The myth that we have to ‘rise above’ emotion is corrosive

The myth that we have to ‘rise above’ emotion is corrosive. Where is emotion ‘kept’ such that we could disentangle from it?

Emotions are complex biochemical events triggered by and that trigger internal and external reactions. There’s some evidence that specific molecules regulate certain emotions – oxytocin with empathy, serotonin with happiness  – although this is an emerging field and we really don’t know enough.

But its a long outdated idea that thoughts and feelings float about separate from the body – they are embodied within it.

Many psychologies, philosophies and spiritualities teach that emotion is inferior to reason, but the idea of pure reason is a myth and not one I believe we should aspire to. The fetishisation of reason is damaging, people waste energy trying not to feel.

Being emotional doesn’t mean having unbridled outbursts. That’s childish. We can learn to control impulses and live respectfully amongst others.

We can slow down, look at a situation from different angles. If it’s an issue that yields to data then data may be useful in moderating our understanding of what happened and in turn, temper our reactions. All that doesn’t diminish the importance of feeling.

Learning to read and educate your emotions is, as David Brook says, one of the central activities of wisdom and it’s no surprise to me that emotional intelligence is more strongly correlated with wellbeing and success than IQ.

When we try to suppress emotion to avoid discomfort we fail to develop essential life skills including those required to deal with difficulty. Emotions that are unexplored or unexpressed don’t go away. Instead they go underground, driving behaviour.

Some people like to pretend that nothing impacts them. Emotional detachment is a defence and a way of avoiding the visceral richness of life. People confuse non-attachment (not holding onto and becoming identified with an emotion) with detachment (not caring). They’re different beasts.

When we do permit emotion we prefer it to be positive. We’re told to be on message, on the money, on the ball. Be positive is practically an anthem.

This has created a skills deficit. A person who is suffering is told to get over it. Because people don’t have the tools to deal with discomfort (theirs or ours) they offer platitudes which however well meaning, don’t help. Slogans cannot heal us.

If we get better at experiencing and dealing with our difficult emotions we are going to be of much greater value to others when they reach out. Meaningful support may be possible.

All kinds of emotions exist – anticipation, anxiety, depression, delight, love, loathing – and the whole, long list is fine. Having the feeling is fine. What you do with it is the story.

Often we rush to get over something or forgive someone just to get to the other side. It’s difficult to stay present through strong emotions. Some lash out, which may feel like a temporary release, although 40 years of research shows that the idea that venting anger alleviates it is unfounded.

Deep down we’re afraid that if we sit with it we will feel discomfort. And we will. But we are only feeling what is already there.

If you’ve ever practiced sitting in discomfort, it’s tough.

It’s okay to feel angry. When we lose something important to us, we grieve. There is no need to get over it, get on with it and get online before the end of the week. Mark the season. That’s not overindulgence, that’s loss. Sometimes a loss impacts us so profoundly that the grief never fully dissolves. It doesn’t have to. We can live with grief in the same way that we can work with a bruise – sore but manageable.

A way to prevent over-identificating with an emotion is to remind yourself that you are not the happiness or the anger or the grief, you’re just feeling it. It’s like looking at your hand and understanding that it’s a part of you, but not ‘you’. I think it’s semantic myself given that all feelings are temporary, but if it helps then use it.

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