February Focus: Emotions are messages

Throughout February we will explore our emotions: what they are, how they serve us, and how we can improve our ability to respond to them in a helpful way.

Today we explore what are emotions.

Emotions are universal

No matter where you are from on the planet, you can recognise the facial expressions of emotions like happiness, anger, sadness, fear and interest.

That’s because every human being shares access to a common range of emotions – we’ve all felt angry, or sad, or shy or happy at some point in our lives.

Emotions are messages

These emotional responses have evolved through the generations to send us information that can help us respond to threats and opportunities. For example, disgust might protect us from rotten food, and fear might safeguard us from danger, while interest keeps us learning new skills. These emotions give us information to help us act or react – to keep us safe and to help us thrive.

Emotions are said to have three parts to them: physiological, psychological, and behavioural. For example, a fear of flying may see an increase in your heart rate and the production of cortisol, as well as psychological coping strategies, and safety focused behaviour like checking seat belts or airline reputation.

So emotions on a primitive level can be hugely beneficial for our physical and mental well being.

Emotions are only one part of the experience of feeling

The tricky part comes with the experience of feeling an emotion and responding to it.

The emotion arises depending on what you are paying attention to in the situation you are in, combined with your interpretation of what’s going on.

A useful pattern when it comes to managing emotions is to spot the emotion, be kindly curious about what’s happening, and then choose an appropriate response.

Yet what often happens is we miss some of the details around what’s happening, so we don’t see a full picture (an in-built bias of things we are comfortable with and things we are on alert for), and then we start evaluating the emotion, ascribing meanings and beliefs that may or may not be true. This is where the suffering and trauma can start.

For example, calling a colleague by the wrong name can evoke embarrassment which may see a downward gaze, blushing and a release of adrenalin caused by a perception of threat to their social acceptance. The person may start to catastrophise: “They must think I’m stupid. If I can’t even get their name right, why should they trust me in this role. Clearly I’m incompetent. I’ll never get anywhere in this company. Kiss any chance of promotion goodbye.”

What they maybe missed was the joy the colleague experienced from the social connection or the low importance they placed on a small blunder which was quickly forgotten.

We are not our emotions

We can get lost and overwhelmed by this spiral of personal beliefs and assumptions that have no evidence or connection to fact.

We can sometimes take on these feelings as being part of our identity: “I am angry” rather than “I feel angry”. But we are not our emotions. Emotions come and go like waves, and we can learn to observe them kindly and with curiosity and compassion, creating space to choose our responses.

“Between stimulus and response there is space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Viktor E. Frankl

Daily practice – self care

While self-care can be about bubble baths and Bridgerton, it’s also about attending to your space.

Take 15 minutes today to tidy up your work or creative space.

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