February focus: Peeling the onion

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.

Last week we discussed how emotions are data giving us clues about things that matter to us. And we started to explore how to recognise your emotions and regard them with kindly observation – to practice creating some distance in order to take the heat out of them.

The next step is to accept your emotions as they are, without judgement. This takes quite a bit of practice, so for the next week or so, we are going to dig into the emotions themselves and look at what sort of messages each emotion might be sending, how emotions are layered and interconnected, and how taking some perspective on your emotions might help you understand a different point of view. This can be helpful in learning to accept your emotions – a necessary step for moving beyond them.

Emotions show up with company

Emotions rarely show up on their own. You might notice that you feel anger but start to unravel how you’re feeling and you will likely reveal feelings of hurt, guilt, shame or helplessness – or a raft of others. Without stopping to reflect on your emotions, your feelings of anger might disguise all these others and prevent you from getting to the heart of what’s happening for you.

For example, during lockdown with the family at home 24 hours a day, I’ve noticed myself getting angry about dishes left beside the sink, instead of being placed inside the dishwasher. I don’t like to see dirty dishes. I actually feel quite strongly about cleanliness in the kitchen. So when I come into the kitchen to find dishes in the sink or on the countertop, I find myself getting angry. Angry that my repeated (polite!) requests to put the dishes in the dishwasher have been once again ignored. Disgusted that dirty dishes are there with bacteria multiplying. And hurt that my wishes have been ignored.

This can quickly turn into a family argument because I’m feeling disrespected and that my preferences don’t matter. And I of course feel justified to be angry because I’m right that dishes shouldn’t be left to pile up, but should be put in the machine straight away – am I not?!

Of course my family sees it differently. “What’s the big deal about doing it once a day after dinner? We get round to it sooner or later. Anyway, most of the time we do remember…”

And so I notice all these feelings of anger, hurt, disgust, disrespect and can see that I’m taking personally something isn’t actually an attack on me. It’s just a different point of view about kitchen cleanliness and routines. Then I notice that under all of this perhaps is just me not getting my own way about how I want the household to run.

So now, when I notice the stray dish, I can take a deep breath and make a choice. I can put the dish in the dishwasher myself. I can gently remind my family that I prefer, for health reasons, to keep the kitchen clean and ask them to try to respect my wishes. And I can remember that those dishes are not left there as a personal attack on me – in fact I doubt the kids think of me at all when dealing with their dishes! And the anger or disgust might pop up when I see the mess – but I have some distance to notice the message, accept it and choose my response.

And of course you can take all of this a step further, recognising that our perceptions of events (such as dishes left by a sink) can be influenced by how we feel about other aspects of our day or our life – tiredness, a difficult work day, illness, pressure and so on.

Practice: Peel that onion

Look back at some of the emotions you journaled about last week – or think about a strong reaction you had today. Describe the emotion you noticed and consider what might have triggered it. Then reflect on what other underlying emotions might also be there.

Daily practice: Meditation

Find a comfortable sitting position and take a few deep breaths. Say aloud:

  • I have a body and sensations, but I am not my body and sensations.
  • I have feelings and emotions, but I am not my feelings and emotions.
  • I have a mind and thoughts, but I am not my mind and thoughts.
  • I am what remains, a centre of awareness, an observer of all these thoughts, emotions, feelings, and sensations.

At the end, give yourself a few moments, then take a breath and stand.

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