We live in a society where everyone wants to be happy. We’ll do anything to make sure our life is like one big yellow smiling emoji…make that a grinning emoji…or better yet, the one that’s grinning so hard the eyes are squinting, like this > <
We are chasing happiness, in search of anything that feels good. We’re attached to pleasure and have an aversion to pain…or even the slightest discomfort. We have labeled our feelings as good or bad. That only feeling happy is good and sad is okay (when it’s appropriate, with good reason, and only for a limited time). Anger is justified, depending on whose side you are on, but generally can be very dangerous…and everything else is just wrong.
There’s tons of research on emotions: from naming them, defining their properties and purposes in evolution, to categorizing them. Some of the most popular research was done by psychologists on universal emotions. In 1972, Paul Eckman famously identified six basic emotions: happiness, sadness, disgust, fear, surprise and anger. Then, in 1980, Robert Plutchik introduced his Wheel of Emotions. Much like a color wheel with three primary colors that mix to form other colors, he proposed eight basic primary emotions that can be blended to form new emotions.
While there are currently 120 Crayola Crayon colors to choose from, there are so many more possible emotions that we can feel. And these emotions can have the most subtle nuances…contentment is different than peaceful, nervous different than worried or anxious, annoyed is different than irritated…and the list goes on. As we evolve, so do our emotions and our identification of them.
We can all agree that there are innumerable complex emotions, but there are some basic and primary ones: the red, blue and yellow of emotions. A study at the University of Glasgow examined facial expressions to see if they could support the belief of the six classic emotions as defined by Dr. Eckman. For their research, published in Current Biology, they created facial recognition software that looks at facial movements and their expressions. They were able to identify that at an elementary level, there were only four basic categories of expression, with fear/surprise and anger/disgust only becoming distinct over time. The facial muscles activated in expressing emotions went from “biologically basic to socially specific”. The four basic categories are: happy, sad, fear/surprise and anger/disgust.
We need to welcome and honor ALL of our emotions. Don’t shoot the messenger!
Emotions are energy in motion. A constant kaleidoscope that communicates and connects us to ourselves and the world around us. They are messengers, carrying information. Let’s take a new perspective on our emotions.
In The Language of Emotions, Karla McLaren describes them as gifts that bring us messages. Emotions don’t lie, they are always telling us the truth. We either don’t know how to interpret them or we don’t want to listen. Our emotions are present all the time; they are fluid and constantly flowing. And because they flow, they are not separate from each other and cannot be put into compartments. McLaren goes into great detail to describe the qualities and messages that many different emotions bring to your psyche. I am going to focus on my “keep it simple” primary emotions: happy, sad, mad and scared.
According to McLaren, here is a summarized list of the qualities and gifts our emotions bring:
Happiness – Amusement and Anticipation.
McLaren describes happiness as a rest stop. It’s a moment of celebration, not to be trapped, but to be expressed and shared. Revel in the moment. Laugh and smile, have fun, but don’t hold on to it or chase it!
Sadness – Release and Rejuvenation
Sadness helps us to let go and relax, to feel calm, release tension. Sadness helps to ground us. It is our bodies signaling us to check in with ourselves, what are we holding on to? What is it that no longer serves us? Let it go and let it flow!
Anger – Protection and Restoration
Healthy anger establishes boundaries and honor. When we feel angry, we can often fly into rage if we don’t understand the message. It’s a sign that a line has been crossed, or perhaps we didn’t honor ourselves enough to create a healthy boundary.
Fear – Intuition and Action
Healthy fear helps us to tap into our instincts. Our senses will become sharp and focused, and we are able to gather the information needed to know our next step. When flowing, fear helps us stay alert and centered.
We often don’t take the time to reflect on how we are truly feeling. Emotions play out as sensations in our bodies, and our behavior is then dictated by those feelings. Out of habit, we usually react to those feelings in subconscious behavior patterns. Whether it’s a physical action or an automatic thought pattern, we often deflect. We tend to dissociate, which would include engaging in behaviors that are avoiding, distracting or addicting. We eat when we’re not hungry, crave caffeine, unconsciously pick up our phones and scroll social media, grab a drink, or we just zone out.
We’ve developed our deflective behaviors for a reason. They have served us by helping us cope in uncertain times, helping us navigate through this fast paced, often chaotic world we are living in.
We were never taught how to process and express our emotions in a healthy manner, and so often times, we take on the same dissociative behavior of those around us and those who raised us. But the truth is, the pain we experience is not from the emotion itself, but from its unhealthy processing – unhealthy expressing or repressing. The emotion then gets stored in our bodies. Unless we learn to manage our emotions, we will continue the cycle.
Challenge for the week: Check in with your emotions!
What are you feeling?
Set a reminder a few times during the day to check in with your emotions. Or, when you are feeling a strong emotion, stop and check in. What are you feeling? Happy, sad, mad or scared? I find that if I can first identify one of the basic four, then it becomes easier to fine tune. Maybe it’s a mixture of two? Maybe it’s something subtle, just under the surface? Take a moment to feel the emotion and define it. Where do you feel it in your body? Tension in your shoulders? A heavy heart? A sour stomach?
Now close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Breathe into any discomfort. Ask it what it wants to tell you. What is its message? Listen for any answers, and thank it for being there! Then, if you still want to eat that cookie or have that drink, enjoy it knowing that you are making a conscious choice.
If we have bottled up feelings (repression) or overemphasized them (unhealthy expression), then it may be a good idea to find healthy ways to deflect for a while. Like a balloon filled with hot air, you don’t want to pop! You can gradually release the air out…our deflections can help to release the pressure. Try to find healthy alternatives – go outside in the fresh air, take some deep breaths, take a walk, listen to music, drink a glass of water, or put your hands under running water…water is an energy cleanser.
We don’t need to stop our dissociative behavior cold turkey, and let’s not be hard on ourselves! I’m suggesting to take a moment to check in first. Then you can decide how to proceed. And if you are experiencing consistent, overwhelming emotions, please do seek professional help.
But truthfully, if we allow our emotions to flow freely, and to listen to the messages they bring, we can learn to love them all!
Have an emotional week! 😉 And please feel free to leave any comments or questions below.