Two New Ways to Look at Your Emotions
If you are a new reader of my blog, you may notice that each month I write about the energy of the New Moon. Kabbalistically, the beginning of a new month is a powerful time, and thousands of years ago, the sages of Kabbalah understood the unique challenges and opportunities the calendar presents for each of us.
Next week, we welcome the month of Cancer, which is a month whose energy supports deeply felt emotions. Our emotions can push us toward our purpose, give us the motivation to accept risk as the price for great rewards and act as signposts warning us of dangers or pushing us toward blessings. All our emotional body is an incredibly sensitive, highly attuned instrument. What a gift, right?
Yes and no. We live in a universe of duality; everything comes with a positive side and a negative side. This is also true for emotions. Too often, we say things or take action from a certain emotional state, and in retrospect realize we shouldn’t have done or said anything of those things. This brings us to the challenge of this month: to take control of our emotions and use them for growth. Taking control of our emotions and not being controlled by them is how we ultimately gain the joy and fulfillment for which we came to this world.
But it isn’t just about feeling good all the time. Hiding from our emotions can be just as detrimental as being overcome by them, and even positive emotions can turn negative; curiosity becomes obsession, sadness turns into depression, love can turn to co-dependence. This is why this month, we use the positive energies of Cancer to reorient the way we relate to our emotions — beginning with seeing them in new ways. Here are two of my favorite recent findings on emotions and how we can shift our perspective of them.
Emotional Distress or Physical Discomfort?
Lisa Feldman Barrett, a psychology professor at Northeastern University, mapped facial expressions, scanned brains and analyzed hundreds of physiology studies to understand what emotions really are. Overwhelmingly, her research illustrated that while our emotions are very real, they are largely constructed by our brains. We have a default set of emotions like fear, excitement, and calm, but without context, we don’t know what to do next, which is where predictions come in — the guesses our brain makes about our present based on our past that help to inform us what to do next.
For example, if you walk into a bakery, you may, based on your past experience, predict the aroma of freshly baked cookies. If you’re right, the aroma of the cookies will validate your predictions, making your stomach grumble with hunger and creating feelings of happiness or nostalgic glee. This causes you to eat the cookie!
However, that same grumbling stomach in a different scenario would lead to a greatly different experience of emotions. Barrett gives the example of feeling your stomach grumble as you wait in a hospital for test results. Based on predictions, the news could be very bad, and that churning stomach will then create a sense of anxiety, fear, or sadness, causing you to tremble, nervously tap your foot, or cry. Same physical experience, drastically different emotional experience. Both based entirely on your brain predictions.
Positivity Isn’t Always Best
“In a survey I recently conducted with over 70,000 people, I found that a third of us — a third — either judge ourselves for having so-called ‘bad emotions,’ like sadness, anger or even grief or actively try to push aside these feelings. We do this not only to ourselves, but also to people we love, like our children — we may inadvertently shame them out of emotions seen as negative, jump to a solution, and fail to help them to see these emotions as inherently valuable.
Normal, natural emotions are now seen as good or bad. And being positive has become a new form of moral correctness. People with cancer are automatically told to just stay positive. Women, to stop being so angry. And the list goes on. It’s a tyranny. It’s a tyranny of positivity.”
This comes from Susan David, a Harvard Medical School psychologist who studies emotional agility — the ability to be with our wild range emotions as a compassionate, loving witness. She suggests journaling; writing about your emotions like no one is looking. Empty all of it onto the page and learn about it. Take note as things arise. I find journaling a powerful way to release emotions stored up in the mind and body from the past. We can unwittingly bury our feelings because they are so difficult to process. Our souls need to heal and expressing ourselves through the written word is a great way to begin letting go of guilt, sadness, and anger. Allow yourself to ask the pressing questions you don’t see the answers to; the path can become clear on the page in a gentle and peaceful way.
The gift of the month of Cancer is the ability to tap into our emotions and use them to spark spiritual growth and transformation. If you are stressed, sad, or fearful, notice what actions or thoughts are behind those emotions and look at ways that you can shift. If you are happy and in joy, notice what you’re thinking, saying, or doing that is creating that happiness and invest in that. Create new predictions, get into your body, and make space for all of your emotions. By doing so, you’ll be on your way to a lifelong friendship with your emotions and a steady ability to reconnect to the Light in each and every moment.
THOUGHT INTO ACTION
Become an observer of your emotions. Carry a journal with you this week and, as emotions arise, take a few minutes to write about what is coming up. What are the curves, contours, and textures of your emotions? What are the patterns, what is the history? What do you predict based on your feelings? What feeling is trying to get your attention? Objectively observing our emotions helps us to not be overcome or unconsciously driven by them, but to love them — and ourselves.