and really spatter (splatter?).

If I had not checked-in with myself, I would have quickly grabbed some chocolate (and then more chocolate) in hopes that the small burst of dopamine would calm me down and make me feel a little better. And while it may have in the very short-term, it doesn’t address the threat that the anxiety was trying to alert me to, which means I would have needed more and more something to keep that anxiety feeling at bay. Better to just notice it, feel it, and take appropriate action.

What emotion do you find yourself avoiding? What do you suppose it’s trying to tell you? Drop me a note and let me know.

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