What We Get Really Wrong About Our Emotions and How to Change It

Most of us have a lot of room for improvement with our emotional life. Emotions are complicated, most of us were never really taught how to have an optimal relationship with our emotions and yet they are vitally important for creating the life we want. Think back to the mind model, it’s your emotions that fuel your action, inaction, decisions and behaviors.

The way we tend to think about our feelings is that they are “positive” or “negative.” Productive, motivated, comfort, courage, authentic, optimistic, grateful and responsible are thought of as positive. While fear, stress, discomfort, jealousy, pain and deprived are viewed as negative. Why? Why are some of these “good” and some of them “bad?” What I noticed with myself in the past and I see now with my clients is two things:

1. “Negative” emotions are labeled as negative because they hold them back from taking action or drive undesired action, ultimately not getting desired results. They are perceived as obstacles in the way of getting what they want.

2. They don’t want to physically experience these emotions in their body because they aren’t pleasant. The sensations that accompany them aren’t desirable or as desirable as other emotions and they haven’t developed the skill of processing their feelings. Emotions start in our brain, the thoughts in our mind create the emotional vibrations we experience in our body. Nothing means anything until our thoughts make it mean something, it’s the meaning we assign to circumstances that make us feel something. Different feelings we have also feel different. Fear and nervous show up physically very differently than bored or relaxed in our body.

USEFUL VS. NOT USEFUL EMOTION FILTER

This perception of an emotion as positive or negative often happens automatically and subconsciously. You begin to for example feel fear and instantly judge that as negative. When you change the way you think about your emotions, evaluating them as useful or not useful rather than positive or negative, it changes your relationship with them and can impact your life in a big way.

Pain & Discomfort

“Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.” – Susan David

When we think thoughts that generate feelings of pain or discomfort we may experience sensations in the body like an aching, a heaviness or bad feeling in your gut. Pain and discomfort sure as shit don’t feel great but they are incredibly useful. It’s a sucky reality, but it’s true. You don’t grow, change and evolve without feeling uncomfortable. Experiencing discomfort isn’t going to feel great in your body, but it’s useful because it means you are expanding. If you let it stop you from moving forward in your life that’s when it’s not useful. When you become aware you are feeling the discomfort and accept how it physically feels in your body you can decide what you are going to make it mean. If you ask yourself what goals do I have or what do I want to create in my life, there is a good chance it’s going to require discomfort. You can start to welcome its presence knowing the feeling means you are taking action that isn’t familiar to you but will help you go where you want to go.

Think about pain, what if you never felt any pain in your life what kind of person would you be today? What wisdom, growth and experience would you lack? Without pain you wouldn’t grow. Emotions that feel good wouldn’t exist without the ones that don’t feel good. Without pain you wouldn’t even know true joy in your life. They must coexist to exist. You don’t have to love that life works this way, but you do have to accept it. Another way to filter emotions is gauging whether an emotion is constructive or destructive. Is pain destructive if you wallow in it day after day, repeating a cycle of hurtful thoughts to yourself, just sitting in blame and resistance? Yes, not useful. If you allow yourself to experience it and process it but seek the growth and learning in it, let it teach you and change you, but not hold you captive it becomes constructive. It serves a purpose in the bigger picture of your life. You are the one who decides if the pain becomes constructive or destructive, you are always creating your emotional life with how you choose to think about it.


Let’s explore a few more emotions…

Fear

“Hello fear, thank you for being here. You’re my indication that I’m doing what I need to do.” – Cheryl Strayed

Fear is one of the emotions that hold us back the most.  At the Brave Magic weekend retreat I spent with her, Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love and Big Magic, taught me how to have a different relationship with my fear. When you feel fear it doesn’t mean that something has gone wrong, it can signify that you are about to do something so damn amazing. You are pushing boundaries and doing something new. She asked us, “Imagine if you never felt fear, what would your life be like?” Small. It would be really small, I would always be playing it safe.

When you allow yourself to feel the fear you can ask it what it’s trying to tell you. That’s what creating a relationship with your emotions is, communication. Instead of resisting, running or escaping it’s listening and have a conversation, emotions are messengers. What do I need to be aware of? Are you useful? Could you be useful? Let’s chat about it.

Your primitive brain is wired to feel fear to keep you alive, but it most often doesn’t serve you in our modern world. We aren’t constantly “in danger” the way our ancestors were, but it doesn’t quite know the difference, it’s still programmed the exact same way. Are you in danger or is fear being a bit dramatic, just doing what it usually does in the brain? Is fear actually just a good useful sign you are doing exactly what you need to do? Fear doesn’t have to be a destructive emotion that stops you from becoming who you were meant to become.

When you feel the fear and decide to take the action anyway that’s courageous. Perceived as a positive emotion, yet courage doesn’t necessarily feel fantastic in your body. When I think about the sensations in my body when I’m feeling courageous my heart is beating a bit faster, I’m more rigid and intense. I certainly don’t feel soft, light and at ease. Is it useful? Absolutely. Useful feelings that serve you don’t always feel great, whether it’s fear or courage. That’s why developing the skill of simply being able to process whatever “vibration” or feeling that is there is imperative without making it mean that this emotion is “bad” because it doesn’t feel super great. Most of us resist our emotions in more ways then we realize with things like eating, shopping, working, netflixing, instagramming, or sleeping. A lot more escaping and buffering than feeling.


Indulgent Emotions

“Worry pretends to be necessary but serves no useful purpose.” – Eckart Tolle

Overwhelm, blame, pity, confusion, doubt, comfort, hate, shame and worry are some examples of indulgent emotions. Indulgent emotions do not serve you in anyway, but they can feel good to indulge in, they can provide temporary relief, which is why we indulge in them. These type of emotions pretend to be necessary, they pretend to be important. We often “indulge” in these feelings so that we don’t have to feel other emotions that are “worse.” It’s easier to be in confusion not taking action, not making a decision, then to make a choice that makes us feel fear right? It’s easier to say you are confused then, “I’m afraid of doing that. I’m afraid of failing.” That’s exactly where one of my clients was, swimming in an indulgent pool of confusion. I asked her to humor me, “What if you did know what you needed to do to figure this out, what would the steps be, take a guess.” Sure enough she had plenty of answers. What became clear is those actions felt uncomfortable, those actions terrified her, that’s why she wanted to stay in the pool with confusion. Once she let her fear come to the surface to be processed and worked through then she could get to the place of empowerment, hiding behind confusion served no purpose. If you spend a lot of time indulging in emotions that don’t serve you it’s going to cost you, you’re going to have results in your life that you don’t want. You know you are indulging in an emotion when there is no growth, when it keeps you stuck.

Comfort can be another indulgent emotion. Unlike discomfort, it feels good in the body, it feels warm and fuzzy. There are times feeling comfort supports the place you want to be in in your life, but there are many times it doesn’t. If you want to switch careers or set a big goal comfort isn’t going to be useful to you. 

“A comfort zone is a beautiful place but nothing ever grows there.” – Unknown

Let’s say you want to lose weight and are trying not to eat certain foods. You might start to feel deprived, you might experience a longing or pulling sensation in your body. Comfort would feel a lot better, your default for creating comfort has been eating your whole life so you grab the cookies and chips to “feel better,” but that sabotages your weight loss goal. While you may automatically think deprived is a negative emotion it’s actual useful here, it means you are sticking to your eating plan, where comfort is not effective. What if you became aware of that purposefully and said I’m going to welcome feeling deprived instead of comfort? I’m actually going to seek out that feeling because that’s useful to me, comfort is not. How would that change things?


Stress

Stress is an interesting one, a word that usually triggers a negative connotation. What happens when you start to feel stress in your body? Your muscles tighten, your breath thickens and heart beats faster. You then resist the physical sensations and think thoughts about how this is “bad” you are feeling stressed, you want to get rid of it etc. The thoughts you start to pile on to the stress create more stress and it starts to snowball. If you asked yourself how could this be serving me how could it change things? Stress is not always a bad thing. Eustress is useful stress, it motivates you, is short-term, can improve performance, feel exciting and perceived as something you can handle. Distress depletes energy, can be long-term, lead to illness, decreases performance and is perceived as something you cannot handle.

Just by opening up to the idea that the stress you are experiencing could be eustress or distress makes it feel lighter, optional and more in your control. If it’s distress and not useful then you can do some thought work, look at what thoughts are fueling the distress to get your mind to a more optimal place with thoughts that ease some of the distress you are feeling. Stress isn’t always bad, it isn’t always good, but it does not need to become destructive if you learn to manage it with your thinking. 

Gratitude

Gratitude can be a deceiving one. It’s the emotion that we hear about time and time again, “Just be grateful.” But are there times it’s not “positive?” Oprah has been advocating the power of gratitude for decades. If you don’t know her story and background she overcame some incredibly difficult circumstances and didn’t grow up with much. Creating the feeling of gratitude for whatever she had in her life is part of what she attributes her success and fulfillment to. BUT she could have said to herself at many points along her journey I should just be grateful for what I have. Why fight for this, why push myself, why ask for this? My loved ones didn’t have this or that. I don’t want so and so to think I’m not grateful because I think I deserve something better.

You can be grateful and still want more. Gratitude can be an emotion you hide behind, that keeps you small. I hear a lot from people, “I know I should just feel grateful…” I know I should just be grateful so I’m not going to ask my husband for this or I’m not going to pursue that bigger life. So is gratitude positive or negative? It depends. The better question, is it useful? A lot of the times the answer will be yes. Another time it could be that it’s completely destructive and keeping you small. Or it could be kind of neutral, it’s not holding you back but if the result you want is to increase your business by 20% this year then creating determination and perseverance is going to be much more useful emotions then just being grateful your business is doing ok.

Focused

We like some emotions because they serve a purpose, they are useful, not necessarily because they feel amazing. I might appreciate I felt so focused yesterday because I stayed on task and accomplished so much, but if someone had shown me a list of what feeling I wanted to experience that day I probably wouldn’t choose the way focused makes me feel, it wouldn’t be my last pick but wouldn’t be my first pick either. I might have chosen carefree and zen vs. the alertness that I feel in my body when focused. If the results I wanted were to finish a big project at work them feeling carefree wouldn’t be useful for me at that time but feeling focused would.

Lonely

What if  you wanted was to take time to do some internal work to figure out what you want in a person and find the right guy instead of the wrong guy. No longer dating all the guys who are fun, that keep you company, that give you shallow connection but finding someone that is a partner, you are finally ready to want more. How could you welcome feeling lonely here, how is that useful to you? If you aren’t willing to feel lonely what might it cost you?


Feeling the Feels

It’s interesting that some emotions you would most likely would automatically label as positive don’t necessarily feel amazing in your body but you think of them as positive because they serve you right?  Like courage, focused, motivated or compassionate. Yet when it comes to emotions like discomfort or fear, you think of it as negative because of the way it feels, even though it’s an emotion that may be incredibly useful.

“The only thing worse than feeling it all is missing it all.”– Glennon Doyle

When you are willing to allow and feel those feelings, there is no emotion that can hold you back. Imagine you had to explain to someone who had been living in a cave alone their whole life what an emotion was, what fear was. You might say well fear is one of the feelings we avoid the most that holds us back. When you feel fear you can have a pit in your stomach, your hands might feel shaky, your heart beats faster and your breathing accelerates. You know what their response would probably be, “that’s it?!” There is no emotion you can’t handle, your body is built to be able to feel all of the emotions. When you allow it and own it you get authority over it, it’s harmless.


EMOTIONAL FILTER BREAKDOWN

It comes down to filtering your feelings through this framework to create a useful relationship with your emotions.

1. Emotions that feel good to feel AND they are useful to you

These are the most desired kind of emotions!

2. Emotions that feel good to feel, but are not necessarily useful or are downright destructive to you

These can be deceiving emotions given they feel good, they can be indulgent emotions likes comfort.

3. Emotions that do not feel good or the “best” to feel but can be useful to you

These are often the emotions you need to learn to feel and process like discomfort. Your thinking tends to play a larger role here, how you choose to think about their presence impacts their usefulness. 

4. There are feelings that do not feel good and are also not useful or can be downright destructive to you if you don’t manage them

These are the emotions that do not serve you, this is where you need to manage the thoughts that are driving the feelings.These can also be indulgent emotions like shame.

Naturally people tend to seek out the positive and resist the negative. By instantly labeling an emotion as negative you start to resist and when you resist you create friction, it has greater power over you.

Start asking yourself these questions:

  • What results do I want? What do I need to do to get those results? Is this emotion useful to helping me do those things, to get those results or not? 
  • Could this be serving me in some way even if it doesn’t physically feel pleasant? Can I allow myself to physically feel this emotion and not resist it? 
  • Can I decide to make this useful instead of harmful with how I think about it? How could this be constructive or destructive depending on what I make it mean? If it’s indulgent or destructive how can I think differently to feel differently?