In the Company of Stranger Emotions

“This being human is a guest house, every morning is a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all. Treat each guest honourably. The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”  – Rumi

Using this analogy of your consciousness as a house and your emotions and feelings being guests who visit, there are times when your ‘house’ can feel over-run with ‘houseguests’: a family reunion of emotions. Some of the guests are welcome, visit often and follow the house rules; knowing when it’s time to move on. Others are slightly more demanding and there is relief when they finally leave. Then there are those guests who weren’t (to your knowledge) ever invited, but they barge in and cause havoc and over-stay their welcome. How do we handle those more complex emotions and feelings that behave like unwelcome house guests and confound us? 

Emotions are the messengers from our consciousness caused by the brain having a response to a stimulus. Our pre-frontal cortex interprets that emotional response by attaching a meaning to the emotional state we are experiencing such as happiness, sadness, anger, fear, disgust or surprise. We make sense of our emotions by interpreting our feelings. For example, we work out that we are experiencing sadness because we feel disappointed that we missed out on opportunity at work. Our catalogue of memories, residing in the hippocampus of the limbic brain cause an association to be formed, linking us to past memories of that emotion and our knee jerk reaction typically kicks in. We react to our feelings. We react based on this limbic response: our tried and tested ways of doing things whether they are useful or not.

Most of us are continually reacting to our emotions by attaching meaning to events based on our memories. It’s a much more difficult approach to pause our reactions and wait for our pre-front cortex to kick in and allow us to get more choiceful with an alternative response. Having an automatic cause-effect reaction is useful when we need to make quick decisions or protect our life-force, but it may prove less useful when we need to embrace diverse points of view, or work out why a particular pattern of behaviour exists in the dynamic of relationship. Slowing our response time down and staying curious about what else might be a meaning to our situation might mean the difference between a plague of fury and a panacea of peace. 

This slowing things down approach is easier to adopt in the face of singular emotions, but we are oftentimes more complex creatures. Our feelings are like a bowl of intertwined noodles – some hurt, some anger, some sadness and some white-hot fury and a touch of jealousy can mean it’s hard to label what is going on – we are quite mysterious even to ourselves. This is even more reason why we should ‘count to ten’ before we react. Mysterious emotions need time to be solved and resolved.  

We find ourselves perplexed by our meta-emotions. Broadly speaking, meta-emotions encompass both feelings and thoughts about the emotion and they can fall into some paradoxical anomalies. I can experience sadness at another person’s happiness – a sort of envy or jealousy, which is hard to accept. I can have pleasure at another’s happiness (empathic joy) and displeasure at another’s unhappiness (pity or compassion). We can also encounter happiness at another person’s sadness. The German word of Schadenfreudecaptures this bizarre response we can experience at having joy evoked in us as we take pleasure in someone else’s failure, humiliation or trouble. The self-satisfaction could be based on rivalry (wanting your team to win), or aggression (we defeated the enemy), or a sense of justice (they had it coming to them), or relief (I’m glad its them and not me).

This complexity can result in total avoidance. We might think suppressing the mishmash of feelings is a useful strategy because then you don’t need to deal with them! Right? No! So wrong! Avoiding unpleasant emotions merely increases our distress, locks in more inflexibility and anxiety and reduces our well-being. Ignoring and denying our cravings or our pain doesn’t make them dissolve but rather intensifies the impact the craving or the pain has on our consciousness. 

Research shows that turning towards our cravings to seek meaning for why we crave actually reduces our propensity to engage in addictive behaviours. Focusing on our physical pain reduces our sense of being trapped in chronic pain. Similarly, acknowledging our sadness moves us out of depression and realising we are feeling anxious means we will be less likely to be paralysed by it and manage it with more forbearance. Individuals who accept rather than judge their mental experiences may attain better psychological health, in part because acceptance helps them experience less negative emotion in response to stressors. Martha Graham said, “Misery is a communicable disease,” as too is anger, hurt and their antidotes kindness and gratitude. What we focus on spreads through our body, our relationships, our life and the world. We are acutely contagious.

So, a way forward for us, is to lean into our ‘unpleasant’ and less valued feelings, and learn not to overreact to them, and not avoid situations where they get invoked. Our psychological suffering is usually caused by experiential avoidance, cognitive entanglement, and a resulting psychological rigidity. Avoidance is the opposite of acceptance and acceptance is the gateway to acting and moving forward with the behavioural steps that results in change.

We can take our thoughts far too seriously. Our thoughts are cognitions in the form of images associated with our memories – mere apparitions in our mind and yet we can react to them as if they were real threats, actual rules, definitive truths and absolute facts. We fuse with our thoughts and take actions based on a belief that the thought is real. It is like saying thinking about a chocolate is equal to eating it. We need to practice the art of cognitive diffusion – separating ourselves from our thoughts. Dissociating enough so we can choose our response. 

How you think about a situation may not be what is actually happening. Consider these reframing ideas about our thoughts:

  • Your thoughts are mind images – not what is actually happening
  • Your thoughts don’t have to be important – they can just one source of data not a fact
  • You don’t need to obey your thoughts
  • You don’t need to believe your thoughts
  • Your thoughts may not know best
  • You don’t have to be afraid of your thoughts

Learning to dissociate enough from our thoughts allows us the space to consider our options and alternative responses. Think of your feelings and emotions as emissaries from your experience of life and you should act as a compassionate and considerate ruler of your life. Some emissaries need to be headed and a suitable response quickly formulated. Others are simply messages for you to hear and allow to pass away. Learning to be more discerning with yourself could change your life

Remember your brain can rewire itself. You can prune back some old, less useful neural pathways and you can grow new connections to new parts of your brain. Because of this miraculous potential in our nervous system we can build a future different from our past through the creation of new neural circuits and eliminating and reducing the power of old circuits. The invitation is always present to find new meaning to past events and feelings and to attach alternative meanings to current events and feelings. Finding useful and life affirming meaning from events facilitates health and healing. 

Allow those feelings that behave like unwelcome house-guests to guide you to the best places within yourself. It’s from here you will show up as the brightest version of you and you will be alive to this regenerative potential that lives within us all. Let your emotions guide you to become an equanimous host, welcoming all emotions and letting them stay for as long as they need to be there to teach you who you are. 

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