How often do you find yourself in a situation when you are not sure if you understand your emotions? Or don’t know if you should allow yourself to express what you are feeling? Maybe you even don’t know what you are feeling and which emotions you are experiencing? Understanding your emotions is complex because we are not being taught to encrypt them, put them in context and realize that emotions are part of any human interaction.
No matter where you are at the moment, give yourself permission to re-assess your feelings, re-connect with your emotions, and consider restructuring the understanding of your feelings. Emotions are complex yet straightforward. The complexity comes from our expectations and socialization, as well the cultures that we live in. Meaning others are structuring our emotions. What you are feeling might not be what you are genuinely feeling. Sounds confusing?
The confusing part about understanding emotions
Depending on which expert you speak to, you will hear different opinions on the topic of emotions. Keep in mind that we learn more each day about emotions. Lisa Feldman Barrett uncovered just in recent years that as individuals, we experience and process emotions in different areas of our brain – Something completely unheard of before. Until Barrett published her conclusions, the world of emotions was dominated by Paul Ekman and his theory of Universal emotions.
At times we can easily be blinded by our knowledge and assume that we already know everything we need to know about a topic. Please keep that in mind and the subjectivity we carry as researchers, as there is no such thing as true objectivism (but that is a topic for another time).
Emotions are in continuous flow. Unfortunately, we are also using different terminology to refer back to the same phenome. Feelings are often being portrait as emotions or even as affects.
What are emotions?
Emotions are cultural symbols and processes that we understand within cultural scenarios. They are cultural products of the individual socialization and the ongoing exchange processes in the socio-cultural context; they mediate between a person’s inner and outer world. We can find emotions within every interaction. I would go as far as saying that it is impossible to be unemotional. Meaning as humans, we cannot interact without communicating emotions at the same time. According to Lutz and White, “Concepts of emotion emerge as a kind of language of the self – a code for statements about intentions, actions, and social relations” (Lutz & White 1986:417).
According to Martin Seligman, all emotions have a feeling, a sensory, a thinking, and an action component. Therefore feelings and emotions aren’t the same. Our emotions are a complex construct of social, cultural, and individual ideas. Feelings override everything that is going on and act as a sensory alarm, as Seligman describes. Feelings are rather personal, while emotions reflect the dynamic between the individual and the social world.
The role of emotions
As humans, we validate who we are and who we want to be through emotions within interactions. We require others to send through body language emotional symbols that adversely make us feel in a specific way. Emotions contribute to identity confirmation and verification through contribution to the feeling of power, status, and belonging. According to Seligman ‘feelings are states, momentary occurrences that need not be recurring features of personality.’ Since we cannot be not ‘emotional’ -meaning not having any feelings or not communicate emotions at any stage of life- we are left with how to interpret our own emotions. It’s just a matter of becoming conscious of your emotions and your reaction to them.
This element of emotions is widely underestimated. Generally, people focus too often on this dynamic’s negative aspect—this aspect of negative feeling arises because of an uncomfortable situation. People far too often focus on the negative aspects of interactions rather than the positive ones. Ironically, we can say the same about psychology. Much of the research on emotions has been done in regards to negative emotions and feelings.
Understanding the function of emotions and your reaction can help you realize that you hold power over your feelings and your own identity.
Five strategies to understand your your emotions better
Step 1 Visualize the difference between the physical experience of your emotions and the cultural meaning.
A great example is the feeling of judgment. This is a particular issue for working moms. Their own desire to work collides with certain social and cultural expectations. All it takes to make a working mom feel judged and guilty of not being a good mom, is another parent pointing out that she might be working too much or believes that it is good for her child to have a full-time working mother.
In this situation, it doesn’t matter if the child is thriving and the mother is fulfilled through her work. What seems to matter more is how the external expectations are subconsciously going to evoke the feeling of guilt, except if the person in question has a strong value base and the ability to reflect on the dynamic process of emotions. In other words, feeling different about social norms generate a disconnect between your inner and outer world. However, there is no need for you to live by all the rules set around you.
Step 2 Redirecting focus on positive feelings
In a situation such as the above, it is wise to develop the ability to redirect your attention to positive emotions. This will modify the feelings you are experiencing as a result of the cultural expectation. You can override and block negative emotions by actively bringing up happy memories and switching your focus to what matters to you.
Step 3 Creating boundaries.
Unfortunately, many of us are involved in relationships that impact us negatively. That can be co-workers that speak negatively about others, point out errors, and never give praise. It can be family members that notoriously criticize, don’t respect boundaries, and spread their pessimistic beliefs as factual knowledge. It can be your daughter’s friends, mothers, or your high-school friend that hasn’t changed in 15 years. No matter who these people are, you have the right to create boundaries or stop seeing them altogether. Essentially, creating boundaries is about choosing what kind of emotions you would like to be exposed to.
Step 4 Keeping an emotion diary.
Writing down your own emotional experiences isn’t just healthy because you are unloading what is happening inside you. You give yourself a chance to reflect on what you are experiencing and how you feel about it. It also allows you to revisit your feelings and eventually react next time in alignment with your core beliefs. This will inherently create a more positive experience of your emotions and give you a sense of having your own world power. This is what is allowing you to take your power back. We live in a world of empowerment, but others can’t empower you. You have to acknowledge your own power over your reality. That is the essence of power that will allow you to live an independent life based on your own terms.
Step 5 The enlightenment
Developing the ability to breathe when you feel like exploding or falling apart is what I would call the enlightenment phase. In this step, you fully recognize that positive and negative emotions have equal value in the world – in your world. They are coloring our world and giving us a sense of belonging, as well as being alive. We experience the world through sensations, and emotions are part of these sensations. The moment you become aware of this and allow yourself to step back from the spontaneous experience of emotions is the day you become free. Free of judgment, free of expectations, and free of wanting to feel good all the time. The key to freedom lies in the balance.
These are just a few particle steps that you can take to create more emotional balance in your life.
Barbara Frederickson: Love 2.0: Finding Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection