The thing that colors our thoughts and gives our life meaning. The fuel that drives our decisions, desires, and impulses. The primal precursor to those pesky feelings.
Whether we judge them as “good” or “bad”, each emotion serves a purpose. Whether or not we believe in a greater purpose behind everyday occurrences, there is meaning to seemingly impersonal or “random” events. Hence, every emotional experience has the potential to teach us something.
This idea that everything can be useful extends even to our most painful or unwanted emotions. Let’s consider some of them below:
Being lost in our mind with no clear answers can feel frustrating, or even bewildering. Confusion often robs us of peace, and keeps us from making sound decisions. But as we hold space for unresolved feelings, we can move beyond the confusion, and listen to the echoes of our hidden wisdom.
Confusion is a signal of one of three things:
1.) That we don’t have all the answers yet and need time to settle, gather information, receive clarity, and find discernment.
2.) That we’ve lost connection to our beliefs, values, and codes, and need time to calibrate our inner compass back to True North.
3.) That our minds and hearts are wrestling with ideas and feelings that challenge what we previously viewed as “Truth”. Some call this cognitive dissonance, and if properly dealt with, it can help us improve how we think, learn, and act.
The signal of confusion can help us pause and consider what we’re doing. It can also help us achieve greater discernment as we deepen into our convictions.
This one is simple and powerful. Fear is designed to temporarily protect us from harm.
But once we learn of the danger, prepare to protect against it, and increase our resilience, the crucial task is to pause the fear response, reprogram our body and mind, and unlearn the fearful behavior. Unlearning specific fear responses can take years, or even decades – especially if the demon has been with us since childhood. Fear serves a fundamental purpose, but is not designed to stay with us long term. Too much of the fear response causes negative thought patterns, anxiety, physical sickness, PTSD, or even psychosis in extreme amounts. Excess fear is literally the bane of Life.
Why do we feel jealous? There are many complexities to how envy is expressed and felt, but the root of it is simple: diminished self worth.
We see something that we don’t have, and we might immediately feel less than. Or perhaps we see a kind of strength, beauty, intelligence, charisma, or attraction in another person, and we falsely believe that their existence takes away from our own. We envy when we forget our own Light, our purpose. We envy what they have, who they are, or the thing we don’t possess rather than remembering who I am, what I have, and the gifts bestowed upon me.
Envy is different from the first two emotions we described in that it is more complex and is a derivative of another emotion: shame. And because envy is not a primary emotion, it also does not serve a primary purpose. Instead, the value of envy lies in its ability to be transmuted into inspiration, and eventually self-acceptance. The simple yet often painful antidote to envy is self-love. Practicing self-love is a radical act of remembrance, of our connection to the Source of life, of our unique worth.
So how do we actually “use” our difficult emotions?
Like anything, in order to properly “use” a tool, we must first learn about it. To learn something, we must first observe, much like we did with the emotions above. Because emotions are alive and connected to us, we cannot observe them so simply. Rather, we need to experience them. And more importantly, we need to truly feel them.
This is the difference between talking about how I felt angry yesterday when a car cut me off on the road, and actually feeling tense in my shoulders, heat in my forehead, and feeling my heart pound in my chest. The first is an intellectual description of an emotion, and the second is the visceral experience itself.
The intellectualizing of the problem is a feature of our evolved mind. The mind is programmed to do just that – analysis, of past, present, and potential future(s). But our stronger, unconscious mind cannot decipher whether something is presently happening, or if it is replaying something in the past, or projecting a reality that has not yet happened. It becomes a videotape that repeats itself. At this point, typical mental analysis stops working.
Furthermore, humans are not just mental creatures. Our inner experience is a vast intersection of feelings, thoughts, impulses, and chemical responses. If we try to access what’s going on inside simply with our cognitive mind, we end up with a treadmill of rehearsed and recycled thoughts designed for “perfect” safety. Perfection, however, does not exist in this reality. Thus, energy is wasted in this process.
With each situation that reminds us of our original wound or trauma, the mind replays the scenarios and stories that re-trigger the emotion and sustains the painful feeling. It is not the mind’s job to heal the wound. It is simply designed to analyze it. The emotion must be acknowledged and the feeling must be met with honesty and care. Otherwise, the mind will warp the experience of the wound, and it will attach itself to other unresolved traumas or stories.
This is why healing our most painful experiences often needs to happen in small parts. We slowly learn to accept and feel one portion of a difficult experience, until the feelings and emotions have all been surfaced and given room to breathe. We slowly widen the window of tolerance each time.
As we learn how to consciously feel, it’s important that we don’t rush the process, lest we become flooded with dysregulating sensations and thoughts. This process may take a while – often longer than we would like. Ironically, if we stay small and consistent, our progress ramps up as we free ourselves from the burden of expectations.
Read Part 2 for practical steps on how to achieve this.