We kid ourselves that we are intelligent, rational beings, but we’re not. Most humans are more inclined to act emotionally than ‘logically’, and emotions can ruin our ability to think clearly. Mastery of the emotions, especially the ability to stay calm under pressure and bounce back after defeat, is the key to success in many fields. We can all think of talented people who never made the most of their abilities because they lacked ’emotional intelligence’.
Emotions can bring us great joy, but they can also cause of misery, ill-health and frustration. But can we influence them? Can we change them altogether? Yes we can. But we must want to.
What Are Emotions?
‘Emotion’ comes from the Latin, ’emovere’, which means ‘to move’, ‘to excite’ or ‘to agitate’. An emotion is a strong feeling which involves both physical changes and changes in behaviour. It’s different from cognition (thinking) and from volition (willing and wanting), yet all three are related. Just as thinking and wanting involve feeling, so feeling involves thinking and wanting.
Our emotional responses were initially programmed into the primitive part of the brain in early childhood, before the ‘thinking mind’ or ‘intellect’ started to develop. For our first few years, all our behaviour was governed by the emotional centres in the brain. This is why children are so easily emotionally aroused, and why they are able to switch rapidly from, say, anger or tears to smiles.
Every emotional experience we ever had was stored away in the unconscious and continues to influence us long after the original incident took place. Children who are fortunate enough to enjoy caring parents and a safe, loving environment grow up feeling confident and secure. Children who feel unloved and ignored often develop emotional problems which can remain with them for life – unless they deal with them before it is too late.
Sometimes, childhood emotional experiences are so painful that they are repressed deep into the unconscious: this is the mind trying to protect us from the anxiety they would cause if we were fully aware of them. When this happens, they are beyond our conscious awareness but can be released in various ways.
This certainly doesn’t mean that if we had an unhappy childhood, we’re doomed. Not at all. As we mature, that other part of the mind – the intelligent, rational mind – develops. We learn that displays of emotion are not always the best way of getting what we want. We learn more adult ways of functioning.
Deep seated negative emotions
Obviously there is a big difference between momentary emotional discomfort and deep-seated emotional problems. If we find our energy and motivation starting to sag, there’s a lot we can do to get back on track. Similarly, if we’re about to face a stressful experience, there are ways of taking control and coping with the ordeal.
But if old emotional patterns are preventing us from making the best of ourselves, we can use the ‘reflective’ parts of the mind to work through and move beyond them. We can learn how to gently let go of irrational feelings so they no longer upset us; we can train ourselves to look for and use the lessons they offer us. This doesn’t mean ignoring or suppressing emotions – suppressing emotion is extremely dangerous in the long term and can result in serious physical and psychological illness.
We can’t always make an uncomfortable feeling go away especially if it’s deeply ingrained. But we can learn to handle it more effectively. Do this consistently over a period of time, and the discomfort eventually subsides. For example, anyone who has experienced divorce or bereavement knows that time is the great healer. Eventually we adjust to our new circumstances.
Why emotions affect people so differently
A few years ago, a newspaper carried a story about a man who was in a panic. He’d received a letter from the gas company threatening to cut off his supply because he hadn’t paid a £200 bill. They’d threatened him with a court order which would have authorised them to gain entry into his flat. ‘I’m so upset,’ he told the reporter, ‘I won’t sleep tonight.’
The irony was, he lived in an all-electric flat! It was simply a computer error. But why did it affect him so badly? Some would find the idea of the gas company showing up to turn off his non-existent gas supply quite amusing! He was worrying about something that couldn’t possibly happen – and that he knew couldn’t possibly happen. Others would have simply telephoned the company, and calmly sorted it out.
So why the difference? It boils down to the fact that our emotional problems are not for the most part caused by events and circumstances, but by our beliefs, attitudes and reactions. A harsh lesson for some – but true.
Our emotions, like every part of our physical and psychological make-up, have a purpose. We wouldn’t have them otherwise. In essence, they are a fast response feedback mechanism. If things go the way we want, or expect, or are used to, we feel good. If not, we feel bad. Emotions steer us towards what seems safe, comfortable and pleasurable and away from anything which might be uncomfortable. They are born out of our perceptions of what is pleasurable and what could cause ‘pain’.
The important word here is perceptions. But what happens if our perceptions are misguided?
For example, say you are facing a difficult interview for a job you really want. Your stomach is churning. You may want to ‘bottle out’ but if you do you may miss out on a golden opportunity. Scarcely anyone has ever been killed or injured attending an interview. The worst that can possibly happen is that you dry up or you can’t answer all the questions. Embarrassing but hardly life threatening. So you go ahead anyway, ignoring the emotions – because you know the benefits of getting the job will outweigh the ‘pain’ in the longer term.
We can easily be misled by our own feelings. Just because something feels wrong, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it is wrong. Similarly, just because something feels right, it doesn’t automatically follow that it is right.
Emotions often feel the same as intuitions. Both affect us physically, but there’s a world of difference between an intuitive feeling and an emotional response programmed into the brain when we were young. If it’s genuinely the intuition, we would be foolish to ignore it. But if it is merely emotional conditioning, we could easily be deceived. Sometimes it is best to just feel the fear and do it anyway.
How do you know whether it’s your intuition or emotional programming? That’s the question!
Can we control our emotions?
Think of a time when you were so angry you could quite easily have hurt someone, but you didn’t. What happened? The rational part of your brain clicked into gear, reminded you of the consequences and halted you in your tracks. You knew you would be worse off in the long term if you carried on, so you dealt with it some other way.
We can’t always prevent ourselves from feeling an emotion; the primitive part of the brain tends to click into gear without conscious direction. But unless we have a neurological condition we can control our response. Occasionally, emotions may appear to ‘just come over us’, but that hides the reality. Emotions come from inside. We create them. No-one else can make us feel anything without our participation.
We don’t have to – and shouldn’t always – go with our feelings. Follow them when warranted, and disregard them when you realise that they’re obstructing you progress or leading you into unwanted consequences.
And remember – the Law of Cause and Effect operates irrespective of your emotional programming!
©David Lawrence Preston, 1.8.2016
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