While working with a relationship retreat guest recently, I had a funny realization. You know how astronomers tell us that the light we see coming from the stars above at night is really from a long, long time ago? And in fact, the starlight we are “seeing” is really a window to the past as the star may not even be in existence anymore by the time we see it. I suddenly realized that our emotions are often the very same way.
Emotions show up in moments and in relationships that may have very little, if anything, to do with the original source of the emotion. In actuality, if we aren’t mindful, many of our displayed emotions are reactions to situations that have long since passed or stories we made up that are not even true. Our emotions can travel through time revealing themselves at some pretty inopportune moments. But, just like the stars, we seem to think they are revealed in real time rather than something from the past.
This “aha” came about because I was talking with a group of friends about how someone who is “authentic” displays many of the same positive qualities of small children—before they have learned to be otherwise. They are confident, loving, enthusiastic, honest, and creative, to name a few. I then pointed out that they are also “present to their emotions” meaning that their emotions play in “real time.” When they are sad it is because of something that just happened, and that sadness can easily be replaced with happiness when the problem is solved, or a new situation presents itself.
Little kids aren’t sitting around lamenting what happened three weeks ago or even yesterday. They are all about now. Of course, there are exceptions in very difficult situations. And eventually this changes, but generally speaking, the first four or five years are a great example of authenticity and the ability to live in present time.
We adults, however, have the capacity to stay upset for months or years about things people said and did or events that took place in our lives. That was when the realization struck—the emotions we are feeling now are often over circumstances that aren’t even in existence any more.
So, how do we combat this? I suggest self-observation, self-awareness, self-inquiry and practice.
When we are self-observant of what we are thinking and feeling, it allows us to become self-aware. When we are aware, we can see what we are doing. This is when we become capable of self-inquiry—looking a little deeper to analyze our thoughts and behaviors. Self-awareness allows us to make decisions and choices make us powerful.
It is then that we are able to take a step back and see when we are reacting to the new boyfriend or girlfriend because of what the old one did. Or we see that the innocent comment a co-worker made plugged us into the emotions of something that was said intentionally to harm us when we were kids. Then, when something is real in the moment that needs attending to, we are more capable of addressing it without the charge from the past.
What is necessary is that we start paying attention. Being mindful of what we are feeling, thinking (the stories we are making up), and what we are reacting to, can allow us to bring our emotions into “real time.”
This is where we truly shine and truly connect with each other, authentically.