Unlocking Our Emotions

21 June 2020

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It wasn't until I read that the upcoming Saturday 23 May was supposed to be cup final day that I realised spring had been and gone. I also became aware of just how much I'd been in 'emotional lockdown'. This crisis has shrunk our world, warped our perception of time and challenged our inner resources. It's hard to get things into perspective, and our perspective is crucial. It's not so much life that disturbs us as how our heart and mind respond to it.

Don't worry if your emotions have been shut down, or up and down like the proverbial roller coaster. A friend described it as like being on holiday but with a dread that you might end up in intensive care by the end of it. You're not cracking up. It is stressful, but it doesn't need to harm us psychologically. It's your emotions working as you try to adapt to the unknown. These are emotional responses not mental health problems. We're all exposed to a wider range of emotions than normal, and less distracted by our usual busyness. We have been cornered and brought face to face with our emotions.

We also have the challenge of staying connected while keeping physically distant. The deepest purpose of emotions is to connect us with ourselves and with others. Fortunately, our relationships don't need to be as sterile as our physical environment. Fear is the enemy of community, but warmth dissolves it. We can touch and comfort others emotionally, we can smile and say hello to people we are physically avoiding in the street.

If ever we've needed to make sense of our emotions, it's now. One good thing is that it's OK to not feel OK - and to say so. The people who come through this well will be those resilient individuals who have mastered their feelings, and we can all improve our emotional mastery. For the last couple of years, I've been working on a model and resources to help us better understand our feelings. Life is even more unpredictable than usual, but our emotions don't need to be. Whilst emotions will always remain mysterious, we are more capable than we think of harnessing them. Our emotions can either guide us toward truth or mislead us. Emotions aren't a nebulous web and I've tried to unlock their underlying structure.

Emotions are our brain’s interpretation of what our sensations mean. For example, fear is the interpretation that our fast beating heart means we're in danger. Without this categorization of sensations, an emotion doesn't fully emerge. What turns sensations into emotions is the charge that gets added by our interpretation. We can learn to master our interpretations through knowledge of their structure and purpose. Precision in our interpretation comes from how well we ‘fine grain’ emotions and tell them apart, a capacity called emotional granulation.

When good things happen, our positive emotions bring out our better selves. We can learn to savour and expand these emotions and turn positive fleeting experiences into lasting inner resources. Threats to our well-being lead us to feel negative emotions. No matter how uncomfortable they make us feel, these emotions also offer us purposeful messages, if we can understand them. However, making sense of emotions isn't easy, they're more complex than a simple binary. The same emotion can encapsulate both sides. Love is a form of happiness and vulnerability. Our emotional experience is like a kaleidoscope of ever-changing patterns of emotions, often a seeming collision of conflicting positive and negative emotions. The tension between positive and negative emotions is what holds emotions together in an overall structure. Emotions are not merely a collection of disconnected elements. Positive emotions couldn't exist without negative emotions, for example, hope can't exist without hopelessness. Negative emotions have the vital role of telling us something is wrong, and we need to do something to fix it. Frustration and guilt are examples of potentially productive negative emotions that prod us to sort things out. We get them wrong when they consume our minds with defensiveness, like armour that defends us but restricts our growth. Our interpretations become warped. Envy causes us to think people are deliberately acting against us. We can try to numb ourselves from darker emotions, but this also blocks our capacity for pleasure. When we don't process our emotions, the sensations remain in our body and cause psychosomatic problems.

Trouble beckons when negative emotions gang up. As our focus narrows into one single take on reality we don't register the all-important context. Anger, humiliation, envy, resentment and spite fuse into incomprehensible fury. Such emotions are like clothes that come out of the washing machine tangled and knotted. We get caught up in these emotional bundles and are unable to work out what we feel. If this state is left prolonged, we become our negative emotions.

Our starting point for mastering emotions is to identify the specific emotions we're feeling. Then we've got a chance to prevent first order negative emotions such as frustration, anger, guilt or self-doubt from becoming entangled in a toxic tumult of second order afflictions, like resentment, spite, shame and humiliation. Jealousy is an example of how we can be misled by our perverse perceptions of a situation that originally angered us. It's our interpretations that 'screw us up'. We would have been better dealing with our initial anger.

Emotional melees occur with positive emotions too. Forgiveness is emotionally demanding precisely because it derives from kindness, empathy, compassion and love. If we know the elements that make up our emotional ‘nuggets’, we can savour their harmonious perspective. We become primed to do things that generate these emotions. This is emotional gold dust! Only when we disentangle our emotions can we interpret what they're telling us. For example, if we know we're angry and understand that anger is about a breach in fairness, we'll realise the way to get justice is to explain the reason for our anger to whoever is responsible for causing the unfairness.

We can put our tangled clothes through the tumble drier and they'll come out separated. Is there a tumble drier process for emotions? It's achieving perspective and bringing thinking to bear on our emotions. This requires achieving some distance from them. We can do this in many ways through, for example, mindfulness meditation, journaling, reading literature and poetry, making or listening to music or talking with someone we trust.

Our emotional mastery is helped if we have a way of seeing the big emotional picture, if we can stand back and see our emotions in a larger context. I've created the 'Ring of Emotions' graphic organiser which is a holistic frame of reference for 40 emotions that lets us sort individual emotions and see how they are connected and how they differ. Each emotion is understood by reference to its place within the structure.

The ring organises emotions by their purpose. Two fundamental motivating purposes are Valuing our self and Valuing others, life's great balancing act. These are represented as spirals working in combination to form a ring. The ring is divided into 4 quadrants containing emotions with a similar purpose, namely;

  • Stretching Me emotions - to feel good by valuing ourselves.
  • Connecting Me emotions - to feel good by valuing our connections with others.
  • Me First emotions - to feel better about ourselves by de-valuing others.
  • Protecting Me emotions - to avoid feeling any worse by undervaluing ourselves.

Within the top half, there are 20 ways to feel good. The bottom half charts an increasing imbalance, where one preference is taken too far, resulting in 20 ways to feel bad. The Ring illuminates their structure and purpose and supports us to be strategic by helping us to see where we need to restore balance. It also identifies positive emotions that can help us undo negative emotions, for example enthusiasm can over-ride self-doubt. The resources build layers of emotional understanding in a progressive way through three phases of the model. Little did I know that when I set out to apply my Ring model to the emotions, the tool I would arrive at would be used in a moment of collective emotional challenge. As we emerge from the certainty of lockdown to a new complexity of ever-changing boundaries, and we experience a spectrum of emotions, our emotional mastery will be the thing that sees us through.