There’s a great TEDx talk by Alan Watkins called “Why you feel what you feel”. Alan is a physician. He’s learnt and tried many things including being an immunologist, delivering children and studying neuroscience, as well as offering leadership training for organisations and sharing his knowledge with elite athletes in order to improve their performance.
In all that time of great learning and study, he found himself asking one question — a question that greatly fascinated him. If he, or indeed anyone, could teach one thing to humanity, what would it be? What would be the most valuable thing to pass on to others?
Alan’s question led him to emotions. All 34,000 of them (yes, that’s how many there are). Emotions can predict your health, your performance, your wellbeing and your sense of achievement. They determine our ability to make effective decisions and either drive or quash our motivation for life. We experience them all day long and left unchecked, they can govern us. Elevated ones such as joy, love, and excitement are the holy grail. Yet the more difficult ones such as loneliness, anger, sadness, envy and sadness are, of course, far more challenging. As they arise, almost minute-by-minute some days, it can take real courage to sit with our feelings and be courageous enough to surrender to their powerful grip on us. Mostly, we try to push them aside, thinking we’ll deal with them later when we’re not so busy. But we never do and let’s face it, most of the time we consider difficult emotions an inconvenience. They interrupt our day and knock us off centre.
Yet if we don’t deal with them and try and bury them, we end up storing them in our minds as well as our bodies, which over time, is when anxiety and other health issues may start to come up as a result. Denial can lead to trouble, if not now, then further down the line, which is why trying to understand our emotions and work through them, really is the best thing we can do for ourselves.
Much of the reason we deny our emotions, particularly in the UK where so may of us have been taught to hide or push aside our feelings, is that we live in a culture that historically has not supported emotional or self-awareness. At school we’re taught subjects such as maths and English, religion and sport, yet no one equips us for life. No one gave us a handbook on our how to operate our body and mind and we’re left to figure it out for ourselves. Worse still, much of the advice we’re given at school and at home is conflicting at best, highly damaging at worst.
We’re starting to understand
However, this has, thank goodness, begun to change. There are now masses of books, workshops, retreats, podcasts and therapists that can help us on our way to greater emotional intelligence. It’s no longer a pin-drop moment when we admit to seeing a therapist or seeking help. And that change has happened pretty quickly, quite radically. Even when we set up The Life Adventure three years ago, it was difficult then to find the right language to use which would engage people’s interest and not scare them away. Meditation apps have now become so mainstream, that even large organisations are beginning to offer them to staff as part of their on-boarding packages.
This overhaul was long overdue. Yet we still have a long way to go until it becomes the norm for people to really begin taking the time to understand themselves and deal with their emotions in a more proactive, healthy and positive way. Instead of letting negative emotions run the show on a daily basis, what if there was a different way to live? What if we could learn to trust our own ability to process what comes up, when it comes up.
The best place to begin understanding and dealing with difficult emotions is when you are on your own. When you feel an emotion coming up as a result of a thought, note where in your body you feel it and allow yourself to express it through tears, or if it’s anger, find a good pillow to punch and shout into. It’s incredibly powerful. Don’t be afraid; feel through the emotion, express it and it will begin to subside. Practice it over and over again until you understand. Writing it down is another extremely helpful tool.
Assuming it was not suppressed, as children, this is something we once did naturally. We expressed ourselves by crying, lashing out or shouting. Yet over time we’re taught to suppress these emotions in any situation because they’re not socially acceptable. We’re given a set of rules by school, parents and employers. Rules on life and how things should be done, but these are imposed upon us by people who don’t always have the experience or knowledge to be giving them. Yet it doesn’t mean we need to suppress them altogether. But that’s what we end up doing. And that’s where we make the big mistake. Some people get through life without questioning this, others experience some sort of crisis that shakes them out of the bubble they’ve been in all those years. To deal with the pain and confusion we often turn to drinking, take drugs, have lots of sex, spend hours in the gym, shop, overwork or find all sorts of other ways to distract ourselves in attempt to forget and blot out the confusion, disappointment and inability to manage our emotions.
But these external solutions do not work. Ignoring our emotions or pretending we don’t have them just doesn’t work long term. You may get away with it for a while, but not forever. Emotions (energy in motion) usually appear every second of every day and whilst that the energy is always present, we might not always feel it, notice it, or want to notice it. And because we don’t take the time to understand them, we tend to decide that what we’re feeling is all someone else’s fault. We believe other people to be the cause of our unhappiness.
The most important transition you’ll ever make
Yet it’s us creating these emotions in response to what may have been someone else’s poor behaviour. When you realise it’s you creating these emotions within yourself, you go from victim to taking responsibility. And this is a massive transition. Alan Watkins suggests it’s the most important transition you’ll make in your life.
To do this effectively you need to know what emotions you are feeling. Name them. Objectify them. And only then can work through them and begin to control them more effectively, rather than allowing them to constantly control you. Notice what you are feeling, name it, be objective about it and in doing so, you’ll be able to work towards feeling something altogether more positive.
Once you’ve practiced this, take what you’ve learned out into social or work situations. Simply become more aware of what you are feeling and don’t let your emotions run away with you, but rather learn to notice and observe them as they arise. This is important — you don’t bury them, you observe them and observe yourself — almost as if you were looking down upon yourself as the actor in your own scene, your own play. Once you’ve become adept at this, you’ll be able to manage yourself in any situation, positively and healthily. The simple act of allowing yourself to fully feel things as they come up, tends to mean you’ll be able to let them go of them far more easily. We often complicate the situation by analysing, when all we really need is to do is just allow.
Why it matters in the workplace
James Pennebaker has done 40 years of research into the links between writing and emotional processing. His experiments revealed that people who write about emotionally charged episodes experience a marked increase in their physical and mental well-being. Moreover, in a study with the Academy of Management of workers recently made redundant, he found that those who delved into their feelings of humiliation, anger, anxiety, and relationship difficulties were three times more likely to have been reemployed than those in control groups
So rather than let life push you along on a wave of constant ineffective and damaging emotions, start to acknowledge them, feel through them and take control of them. By doing that you’ll find you’ll be able to radically change your life.