The Alchemy of Emotions

It’s a time of the year when strong emotions may rise to the surface. We look at why we have emotions in the first place, how we can relate to them, navigate them, and the amazing alchemy that happens when we give them our unconditional attention.

What are emotions?

We feel them, we talk about them, we hold onto them and sometimes we push them away….but what exactly are emotions?

The word comes from the Latin “emovere”, which means to “move out”. It implies something that moves through and out of us. We like to use Michael Brown’s definition of emotions as “energies in motion“.

There is in fact no one definition of emotions with full consensus. What is agreed is that they are experiences of states of being, combining neurophysiology, body sensations and feelings that arise with varying intensities.

There are countless emotions we experience in the course of daily life, but there are a set of core emotions that scientists seem to agree on. Depending on the school of thought, there may be 4, 5 or more core emotions, but the 4 that are universally agreed are: Joy, Fear, Sadness and Anger. Others include Surprise, Disgust, Shame and some include Love in the core group. We like to include Contentment. Ofcourse there are many other emotions, but most can be said to be derivatives of these core emotions.

Emotions are different from “feelings” although many of us use these words interchangeably. Emotions arise in us spontaneously and have physical and neurological imprints – we can feel anger as heat in our bodies, sadness as a heaviness or joy as an expansion. Emotions can exist even if we don’t feel them consciously. Feelings can refer directly to the emotion, but often they are intermingled with our own thoughts, interpretations and biases. For instance, there might be surprise when someone says something we don’t expect, but because we don’t know what to say in return we say we felt “awkward”.

Why do we have emotions?

In short, emotions help us survive, grow and evolve. For example, fear manifests as a state of arousal in the body which sends signals of danger, prompting us to fight, flee or freeze. This helped us run away from tigers in the past and helps us avoid dangerous streets today. Sadness helps us to let go, clearing the space for moving forward as it relaxes and slows down the body, making us stop to take time to mentally say goodbye and grieve what we lose. Anger arises when our boundaries are crossed, motivating us to consider whether we choose to accept a situation or change it. Joy helps us revel in life, it is the great engine driving us from moment to moment.

How can we relate to emotions?

Given their role in our survival, growth and wellbeing, emotions are to be honoured, understood and most importantly, felt. It goes without saying that emotions are the main driver of our existence – everything we aim to do in life, we do because it makes us feel a certain way. They saturate our lives with colour, meaning and motivation. Without emotions, there is no human existence.

Emotions are to be honoured, understood, and most importantly, felt.

And yet emotions are much maligned in modern society, their role subordinated to the role of thinking. There is no justification for “thinking” to be considered more important than something as valuable as “feeling”. Our felt sense of the world holds at least as much information to help us survive and thrive, is often quicker to receive and send signals than conscious thought, and we agree with the position of many scientists, that it can help to direct our thinking. Our thoughts might tell us to walk down the fastest route, but a felt sense of danger that we feel as we approach the street, even though we don’t know why, can help us avoid a dangerous situation there, and direct our minds to think of an alternative route. Emotions arise from a much closer link to our subconscious and all the memory and information our bodies hold, that we don’t always access consciously.

It has also become the norm to label “positive emotions” and “negative emotions”, and we do this depending on how difficult we find the experience of a particular emotion. In our society, no one likes to experience fear, anger, sadness, and we go to great lengths to avoid any difficult feelings, striving to experience joy all the time.

We hope it comes as good news to you, that there are no “bad emotions”. All emotions are valid, natural and valuable signals for life. We might find some more difficult to experience but our resistance to so called “negative feelings’ only makes such feelings more uncomfortable. How we behave and act when we feel emotions might be constructive (good) or destructive (bad), but in themselves no emotion is “bad”. Even intense emotions of rage or despair are signals for us to notice that there is something that is out of balance within us.

To relate to emotions in a healthy way, we need to feel them for as long as they are there. This means being alert to the body sensations and felt sense of the moment, staying with the experience for as long as it needs to be there, and identifying the emotion to hear its signal. Emotions move in and out of us like passengers, gifting us with jewels of valuable information along the way.

Emotions exist in us even if we are not aware of them. They are as physical as they are mental, and our bodies respond to situations with emotion when we may not even be aware of it. An environment of constant pressure may make the body tense with anger or fear over time, but we may not be aware of the build up if in our minds we would rather just believe it’s all fine.

Emotions move in an out of us like passengers, gifting us with jewels of valuable information along theway

It is dangerous to be out of touch with one’s emotions or try to suppress them. Not only do we lose contact with our gut instincts, intuition and survival information by doing so, we will most likely come to a point where they will show up as mental or physical illness because we cannot hear their signals. Being disconnected from our emotional lives is also likely to mean that we will fail to make any meaningful relationships.

Daniel Goleman has made the term “emotional intelligence” part of everyday language with his research. Emotionally intelligent people can recognise, understand and manage their emotions well, and they have the skills and empathy to do the same for other people’s emotions. Being emotionally intelligent helps us thrive in all spheres of life, from work to relationships to choosing how we wish to shape our lives.

How can we tune into emotions?

The best way to notice our own emotions, is to start by take a pause, noticing sensations in the body, then gently enquiring as to what emotions there might be. See if what you find resonates. Checking into the body helps us identify the actual emotion rather than getting caught up in our perceptions or expectations of what we should feel. For instance if you think you’re doing fine, but your gut is wrenched and your face is frowning, you might wonder what’s really going on.

When paying attention to the body, it’s worth noting that it isn’t just our brains that are intelligent, firing signals back and forth – our gut and heart also have their own nervous systems, with neurons firing left right and centre. This is where the term “gut instinct” comes from, and the same is true of the heart. Listen to your body, all of it. It has all the tells.

Meditation, particularly mindfulness meditation, is a great way to make a habit of staying tuned into to what’s going on for us emotionally. To quote Michael Brown once again, the point of a meaningful life is “not to feel better, but to get better at feeling.”

Checking into the body helps us identify the actual emotion rather than getting caught up in our perceptions or expectations of what we should feel. For instance if you think you're doing fine, but your gut is wrenched and your face is frowning, you might wonder what's really going on.

How can we manage difficult emotions?

Being able to navigate difficult emotions, or namely emotional regulation, is a skill we are meant to develop during childhood given a supportive environment. It is an essential quality for us to grow and develop into healthy functioning adults. Emotions are visceral and can be intense – babies have no capacity to regulate emotions, they don’t know what to do with them, so they act out on them by crying, screaming, wriggles and giggles. As adults, when we cannot regulate our emotions, we are prone to emotional reactions, outbursts, and volatility in our behaviour and actions.

When an emotion arises that we find challenging or difficult to be with, our advice is to firstly pause and notice with lots of self-compassion that we are indeed experiencing an intense emotion and it is difficult. And that this is ok, some emotions are meant to be difficult, which doesn’t make them or us bad. We will not push it away. Instead, and this is the hard part….we take ourselves aside from the given context to find some space for ourselves, and we stay with the full experience of the emotion, giving it our full unconditional attention for as long as it needs, until it loses its extreme charge. We attend to the emotion with our attention with no judgement, and no pressure for it to move on – only kindness.

When a strong emotion arises that feels difficult we attend to it like we would as a loving parent to a small child…we give it space, validate it, and hold ourselves through it with patience and compassion.

And this is exactly where the alchemy happens. Even when we are consumed by a difficult emotion, when we stop labelling the emotion as “bad”, drop our resistance to feeling them, and give our full, compassionate attention to all the bodily sensations and felt experience…for a even a few minutes….we will notice a little shift in the intensity and the charge of it. The strong charge it carries transmutes …and by attending to it we make ourselves a big container to hold the big feeling so they stop taking us over.

When a strong emotion arises that feels difficult we attend to it like we would a loving parent to a small child...we give it space, validate it and hold ourselves through it with patience and compassion.

So the next time you feel rage, instead of berating yourself or condemning the feeling, try to take yourself aside from the immediate situation, give yourself a few minutes, and try being with the experience of it, unconditionally, with kindness. Sometimes we will notice that what we first experienced as anger…when we stay with the bodily sensations and give it some undivided attention…it unravels to reveal fear or sadness….and sometimes it just lessens its sting so we can hear its message more clearly. The message is simply that something needs to change either in us or in the context outside of us.

This alchemy is possible for many of us feeling strong, unpleasant emotions from day to day. However, we always advise to go gently, and for some of us if it feels too difficult or the intensity increases, then stop and seek professional support for navigating extreme emotions without letting them spiral.

Trying to avoid painful emotions instead of feeling them, will lead to us living only half a life…because if we avoid facing some emotions, we lose the capacity to connect to any of them. If we avoid grief, fear and anger, we will not feel authentic joy or deep contentment. Avoidance is likely to not only jeapardise our emotional health, it will compromise both our mental and physical wellbeing.

Emotions only get difficult when we don’t allow ourselves to treat them as we’re meant to – to feel them, hold them and let them flow through and then eventually out of us. It is only when they get stuck, either by being ignored or held onto, that they become problems for our mental health.

If you’d like to learn meditation to help understand and manage emotions, we offer personalised meditation lessons which you can book here.

Photo credits (from the top):

Cottonbro, Jan Canty