Mastering emotions

emotions“Everyone feels benevolent if nothing happens to be annoying him {or her} at the moment.” -CS Lewis


In a calm, quiet place where nothing provokes, a person may feel a hint of the pure flame that burns inside each of us: an unflickering, satisfied benevolence. But when a bird poops on this person’s head, their gentle inner flame– a peace-invoking totem of the best we humans have to offer– rages into a burgundy bonfire that causes that plop of shit to sizzle. Benevolence instantly shifts to a desire to kick that bird. Any bird. And to watch the feathers fly.

Aggravating triggers abound and it’s very, very easy to let them pop us into turmoil. The likelihood that we’re in pushed-button mode more often than gentle-calm mode is quite good (since sleeping doesn’t count). So which is the real version of a person? Do we really have a “best self” deep down inside, or is that just some Santa Clause level hogwash?

Well, I think we definitely do host a “best self.” If I’m right, what’s piled on top of it? Why doesn’t it wrestle its way out from under our reactive emotions? We’re humans in 2018, for goodness sake… why the hell aren’t we more freaking sophisticated!?

The above words are the thoughts this article conjured for me:

A new way to look at emotions and how to master yours” by David Robson

The following bullet points are snippets from that article that might be fun to skim:

  • SUMMARY of article:
    • Our emotions are learned, not programmed.
    • It’s ideal to identify nuanced emotions, using the physical sensations as relating to the unique environmental context in which they occur, in more granular terms (ex. “defeated” rather than “sad”).
    • A more insightful relationship between our emotions and our bodies can allow us to keep our hands on the wheel when emotions try to take hold.
    • How? Jump to this bullet point below.
  • “the sensations of anger, anxiety, hunger, or illness are not nearly as distinct as we assume”
  • Recognizing this may help us lead a calmer life
  • Ideas explored in book by Lisa Feldman Barrett, psychologist at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, called How Emotions Are Made.
  • Darwin’s well-accepted theory is that “we display emotion “fingerprints”. This theory suggested that each emotion creates a specific combination of facial expression, body language, and other physiological cues such as heart rate or sweaty palms.”
  • But, it’s likely not that clean cut!
    • “Each emotion may be represented by a whole range of reactions in the brain and the body, and there is a huge amount of overlap between each one.”
    • “….the way we interpret our body’s signals … depends entirely on context and circumstance, and it can be easily shaped by our expectations.”
  • Context comes into play when we’re interpreting our emotions. Your brain constructs your experiences.
    • Ex. You’re on a first date and you feel lightheaded and slightly nauseous. While you’re actually coming down with the flu, you’ll likely assume you’re falling in love.
    • Ex. You’re at a “gross foods party,” where you’re served pizza dappled with green food coloring to make it look moldy and pureed food served in a clean diaper. The food is delicious, but your brain has used context cues to decide it’s toxic, disgusting and potentially life threatening. You force yourself to taste it, eventually get beyond the revolting visuals and ask for seconds.
  • Emotions are constructs of the brain, but may also be constructs of society.
    • “Particular concepts like ‘anger’ or ‘disgust’ are not genetically pre-determined.”
    • What does determine our relationship with our emotions? “Our parents and friends, TV and books”
    • “Other cultures can and do make other kinds of meaning from the same sensory input.”
      • Darwin “argued that emotions like ‘anger’ and ‘disgust’ are universally expressed and recognised by everyone across the globe.”
      • But Barrett found something different!
        • Himba people from Namibia: whereas a wide-eyed stare might be identified as “fearful” by Westerners, the Himba saw it merely as a “looking face”.
        • Utka Eskimos: “no clearly defined concept of anger”
        • Tahitians: do not “share our concept of sadness.”
        • Ancient Greeks and Romans: “did not seem to smile spontaneously with big broad grins,” which suggests “their expressions of pleasure and positive feelings could have been quite different from ours. (Apparently, the word smile does not even exist in Latin.)”
          • “It appears that the smiles we recognise today – broad, toothy, and with crinkling at the eyes – only became more common in the 18th Century, as dentistry became more accessible.”

How about some action steps!

  • “Barrett’s book suggests some ways that we could all ride the tides of our emotions a little more wisely.”
    • If “hunger, fatigue, or illness, all produce the same signals as emotions like anger, anxiety, sadness, or anxiety,” this “emphasises the importance of looking after your body as a way to stabilise your mood.”
      • Ex. healthy diet, regular exercise and massage.
    • Mindfulness meditation can help your rational mind interpret your body’s signals.
      • “Many things that seem unrelated to emotion actually have a profound impact on how you feel, because of the porous boundary between the social and the physical.”
    • A “good emotion vocabulary” helps a person discern the nuances of their emotions. “Rather than simply describing yourself as happy, for instance, you may distinguish whether you are “blissful” or “inspired”; rather than just feeling “sad”, you might say you are “dejected” or “disappointed”.
      • A better grasp on the context of your emotions might help “you to savour your pleasure with new relish, or, conversely, to reframe your unhappiness so that it no longer feels so all-encompassing. It may even cause you to reconsider the source of your discomfort, and remind you of ways that you have righted your mood in the past.”
    • Practice!
      • “…there are many ways to learn new emotion concepts, such as reading widely or watching stimulating films.”
      • “You could also try out new experiences, pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and then observe how it makes you feel.”
      • “Try on new perspectives like you try on new clothing,” she says. “Just like painters learn to see fine distinctions in colours, and wine lovers develop their palettes to experience tastes that non-experts cannot, you can practise [emotion] categorising like any other skill.”
      • Explore “terms from other languages. “Each word is another invitation to construct your feelings in new ways.”
        • Schadenfreude: “encapsulates the bitter-sweet feelings that we may feel at another’s misfortune.”
        • Gezellig: “the Dutch ‘feeling of togetherness’
        • Age-otori: a Japanese word, which describes “the feeling of looking worse after a haircut”
        • Litost: “from Czech culture, which refers to “the torment over one’s misery combined with the desire for revenge”.
  • “People with greater “emotion granularity” (as Barrett calls it) tend to do better at school, drink less and recover from a stressful situation more quickly. They also seem to be in better health: they visit doctor less frequently, take less medication and are less likely to be hospitalised for illness.”
  • The concepts introduced in this article are meant for long-term work.
    • “Barrett recognises that these steps may seem a little simplistic for someone in the midst of an emotional crisis, and she doesn’t claim that they are an immediate solution to any problem. “Can you snap your fingers and change your feelings at will, like changing your clothes?” she writes. “Not really. Even though you construct your emotional experiences, they can still bowl you over in the moment. However, you can take steps now to influence your future emotional experiences, to sculpt who you will be tomorrow.”

Photo credit: paintings by Alexej von Jawlensky, clockwise from top right: Seated Woman, 1909; Portrait of the Dancer Aleksandr Sakharov, 1909; Portrait of a Girl, 1909; Girl with red ribbon, 1911

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: