Difficult conversations are a powerful time to learn to handle strong emotions. It's not an easy practice, but it is worth the effort.
Emotions are an essential part of the human experience, but how we relate to them varies significantly. Since the release of Daniel Goleman’s seminal book Emotional Intelligence, there is growing recognition we can develop the capacity to be aware of and express our emotions. Emotions are extremely intelligent, informative, and energetic, but working with them is an art, one that requires intention.
Conversation is a place where people can practice working with emotional states because they elicit so much feeling. Acknowledging and including emotions allow conversations that are deep, nuanced, and enriched with feeling. Feelings bring people to life; they communicate powerfully and immediately. Unlike language, feelings convey meaning directly, bringing coherence to groups because there are no boundaries when it comes to people’s emotions. While the positive emotions of others are generally easy to experience and join with, it’s more difficult to be present to negative or painful emotions. These more challenging emotions can derail conversations, shut down participation, or provoke resentment or withdrawal. So they have to be worked with very carefully.
The Spectrum of Feelings
In learning about emotions, it is helpful to begin by making several distinctions. First, we need to practice locating the corresponding sensations in the body—for example, trembling in the hands, constriction in the throat, or pressure in the head. These sensations can be intense, chaotic, or overwhelming. Sometimes we have to practice noting sensations directly, without any mental interpretations, because we have such an entrenched habit of avoiding them, including medicating or dousing our sensations with food or drink. Sensations in the body become feelings when they are given names such as “fear,” “sadness,” or “anger.” In other words, when we feel them, we quickly interpret them mentally and then assign a label to them.
Full-blown emotions arise when the feedback loop between our thoughts and the embodied sensations is synced-up and running. For example, we might experience the direct sensations of anger as pressure in the head, clenching in the jaws, higher volume in the voice, heat in the face, and gripping in the arms and hands. At the same time, our mind is likely filled with thoughts and judgments like “I’m so pissed”; “He was unfair”; or “I’m going to put a stop to that!” The more we generate thoughts associated with the feeling state, the more the feelings are amplified and sustained. Sensations give rise to thoughts and labels, and thoughts and labels reinforce sensations in an ongoing feedback loop. That is why some emotions can last for days. When this cycle between thoughts and feelings occurs frequently, forming a habitual emotional pattern, it deepens into a characteristic of our personality, as in “a happy person,” “a hothead,” or “a nervous wreck.”
There are times in conversation when slowing down and simply feeling for a moment can be extremely helpful. It is sometimes relieving to pause and turn our attention directly to the body, noticing just the physical sensations. We can ask ourselves, Where are the sensations located? What is their texture or qualities? How are they moving or changing? Once sensation is experienced directly, we can ask for the name of the feeling, eliciting words like fear, anger, or sadness. This labeling helps us connect even more deeply with our embodied experience, rather than simply coping with it. Next, we can look for what thoughts come up in relation to the sensations. By learning to pay close attention, we can interrupt the habitual mind-body feedback loop, and we become much more aware, fresh, and considered in what we want to say.
Cultivating emotional maturity takes intention and sustained effort. It is extremely helpful to have a therapist, coach, or guide when learning to navigate our own interiors.
When we begin to work with our feelings, we usually inhabit one of two polarities: We either dwell or drown in emotions, or we attempt to bypass feelings entirely. We all have the capacity to feel and emote, as well as to ignore or disregard feelings. But, depending on our culture and family history, we may be one-sided in our relationship to our emotions.
As we develop, we learn to balance between feeling and letting go, rather than one or the other. Little children are good examples of how emotions can come and go quickly. They emote fully, and they recalibrate easily when comforted because they are not yet anchored to cognitive narratives that keep emotions alive. Developing emotional maturity means we have learned to experience the sensations and feelings directly, allowing them to blossom and inform—and release them without a trace. The challenge for adults is to let go of the thoughts that energize the emotions when they are no longer useful.
The application of mindfulness, paying close attention to activity in our nervous system, can help us grow in emotional maturity. The following is a seven-step process that can help us learn to experience sensations immediately, name the feelings, and become familiar with the feedback loop between sensations and thoughts. We can actively practice interrupting this feedback loop while, at the same time, learning to receive the intelligence and energy of the emotions.
Transmuting Emotions: A Process
1. Feel bodily sensations. The first step is to feel the physical sensations in your body. Notice particular areas like your stomach, solar plexus, heart, throat, or jaw. Allow yourself to feel sensations like swirling, gripping, aching, and vibrating, and how these sensations move and change. Remember not to judge anything as being good or bad, right or wrong, but do note whether the feelings are pleasant or unpleasant. If they are either too chaotic or overwhelming, focus on your inhalation and exhalation to help manage the experience.
2. Name the feeling. The second step is to engage your cognition. Feel the sensations, and then name those feelings. There are lists of the names of emotions on the web. Having a greater vocabulary to describe one’s emotions can actually help you discern more subtlety in your feeling states; in fact, studies have shown that even the simple act of naming negative emotions can help you dispel their unruly nature. This is the beginning of witnessing how the body and mind interact to create emotions.
3. Watch the mind-body feedback loop. Notice how thoughts reinforce the sensations in your body and how sensations stimulate thoughts. This feedback loop is what gives rise to a full-blown emotion.
4. Drop the story. This means hitting “pause” on thoughts and storylines. This step is necessary to interrupt the feedback loop, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. Mental activity literally helps us escape the discomfort in the body, so it takes quite a bit of mindfulness to put the mind on hold and bring your attention back to your body. By stepping out of the narrative, however, your mind relaxes and your body can begin to recalibrate.
5. Experience the energy and intelligence of the emotion. Now that your mind is quiet and you have begun to recalibrate your body, just feel the energy of the feeling directly. Notice the aliveness of the emotion. When you feel ready, you can ask: What’s right about this feeling or emotion? Notice the thoughts you have now are, most likely, more alive and current than the habitual story you may have been telling yourself earlier.
6. Let go. Allow the emotions, feelings, and sensations to subside. Sometimes, because letting go is so difficult, “letting be” may be necessary before “letting go” is possible.
7. Decide whether to communicate your feelings. Emotions are a powerful, connecting, and sensitizing force in our communications, and expressing them can create intimacy, strengthening our bonds with others, and providing greater nuance and depth to our relationships.
Practice the seven-step process on emotional transmutation. Remember that the first three steps are related to letting the emotion be without repressing or changing it. Then we suspend the narrative and, with the help of the breath, begin self-regulation. As the body begins to calm down, we can then ask, What is right about this feeling? This should result in a fresh perspective on the emotional response.
From Compassionate Conversations: How to Speak and Listen From the Heart by Diane Musho Hamilton, Gabriel Menegale Wilson, and Kimberly Myosai Loh © 2020 by Diane Musho Hamilton, Gabriel Menegale Wilson, Kimberly Myosai Loh. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications Inc. Boulder, Colorado. www.shambhala.com
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