emotion: 1. agitation of the passions or sensibilities often involving physiological changes. 2. Any strong feeling as of joy, sorrow, reverence, hate, or love arising subjectively rather than through conscious mental effort.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language
Lots of us have been taught to trust our feelings.
Most people seem to believe that we can’t have good mental health if we don’t welcome all of our emotions, accept them as an essential and valuable part of who we are, and express them openly and often.
The trouble is that our emotions—un-examined—can lead us to think and behave in erroneous ways.
Our emotions can be wrong—if we interpret them as good explanations for reality in the outside world.
Some people’s emotions are almost always wrong.
Just after writing the sentence above, I took a coffee break and caught a couple of stories on CNN. The first story was about twin boys joined at the tops of their heads and the magnificent surgery that separated them. CNN didn’t hurry the story, and viewers got to see the doctors crowded over the two boys when they were still joined at the crown of their heads, looking peaceful in their anesthetized states, their blond hair swirled together as one. Then we saw some of the operation, which took many hours. We saw the young parents waiting quietly for the doctors’ report. Finally we saw the two boys in the recovery room, separated now, their heads heavily bandaged. Everyone in the hospital scene was joyful. After the operation, the father greeted one son with, “Hello, my boy.” Up until that moment he had greeted his sons with, “Hello, boys.” Even the CNN reporter looked ecstatic, smiling beautifully, obviously glad to be sharing this marvelous story.
I realized that I was having an emotional response. I was moved. I felt a tug in my gut, the visceral feeling we have when emotions rise within our bodies, uninvited. OK, I thought, as suspicious as I am of emotional responses, I can trust this emotion. The human beings I had just observed are magnificent. They have trained for many years for this moment and—in partnership with the brave parents—they just gave two children a chance at a normal life. I can appreciate all of that objectively, without emotion, but the emotional feeling in my body helped me feel connected to everyone in the story, connected in love.
Then, as if I needed another lesson in feelings, the next news story interviewed an 11 year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome telling how he is bullied frequently by other children. They call him cruel names and ostracize him. His mother invites lots of boys to his birthday party each year, but only three usually show up. This year some cops and firefighters found out about the situation and showed up at his birthday party with a bunch of their sons and a firetruck. When the CNN reporter asked one of the firefighters why he was doing this, he couldn’t talk without choking up, so emotional that he couldn’t respond. The last picture we saw was a large group of boys and men at the boy’s birthday party.
I found myself tearing up! What the hell! What’s my body doing?
I like to think of myself as cool and objective. Still, I felt an emotional connection with that boy and the men who responded with great generosity. It was a connection, too, with my own generosity.
I trust my emotional response to both of these stories because I didn’t feel disturbed and because my feelings aligned with my values. I would have been glad about these stories even if I had no emotional response. In the moment, watching these human stories consciously, I can love what these people are doing. My feelings aligned with my intellect, so I trust them.
What goes wrong with emotions
So, why am I so suspicious of your feelings (and mine sometimes)?
It’s because our feelings, arising out of our subconscious, often betray us. Lots of emotional responses are always wrong. Here are some emotions that people feel routinely that, if held for more than a moment, become bad explanations for reality:
Remember, these and other feelings rise in the body uninvited. We can’t help it: emotions insist; they have their own roots in our personal history, part of a very patterned response to certain elements of our life.
These negative feelings can be immediately unmasked and released if we have erased our self-pity. If you’re a warrior who has polished your spirit, a man or woman who takes responsibility for your feelings and no longer feels sorry for yourself, you don’t have much trouble with these emotions. You see them appear, recognize them as ghosts from your past life, and let them go before they can defend themselves with some false story of victim-hood.
But most people haven’t thought about their self-pity, let alone pursued the warrior task of erasing it.
Self-pity is always announced by negative emotions.
A wife says to her husband on the way home from a social occasion with friends, “You talked too much tonight with our friends. Way too much. You seemed like you wanted to dominate everybody with your political arguments.”
His self-importance pricked, “Who says I talked too much?”
“I say you talked too much. You didn’t seem interested in what anybody else had to say, and sometimes you overrode people when they tried to get their view expressed.”
Angry now, “I’m sick of your critiques. I don’t need you to grade me on how I talk to other people.”
“I’m just giving you some feedback. Can’t you discuss anything without getting angry?”
His voice strained now, “I’ve got good reason to be angry. It pisses me off that you disapprove of everything I do. Anybody would be irritated with this constant stream of bullshit that comes out of your mouth ever since we got married. You’ve always made me feel bad with your disapproval. There’s something sick in you that likes to make me unhappy.”
And so on, emotions rising up, creating bad explanations, and demanding retribution, the sad victim story repeated every day all over the earth.
Those expressing their negative feelings are profoundly convinced that their feelings have been created by someone else, who must be punished somehow in order for justice to be done.
But emotions that seem positive, like joy, can also lie to us.
I watched supporters cheer Trump at a recent political rally. As he spoke about jailing his opponent, exuberant shouts of approval arose from the crowd, many waving their extended arms rhythmically in adulation as if praising Jesus at a revival meeting, a few joyful followers yelling, “Kill her!” When joy arises out of anger and celebrates violence, it cannot be trusted.
In the new and highly popular extreme fighting, fans scream with joy when their favorite smashes his opponent into a bloody and bruised ruin.
The fight fans and the Trump crowds trust their joyful emotions, sure that their visceral responses tell them the rock solid truth.
I don’t trust the emotions of a mob. Or anybody else.
What to do with feelings
If you recognize that your emotions are creating some bad outcomes in your life, there is a path of learning that can set you free:
1. Respect your emotions as valuable signals that something important is happening. These signals register in the body and represent subconscious responses to what is going on in the moment. Often these visceral twinges in our body signal that there is something to learn in the moment, something we have not yet brought to full consciousness.
2. Avoid responding immediately to any emotion that disturbs you. Instead, identify the feeling and try to figure out what is happening. My joy at seeing human kindness in action with the boy who has Asperger’s did not disturb me. This one’s easy: I’m feeling joy because I have moved into a state of empathy with him. I’ve connected unconsciously with my own kindness.
But the husband who feels angry when his wife says he has talked too much at the social gathering must examine his agitated emotion if he is to learn anything about his self-pity and victim-hood. He must ask himself what is going on that he feels so angry. He will see that he resents his wife and her feedback to him. He will have to listen and consider what she said. He will have to review how he behaved with his friends. How much did he talk? Did he override people when they offered their views? If he can take a breath and calm down, he might say to his wife, “I don’t want to talk too much. Tell me more about what you observed as I was talking.” Examining your emotions takes some guts.
3. Tackle your self-pity.
I remember a former work colleague who used to tell us that her emotions were always just below the surface, ready to be played like a piano in any moment. She often cried at work, sometimes out of joy, tears exploding even at a memory of something tender or valuable in her life. She sometimes cried at team meetings when she was challenged by colleagues, artistically gaining sympathy.
She used her sorrowful emotions like a baton to direct the responses of the rest of us.
Actually, she was a master of manipulation when she felt sorry for herself, which was regularly. She disguised her self-pity as emotional sensitivity. And she never tackled her self-pity, a task that would have required her to mistrust and examine her emotions. Instead she trusted her feelings completely as she created an endless series of bad explanations for what was going on in her life when challenges presented themselves.
Anger, resentment, irritation, and impatience are all emotional expressions of self-pity, disguised as self-importance. These powerful feelings signal that we reject what is happening in the moment. We incorrectly interpret these feelings to be evidence that somebody is doing something to us. They represent a humbling expression of our vulnerability and our unaddressed learning issue, which is our inability to take responsibility for our own emotions.
We can tackle our self-pity by examining our strongest disturbing emotions when they arise. If we have the courage, we will admit to feeling sorry for ourselves. If we have the courage, we will begin to see the pattern of victim stories we cook up to protect our egos. If we have the courage, we come to understand that our self-pity is choking off the learning that could set us free.
If we have the courage, we will see that our most uncomfortable feelings are our potential demanding attention.
Polishing our warrior spirit
Our spirit is our greatest asset. A warrior’s spirit is free of self-pity and victim-hood, free of ego, free of the painful emotional history that people drag around their entire lives.
For a warrior, life is a magnificent mystery to be explored.
Warrior travelers traverse a loving path, masters of their feelings.
Warriors never stop polishing their spirits.