Figuring out your emotions
They are sitting, silently staring at one another, and the tension is visibly rising in the room. She is afraid of his anger, and he is angry at her fear. Unfortunately, they have each forgotten all about themselves in their focus upon the other person. In our confusion, it’s so easy to lose track of ourselves when we become overwhelmed by such strong feelings.
This is why we look outside ourselves at what troubles us, rather than inward to see why we are troubled. But it’s important to understand that when our feelings are all stirred up, it’s just the right time to pause and consider what it is within us that is angered – or frightened – and why. Blaming someone else for how we feel only perpetuates, even escalates the tension; considering how we feel, on the other hand, is the necessary first step toward relaxing and resolving our upset.
Last month I wrote about our feelings as though they were the gauges on the dashboard of our car. They indicate what’s going on under the hood as they show a gradual change from calm to overwhelm, when the needle goes into the red zone and an idiot light goes off. A look at how we experience the three fundamental feelings of anger, fear and sadness will help us see how all this works.
For example, as my daughter leaves the house for a walk I might say something about how much I care about her. After a while, if she has not yet returned, my caring grows into concern; and later – if she still has not returned and my concern has deepened into outright worry – I know that I must go out looking for her. If I do not act, anxiety might likely begin to descend and overwhelm me, which is when the idiot light goes off.
Our fear warns us of a future that seems increasingly dangerous. Our sadness, on the other hand, usually speaks of losses experienced in the past, and of the ways in which we have been diminished by having to let go of something special. And our anger indicates our sense of right and wrong in the present. What angers us in the moment is something that we consider morally wrong. In every case, watching the rising level of emotional intensity to decide the right time for action is essential to living life well.
Living life well does not mean living with convenience and comfort, though that is usually what we would like. In fact, desire for the comfort zone often leads us in the opposite direction, into ignoring the things that trouble us rather than addressing them. Repressed in this way, they will get us into increasing trouble, because we will have given up managing our feelings and then begin to react impulsively instead.
On the other hand, learning why we feel the way we do is the best way to learn how best to live our lives. If he realizes that his anger with her fear has to do with his own frustrated desire for connection, and if she understands that her fear of his anger is about her own apprehension of impending danger, they can begin to become consciously responsible for their feelings – and their behavior – rather than unconsciously reactive.
The healthy life is one that leaves nothing out, not even the things that make us feel sad, frightened or angry. It helps to keep our responses to the events of life within a normal mood range, without going into the red zone at either end. This will allow us to enjoy a good life, and not become upset by sudden difficulties. Our regrets, concerns, and annoyances about the things that trouble us take place within us exactly where we also enjoy the pleasures of life. As my daughter once said – as a very small child so many years ago – “If I can’t cry, I can’t laugh.”
The food that we taste, the music that we hear, the hand that we feel in ours – these sensations arouse the sort of feelings within that nourish us. Savoring them gives us reason for being alive, and the stability we need to enter into the occasional, troubling storm.
Jim Shere is a local writer with a private practice as a counselor in Glen Ellen. You are invited to explore his website at jimshere.com, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org