Your Emotions Are Valid, Your Stories Might Not Be
How to Develop a Truly Healthy Relationship to Your Emotions
"Fuck that stupid piece of shit, how could they possibly feel justified in the way they're acting right now? Unconscious hypocrite motherfucker, I can't believe how self-absorbed they are"
-Me, in a fit of self-righteous indignant rage, thinking about someone who I actually deeply love and care about.
There was an electrical current lighting up my nerves, all the way to the surface of my skin which felt like it was burning. I felt my teeth grinding under the force of my vice-clenched jaw, and the space in the middle of my chest felt like a black hole, imploding with its irresistible dark gravity.
I was fucking pissed.
I generally am able to keep myself composed, and pride myself in my ability to stay rational and communicate in a conscious, grounded way, even in the heat of being hurt or upset. It's a hard-earned and practiced skill that I cultivated over many years of trial-and-error. In this moment, it felt a lot more like error - a core wound was being pressed into, like a knife pressed and twisted into my deepest personal insecurity.
I was triggered. In full-on fight-or-flight mode. Even though I knew that emotions like this jacked up my adrenaline and would make me behave unconsciously, the voice in the back of my head trying to tell me that couldn't break through the roaring narrative coming from my hurt, anger, and fear.
Emotions like anger, fear, jealousy, hurt, and sadness are explicitly unpleasant - they physically create uncomfortable neurochemicals to sense something is wrong so that you can get to work on fixing it.
When you're in fight-or-flight mode, your body releases hormones that increase your blood sugar, send the blood away from your organs and into your limbs so you can fight or run away, and shuts down the conscious parts of your brain so you can rely on your animalistic survival instincts. Every part of your body is screaming "DO SOMETHING ABOUT THIS".
Because we're not actually fighting an animal or running away from danger, we come up with all kinds of coping mechanisms for our unpleasant emotions - the polarity that I tend to see is this:
On one end, people will bypass, or suppress their emotions, telling a story about how their feelings aren't valid, and try to psychologically trick themselves out of feeling a particular way. This can look like platitudes like "real men don't cry" (suppression), and "good vibes only" (bypassing). It can also look like reframing the situation as unimportant, and negotiating our way out of the emotion altogether.
On the other end of the spectrum, the emotion will be given ultimate importance, and we will create a narrative around why it's justified. Perhaps we will create a story about being a victim to rationalize our feelings of indignation and sadness, perhaps we will criticize and antagonize another person to duck out on the responsibility of how we contributed to a situation. Either way, we allow the emotions that we feel to dictate the narrative and interpretation of a particular situation, and it becomes hard-wired into our reality as a belief. We need the emotion to be real and justified to preserve our sense of the way we think the world works, so we create a story to fit that.
In both instances, we aren't allowing ourselves to learn from our emotional reactions - we are either invalidating them, or mistaking the emotion for reality itself.
Emotions are a Guidance System to Our Beliefs
When we are triggered by a situation and feel a strong emotional reaction, it says more about the way we're interpreting the world than it says about the world itself. If we suppress our emotional reactions, we won't be able to investigate the deeper beliefs that are subconsciously causing our outburst.
I used to shut down a lot every time I felt anger, feeling that it was an unproductive, unspiritual, and destructive emotion. I would immediately forgive, excuse, or give the benefit of the doubt to those I felt wronged by, and would try to move on without taking a moment to acknowledge what I was feeling.
What I didn't realize was that my anger was pointing to boundaries that I needed to communicate more, that my needs weren't being met and by invalidating the anger I felt, I was also invalidating my right to ask for my needs to be met. I would take on the blame myself, and eventually start to feel a subtle creeping resentment in my relationships.
This caused a massive challenge in connecting with others, because there was always a part of me that wasn't communicating authentically or honesty - I was hiding how I felt from myself, and therefore, not being genuine with the people in my life.
As I learned to feel into my anger and indignation instead of immediately dismiss it, I learned that those emotions were trying to show me where I needed to communicate more clearly, where I needed to set firmer boundaries, and where I needed to live more in alignment to my values.
The result of allowing myself to feel, and then dispassionately observe the roots of my emotions, I was able to deepen my understanding of what's important to me, how I want to show up in the world, and what I expect from other people in my relationships.
I'm still working on this, mind you, as my enraged inner narrative at the beginning of this article illustrated, sometimes my narrative gets the better of me.
Our Emotions About the Situation are NOT the Situation
In the thick of an emotional situation, we seldom take a step back to ask "why am I feeling this?"
The emotion in the moment seems like all there is, an overwhelming wave of sensation washing over you and influencing your words and behaviours immediately.
We don't see the world as it is, we see it as we are - and if we're in a state of rage, we'll only see the things in the world that make us angry.
The goal in this situation is to take a higher viewpoint, and separate the events that led up to your triggered emotion from the emotion itself. Describe the events in the circumstance in clear, objective, non-judgemental terms.
When observing the events that led up to your trigger, you can make sure you're not projecting an emotional interpretation by the following criteria - are you:
Antagonizing or blaming the other person?
Framing the situation in such that you're the victim of someone else's behaviours?
Describing emotions instead of factual events?
Accounting for both your behaviours and the other person's behaviours in the description?
Interpreting or assuming the intention of the other person's behaviour?
If you said yes to any of these questions, then try re-framing the description in a more dispassionate and objective way.
After the situation has been objectively described, what were the emotions you felt because of it? Again, identify this in clear emotional terms - "feeling attacked, or "feeling betrayed" aren't emotions, they're accusations. "Feeling hurt" or "feeling angry" are more appropriate, because it takes full ownership of the emotion without blame.
You can't identify the core beliefs, values, or needs that are at the root of an emotional experience if you blame another person for making you feel that way. By taking ownership of your emotional state, you can take responsibility for identifying what your own beliefs are that caused them.
If I'm angry, for example, it might be because I value honesty, and someone lied to me; how I would internally interpret and communicate my anger then would be:
"I feel angry because you didn't express your true feelings to me. I need to know information is not being withheld from me in relationships in order to trust the people in my life, and I want to feel like I can trust you".
If I allowed my anger to write the narrative and interpret the situation for me, I might say something like "You lied to me, just like everyone lies about everything! I knew I couldn't trust you, you were never genuine with me in the first place, everything you've ever told me was a lie!"
I'm making generalizations and interpreting the whole of my reality to fit the narrative of this particular emotion - the whole world now is justifying the anger and hurt that I feel, as I bend my perception to fit this model of emotion.
Do you see how that's not exactly productive? Not only am I antagonizing the other person in the situation, but I'm also taking an isolated incident of catching someone in a lie, and forming a belief around it, making it harder for me to trust people in the future.
Your emotion of anger is valid in this situation, because you had a boundary crossed, or an unmet need that should be addressed. Your story about the situation that you made up in an emotional state is not valid, because it fails to witness the objective truth about the situation.
If you are able to objectively view the events, embrace your emotion without blame or suppression, and then identify your beliefs or unmet needs, you will be able to not only handle the situation more fruitfully, but also deepen your understanding of who you are.
Healing the Inner Split
In order to really grow and integrate into the people we want to be, we have to experience and investigate the emotions that we don't want to feel. We have to accept that even as a person who values higher spiritual principles, we still get angry and sad, and should embrace that to understand why. We have to own the fact that we have attachments and preferences, and that even if we view ourselves as strong, proud, and masculine, it's human and normal to feel a sense of loss and sadness and not suppress those emotions.
Anything that we suppress, we are afraid of feeling, and will subconsciously be running away from experiences that might bring those feelings up for us. This will block us from intimacy, from speaking our truths, running from the emotional repercussions of being authentic all the time.
In order to have a truly healthy relationship with our emotions, we need to neither suppress them, nor confuse them for the ultimate truth of our reality. We need to hear them out and ask them what they're trying to teach us, and listen carefully to the hidden lessons they have for us.
Our emotions guide us to a deeper understanding of our needs, values, and boundaries, but are not the end-all-be-all of how we should live our lives. Respect and validate them, but don't give them more power than they have - you have the capacity for higher consciousness, so embrace it.
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