Emotions matter. We all have them – they are part of what it is to be human. They are the colour of life – the green of happiness, the moody blue of sadness and the hot red of anger. The bright ones are easy to spot, but others, like jealousy and guilt, are more complex and harder to identify.
Our emotions matter because they are an important window to our inner world. They act like critical warning lights on a dashboard, monitoring what is going on under the surface. They give us vital information about the stories we live by, the hurts we hold within us, the values and beliefs we hold. They warn us when things are going wrong and nudge us to do something about it.
Like a pilot, we need to learn to recognise the warning lights on our dashboard and understand what is happening so that we know how to respond. This is called Emotional Intelligence.
The trouble is that most of us are not sure how much to trust our emotions and are not confident in how to handle them. Who ever enjoys bursting into tears in public, or suddenly finding themselves hitting out with rage at some poor person who has been an unsuspecting trigger to release something much deeper within us?
We tend to view our emotions broadly from two different perspectives. At one extreme we can take a rational view that emotions are to be tamed. To steer a steady course through life we must suppress anything that might rock the boat, or cause discomfort. And so we bury our emotions, stuffing them deeper and deeper inside until we become emotionally numb, not allowing ourselves to feel anything, good or bad.
At the other extreme we can immerse ourselves in our emotions, going with the flow of the waves . . . up and down. We give in to outbursts of elation, tears or anger, exhausting ourselves and those around us.
Emotional Intelligence has three important parts to it. First is the ability to recognise what is happening in our body – the warning lights that are flashing. Next is to understand what the signals mean and recognise the impact they have on ourselves and those around us. This takes time and care to name the emotions and pay attention to what is triggering them. What stories are we listening to in our head about the meaning of the feelings? These stories are built on a network of inner wounds and regrets that can trap us in a destructive loop.
The third and important part is knowing what to do with the feelings. Neuroscience research shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going on inside of ourselves .*
Befriending is gentle. It is about listening with compassionate acceptance to what is going on inside. It is patient and non-judgmental.
Befriending takes time.
As the 13th century poet Rumi said, healing can happen naturally.
I said: What about my heart?
He said: Tell me what you hold inside it?
I said: Pain and sorrow.
He said: Stay with it. The wound is the place where the light enters you.
* * * * * * *
When you feel the tension of painful emotions rising inside you find a quiet place to sit. Place your hand on your heart and wait. Breathe deeply and slowly and wait. Listen to your thoughts and feelings. Try to name them. Be curious about what they are trying to tell you. Remember that warning lights are good. They show us when things are going wrong and nudge us to do something about it.
What stories are you listening to that give power to the feelings?
What might gentle befriending mean for you and your emotions in this moment?
Remember “The wound is the place where the light enters”.
- Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score (New York: Penguin books, 2015), 208.