Today’s post is from a series I call “The 10 Most Useful Facts about Emotions”. I posted an earlier version of this series when I launched DrTimCavell.com (September, 2014). I thought it wise to revisit these facts. I wrote this for a forthcoming book about the emotional hazards of parenting, but these 10 facts can be used to understand the emotional hazards of any relationship.
#1: Emotions Contain Information We Can Use
The notion that emotions contain useful information might seem obvious, but for me it’s like a well-kept secret. We might agree that fear “tells” a dad it’s dangerous for his 6-year-old to run through a parking lot or that anger “tells” a mom it’s wrong for her 15-year-old to call her a bitch. But not all parenting situations carry such clear emotional messages. It’s more common to have a bad interaction with our child and feel a nasty, vague mix of emotion and confusion. We know something is off-kilter, but we don’t know what or why. If there is information in what we’re feeling, we’re not inclined to go after it; instead, we’d want end to our confusion and stop the bad feelings. So we are more likely to make quick judgments about what’s wrong or what we need to do next as parents. We seldom linger and learn from our feelings.
But emotions actually serve a purpose, and it’s helpful to consider why a particular set of emotions is stirring around inside us. This might seem silly to those parents who struggle with serious symptoms of anxiety or depression, but the scientific evidence here is quite solid.
Try this brief exercise. Close your eyes, take a few long, slow breaths, and try to remember a specific parenting event, something that happened and has stayed with you because it still hurts or has left “a bad taste”. Try to see the entire event with your mind’s eye: Picture where it occurred, who was there, and what you and others were wearing. Pay attention to whatever images pop into your mind as you recall the event. When you’re ready to re-feel the emotions of that event (and not before), put yourself back in the middle of all that you’re remembering. Try to linger and wait for what happens next. There’s no need to do anything else—just sit and wait for feelings to arrive.
This is kind of like sticking your hand in a bucket of ice water to see how it feels, except that in this exercise the “bucket” holds memories and emotions. Few would enjoy leaving their hand in ice water and the natural tendency is to yank it out quickly. But we all have the capacity to leave our hand in the bucket and experience something very different from a quick dip. The same is true for a bucket of memory-driven images and emotions; if we linger long enough, we’ll have an experience that is different from a memory that arrives but is quickly suppressed or avoided. Dipping into emotions is also different from a long, unproductive attempt to analyze and re-analyze the painful events of the past. That’s called mental rumination and it’s a common feature of depression.
So why should we take time to experience uncomfortable feelings? I offer it because it can give you a glimpse into something profound. It’s the well-kept secret I mentioned earlier.
In our culture, the tendency to avoid bad feelings is deeply ingrained. The notion that we can sit with emotions and learn from them is seldom appreciated and rarely practiced. We generally bypass the many chances we have to learn from our feelings. Instead, we chase after short-term escapes from discomfort. As a result, the option of actually feeling our feelings is neither practiced nor developed. Over time, we forget that it’s even an option. So if you do the exercise as intended, you will have taken an important first step. You will have begun a process that could change the way you manage emotions and change the way you manage relationships, including the relationships you have with your children.
Of course, it’s not easy to lean into emotions. We’re programmed to move toward things that are appealing and away from things that are unpleasant. Culture and “common sense” also tell us to avoid bad feelings, and entire industries are based on our tendency to pay good money to avoid feeling bad or uncomfortable. Yes, the addictive use of alcohol, tobacco, drugs, gambling, food, or pornography can provide a temporary escape from bad feelings, but this is fool’s gold—a short-term fix with damaging, long-term consequences.
It’s important to know that the information carried by our emotions is often vague, frequently jumbled, and sometimes misleading. Small wonder we often bypass it! Emotions are seldom a sufficient basis for action or making important decisions. It’s also common to have, not one feeling, but a mix of feelings. So how are we to use this? Is it worth our time to lean into it?
Feelings don’t provide deep wisdom, detailed plans, or the ability to know the future. Feelings are simply nudges or urges. That’s it. Nothing else. Emotions can arrive as whispered suggestions or screaming exhortations for us to move in a particular direction. Run! Hide! Attack! Stop! Give up! Wait! We won’t have much more information than that.
But if we pay attention to the information contained in our emotions, we can use it to our advantage. Achieving emotional clarity will require using these steps.
The first is the hardest. It’s simply to feel our feelings. It’s hardest because if our habit is to avoid anxiety and discomfort, we will have no idea how long painful emotions last. We’ll tend to believe they will last indefinitely; hence our need to escape. But if we trust our biology and ride the wave of emotions, we will feel them getting stronger and we will feel them pass.
The next step, once we’ve made contact with our feelings, is to pull back slightly and make note of where our emotions want us to go. We need just a bit of wiggle room, a small gap between us and our feelings, to gain this kind of emotional clarity. Without that gap, we might move too quickly and unwisely, escaping and not learning from bad feelings.
The final step is a bit odd but bear with me. When we take time to lean into our emotions, we usually find that the first feeling is not the only feeling. This is a critical part of emotional clarity. Emotions are like geological strata, stacked in layers, one on top of the other. If we don’t take the time to feel our feelings, we will only experience the one that sits on top. It could be anger or fear or shock. We’ll get a brief taste of that emotion and then we’re off, acting with limited emotional clarity. We’ll move too quickly to end that feeling, and it will all seem fairly logical: When I feel x, I must to do y.
We act more wisely when we take the time to discover the other emotions hanging around. For example, anger could be followed by hurt, which might then be followed by sadness or disappointment. We’ll not know any of this if we bail too quickly. We won’t be using emotions; emotions will be using us.
So here’s the deal: If emotion information is simply a nudge or a direction for us to go, we should be aware of all the nudges before we choose a course of action. What we do when nudged by sadness or disappointment is different from what we do when nudged by hurt or rage. Our ability to act wisely will be greatly aided if we can first gain emotional clarity.
Consider this example. It’s raining badly and I’m worried about driving. If I take time to feel my emotions, I could learn that I’m scared for my safety but also feeling anxious and guilty about possibly missing work. I would recognize these competing nudges before making a choice about what to do. I could take the busy highway or I could stay home and guarantee my safety (but miss work). Or I could choose to stay off the crowded highway, finding a route that is less congested even if it’s not quick.
When we don’t spend time with our feelings, our behavioral choices shrink dramatically. That’s true for many areas of life, parenting included. Instead of doing what is reasonable or what is healthy or what is wise, our only option is what our emotions “allow” us to do. With the freedom to feel comes the freedom to act wisely.