Emotions – I wonder how they make you feel? Are they an inconvenience or a blessing? Not only do we experience a whole range of feelings on a daily basis we also often have strong feelings about our feelings! This can create lots of confusion and distress.
Whatever your personal experience of emotions I think that it would be fair to say emotions are powerful things. They can be used for good but can also cause harm. Therefore I think it is important to develop awareness of our own emotions and relationship to them for our well-being and the well-being of society. Do they rule us or do they have no place in our lives? Or do we ignore them and then suddenly find them spilling out in unhelpful and unexpected places?
For many years I was not very good friends with some of my own emotions and tried to ignore them. I recognise now that for a period after having my fourth child I was very anxious but I also felt ashamed of this. This led me to hide away rather than acknowledge or talk about the anxiety. Unfortunately this only made things worse because the anxiety was actually signalling to me that I needed some support with my growing family but the hiding meant I could not get this.
Hearing that emotions can be described as signals or sign posts was very helpful for me. Siegel says “Emotion is a deep process that not only gives us the subjective sense of our feelings, but also orients our attention and lets us have a sense of ‘This is important.’
Making friends with our own emotions is a process and when they erupt powerfully or damagingly we can be at a loss to know how to handle them. Whether we are dealing with our own or others emotions – a compassionate rather than judgemental attitude is a great place to start. I hope the concept of being open and curious to what these emotions are signalling might be helpful. Rather than ignoring their presence as a blot on the landscape it might be kinder to allow ourselves time to explore and own them. By doing this it is possible to learn to respond to their message in helpful and healthy ways rather than react in potentially unhelpful or harmful ways .
With regard to helping others understand their emotions an acronym I find helpful is MATS:
Mention – I notice you seem to be feeling …….(angry, sad, ashamed…)
Ask – I wonder what is making you feel like that?
Touch – Appropriate touch can be reassuring and a sign of your acceptance – perhaps a hand on a shoulder.
Stay – stay with them for a while if they need to talk.
It’s all fallen out – oh God, oh no!
It’s such a mess and it’s all on show!
If only it was all in a nice neat row,
then it would be ok for people to know
what’s inside of me.
A mess on the floor – oh what a pain!
Pick it up; stuff it back; it is the main
thing – keeping things nice and not allowing a stain
on the landscape that might show the pain
and confusion of life.
Or we could take some time to look at it there.
Stop. Look – as you stand and stare;
What sort of feeling is in your glare?
Are you a harsh judge or do you care?
Maybe the mess inside of me;
Spilled out on the floor for all to see,
is a cry from my heart – a plea
for you to engage with the complexity
! When life is challenging and we are struggling it is often our nearest and dearest that feel the brunt of our frustrations. Talking to those we love about the stress we are under is often very helpful – but in order to do this we need good communication skills. Communication provides a link between the internal and external worlds!
Relationship experts divide communication styles in to four categories: Passive, Aggressive, Passive-aggressive and Assertive.
Those who use a Passive style tend to defer to everyone else and never make any decisions or have any strong preferences. At some level they end up communicating an often unconscious message; you matter and I don’t.
Those who use an Aggressive style tend to enforce their opinions or desires and leave no room for negotiation or difference. They can unwittingly leave you feeling that they matter and you don’t.
A Passive- aggressive style is a confusing mixture of the two – the message communicated is that you sort of mater but you sort of don’t. This is difficult to understand.
An Assertive style of communication enables individuals to express their own wishes, desires, feelings, and needs but also to leave room for you to communicate and own yours. They leave you feeling you matter and so do they.
Did you recognise these different styles in yourself, and others, over the festive season? Under stress we often resort to one of the less helpful options because stress activates our ‘fight or flight’ response and we don’t think – we just react.
We often think of communication in terms of the words we speak but some studies have suggested that only about 7% of communication is through our words. They say that 38% is through other vocal elements such as tone and 55% through non-verbal elements such as gestures, posture and expressions. Whatever the exact percentages I think it is helpful to remember to think of how and what we are communicating through these different elements.
I expect that we would all like to be Assertive in our communication but it can feel quite hard. Strong emotions and unconscious, or unacknowledged, baggage can get in the way.
Learning the art of Assertive communication takes time and practise and a willingness to be objective and observant of ourselves. Some days we may find it easier than others but self-awareness combined with compassion and a willingness to challenge ourselves can reap great rewards when it comes to communication. Good communication is vital for good relationships because we all need to know we matter.
In order to help people understand how to find a greater sense of well-being Professor Paul Gilbert simplifies the complex workings of the mind into three brain systems that regulate three different types of emotion:
For me, the mind is the hardest part of myself to still. Whatever activity we choose to help turn on the contentment system, an awareness of our thought patterns will be important. An anxiety provoking, negative or over stimulating train of thought will probably diminish the beneficial effects of our contentment seeking efforts. Sometimes we need help to sort out what is going on in our mind. Sometimes we need a support group to help us engage in contentment seeking activities. I think that seeking out the support we need for our well-being is courageous and worthwhile.
Expectations are powerful things. Some people are more naturally optimistic and have mainly positive expectations. Others err on the side of pessimism and tend to expect very little. Whether you are a glass half full or glass half empty type of person I wonder how you respond when your expectations are not met? How do you deal with disappointment? The space between what we would like to happen (our ideal) and what actually does happen (the real) has been described as ‘the disappointment gap.’
Ideal Disappointment Gap Real
People usually respond to this disappointment gap in one of four possible ways:
Sadly we might also face much, much bigger disappointments in life that are much harder to get over. There is no easy answer to these and it is important to emphasise that disappointment is not something that can be explained away or dismissed. It needs to be acknowledged and felt. But recognising when you have become stuck in a ‘disappointment gap’ can enable you to choose to respond to your situation:
i) with acceptance and kindness rather than attack and blame (what would I say to a friend struggling with this? What would I like someone who cares for me to say to me?)
ii) with some thinking about what your ideals are and what beliefs they are based on.
iii) with observation of your thinking style – (am I discounting positives? Am I going in for all or nothing thinking? Am I overgeneralizing?)
iv) by developing small achievable targets for ways to move forward.
Finally I would like to emphasise a small but clever trick the mind likes to play called ‘personalisation’ - experiencing disappointment does not make you a disappointment!
Dart to the heart;
In it goes.
On it goes;
In and through.
Now it’s out,
Time to heal.
Mull and muse.
Express yourself so that
New meaning can emerge;
Then hope to soar again.