This morning I felt alive, perky, eager to send out those words waiting in the wings.
Not like yesterday. I woke irritable and miserable. Churning about that email from Susie, my editor. Critical, putting me down. I wanted to strangle her. I pay her; she should be supportive, right? Would I ever be a decent writer? Might as well give up right now.
I’ll bet, as with me, your emotional states amaze you with their variation and power. Shock you with their random intensity, swinging between sadness and joy, anxiety and contentment. Guilt, fury, and love.
A chaos of emotions
Emotions influence our relationship with ourselves, others, and the world. In order to make order out of chaos, I divide them into three levels.
THE THREE LEVELS OF EMOTION
Level 1 emotions are on the surface.
Those at Level 2 are more unconscious and harder to read.
Level 3 emotions are deep in the unconscious.
Unaware, we range through all three levels
Level 1: Anxiety and Depression
These are surface or “cover up” feelings, hiding the challenging reactions of Levels 2 and 3. They conceal unwelcome memories and situations.
Depression is “to depress,” pushing down disturbing thoughts, or memories. Winston Churchill called depression his “Black Dog.” Apathy, exhaustion, meaninglessness, emptiness, hopelessness, and boredom are characteristics.
“My job’s OK,” Esther told me. “I earn a great living. Do laps in the pool every day, watch movies with my friends, and the Boston Red Sox on TV. But I can’t get excited about anything.” Esther’s depression numbs out joy in living as well as her tough emotions.
Anxiety is the “Mad Monkey Mind,” swinging from tree to tree, disrupting the peace, keeping us awake at night. It plunges us into the worst possible scenarios.
Here’s Peter struggling with the Mad Monkey Mind after a tiff with his girlfriend:
• “I should never have started that fight — we were doing so well.”
• “Now she’ll hate me.
• “Look what a creep I am.”
• “I’ll be alone for the rest of my life!”
Level 2: Guilt, Love, Grief, Anger, Joy, and Contentment
We’re vaguely aware of those feelings. Unknowingly, we tumble into them.
Guilt is a response to our mild or serious harmful actions.
Charlie spied a four-pack of Bellingham Sauvignon Blanc left in a shopping cart. Rejoicing at the freebie, he slung it into the trunk of his car. His mother’s voice in his head nagged at him all the way home. “How could a son of mine do that? Return it to the market at immediately!”
Guilt is appropriate when it prods our conscience to take the right action. Charlie made a quick U-turn back to the market!
Unconscious or Hidden Guilt is far more insidious, morphing into Level 3. We blame ourselves for our parents’ unhappiness and inadequacy. This produces a belief we are worthless, undeserving, and contemptible. “Basic Badness,” a term conceived by Lewis Engel and Tom Ferguson in Imaginary Crimes, (New York: Authors Choice Press, 1990) describes this type of guilt. The intense lack of self-esteem can haunt us throughout our lives until we work to set it at rest.
Love is more intricate than a Valentine Hallmark card. Being treasured for who we are is cemented into humanity. The happiness-ever-after myth is not surprising. I define love as holding, caring, careful listening, respect, kindness, empathy, compassion, attention, and understanding.
Carl Ransom Rogers, founded the client-centered approach to psychology. He used the term, “unconditional positive regard.” You’re loved for who you are, not just because you’ve picked up your room, earned a bonus at work or dusted the living room. The loving mother’s bumper sticker is “My Child is a Wonderful Person!”
Love is a basic need; its loss is life-threatening
In the 1930s, René Spitz, a Hungarian psychiatrist, studied infants who were institutionalized for long periods. Their symptoms included retarded physical development and disruption of perceptual-motor skills and language. Some babies even died. We now understand that this wasting disease is caused by lack of cuddling and comfort by parents or caregivers.
Most of us suffered a loss of love. Some search endlessly for the love we need. For others, giving and receiving love is satisfying and fulfilling. Which is true for you?
A parallel need is to perform acts of caring and kindness for others. Directions for someone who lost his way or allowing a car into your jammed traffic lane, generate as much happiness as the greater altruistic acts.
Grief, associated with abandonment, is a response to the loss of love. All that makes life worth living leaves us.
“The death of a beloved is an amputation” — C.S. Lewis
The abrupt termination of a job, demise of a cherished pet, divorce, empty nesting, or losing a home or our physical agility hits us hard.
Anger is a tricky emotion. It’s not “nice” and has a bad reputation. Communicating anger can be a “no-no.” Ever suppressed your anger when arguing with your significant other, then yelled at the driver who cut you off on the freeway?
Anger is especially challenging if a parent was abusive or neglectful. Your anger makes you wonder if you’re turning into your parent!
Anger is an ancient protective response. Like fire, anger can be destructive, decimating a forest. It also gives us the energy to ward off an enemy or revolt against a harmful political system.
Beneath anger is pain, grief, loss and a deep sense of injustice.
Janet asked Ronnie, her supervisor, about the paid vacation he promised. His reply was “We’re short-staffed right now. Can’t do it.” After seething for a week, Janet marched into his office and pointed out the relevant clause in her contract. By turning her anger to healthy assertiveness, she won her vacation.
Joy is wrapping yourself around a warm puppy or a new grandchild. It’s a birthday party, a reunion with a dear friend, a sunny day after weeks of rain. Like its twin, happiness, joy is difficult to sustain.
Contentment has longer staying power. It’s about getting out of your head and into your body. When I home into the quiet enjoyment of a flurry of hummingbirds at the feeder, a stream of sun warming my face, a dew-touched summer morning, I am content. Life is good.
Level 2 emotions are a milder and more civilized version of Level 3’s more primitive emotions.
Level 3: Fear, Rage and Gratification
These emotions are intense, primordial, and challenging, entrenched in the unconscious and experienced in the body. The “reptile brain” or diencephalon is the most ancient part of the brain. It was around when we took cover from cave lions in Paleolithic times. As with children, or the child within us, these emotions produce powerful and spontaneous reactions.
Later in human evolution, the neocortex or rational brain developed. It’s lucid, coherent, and problem-solving, essential for taking charge of your emotions
Fear predominates in abusive or dangerous situations. The autonomic nervous system prepares for action: dilating blood vessels in large muscles, constricting blood vessels in the rest of the body, narrowing bronchial tubes, and stimulating the intestines. With your body in a chaotic state, fear is hard to overcome.
Harmless situations can trigger flashbacks — traumatic memories with an intense response. A bearded stranger molested Georgia when she was thirteen. For years afterwards, when she spied an unfamiliar man with a beard, she’d turn and run in terror, her heart pounding. After a course of intensive therapy, she learned how to deal with flashbacks.
The hypothalamus is a small, cone-shaped structure deep in the brain. It controls the autonomic nervous system and is critical for survival. When aroused by a threatening situation, the autonomic nervous system is hard-wired for “flight-or-fight” — for fleeing from or attacking the enemy.
Rage, a cousin of anger, floods the brain with the hormones; cortisol and adrenaline. Muscles tense, heart and breathing rates increase, and we’re ready to attack — fast! The original cause of rage can be suppressed, then directed into dangerous outlets. Have you ever experienced this surge of rage for no apparent reason? If so, how did you handle it?
Gratification does not begin to describe this level 3 emotion. It’s what our remote ancestors felt when tucking into a raw and bloody haunch of woolly mammoth after scouting for food for a week!
Nowadays, you get that high when your team wins the national baseball league, during a delirious love-making session, or when your chosen political candidate wins the election. Serotonin and dopamine deluge the brain synapses. Although our quiet joys and times of contentment don’t come close, they put meaning and purpose into our lives.
EIGHT STEPS FOR OPERATING YOUR EMOTIONS
- Recognize you’re experiencing a negative emotion
Becoming aware of your emotional state is important
- Identify and accept the emotion
Check out the stage of your emotion. Let yourself welcome and accept it, rather than pushing it away
- Check out your physical response
Intense physical reactions are hallmarks of stage 3. Tiredness might indicate depression. A tight diaphragm and shallow breathing indicate anxiety or fear
- Breathe into the tense parts of your body and stretch them out
Face, mouth, neck, and shoulders hold the most tension. Relax each one
- Find the trigger that kicked off the emotion
Was it a recent experience or a sudden upsetting memory? Well-known negative triggers are hunger, tiredness, pain, feeling cold, hot, or pressured
- Express the emotion
Yell, pound a pillow, stamp your feet to release anger. Journal, draw your feelings, write a letter. Find a method to handle the difficult situation. Walk, swim, or shower to wash off the emotions
- Brainstorm five positive things about yourself and your life
Talk to yourself the way you’d talk to someone you love. Find a meditation method you like and practice it regularly to calm your response system
- Seek support and encouragement from people who care for you
If you are continually attacked by negative emotions and cannot lift yourself into a better frame of mind, it may be necessary to talk to a professional
“Begin today. Declare out loud to the universe that you are willing to let go of struggle and eager to learn through joy” — Sarah Ban Breathnach
Our emotions lean toward the negative; relics from bygone days when we were constantly on the alert for danger.
As Picasso said: “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order I may learn how to do it.”
The process of altering this negative bias is like any other learning. Mending harmful emotional habits take time, dedication, and practice to change negative patterns to positive.
To do this, you need courage. In the words of Winston Churchill; “Success is not final; failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” “Courage” comes from the French “Coeur” — “heart.”
The heart is meeting place of heaven and earth. As you work to release the familiar, take heart.
Shoshana Kobrin is an author, creative writing consultant, and life coach. She helps people fall in love with their writing, create, and heal themselves. You can find her at www.shoshanakobrin.net