Years ago, when I was visiting my uncle Geoff at his farm in Korumburra, he casually asked, ’Mark, how do you feel about circus lions being kept in cages?’
I answered, ‘It’s cruel, it’s wrong, it shouldn’t be allowed’, to which he replied, ‘Wrong answer’.
While I was puzzling at this he asked me, ‘How do you feel about your footy team losing yesterday?’
I told him we were unlucky; our key forward had a crook knee and we only lost by three points.
Again he said, ‘Wrong answer.’
Can you figure out why they were wrong answers?
He pointed out that he had asked me how I felt about circus lions being kept in cages, and I had given him my thoughts on the matter. Big difference. A correct answer might have included words like ‘concerned’, ‘appalled’, ‘irritated’, which describe feelings.
How did I feel about my footy team losing? Disappointed. Deflated. Flat.
Uncle Geoff explained that if we want our lives to run smoothly, we need to be in the habit of distinguishing between our thoughts and our feelings.
‘Why?’ I asked.
He said that some people try to be always rational, and lose touch with what they are feeling; others rely on their feelings and fail to think things through. Both tend to find themselves believing one thing but doing another, and living lives of mild confusion.
‘Your reason and your passion are the rudder and the sails of your seafaring soul. If either your sails or your rudder be broken, you can but toss and drift, or else be held at a standstill in mid-seas. For reason, ruling alone, is a force confining; and passion, unattended, is a flame that burns to its own destruction.’
(Khalil Gibran, The Prophet)
‘The trick’, Uncle Geoff continued, ‘is to think things through, yet be fully in touch with our emotions – and the best way to do that is to distinguish between our thoughts and emotions when we speak.’
I said, ‘Surely we all know what we’re feeling?’
He said, ‘No, not if we’re out of the habit of describing what we feel. It’s easy to lose that habit. Some of us, for instance, grow up with mixed messages. Our parents might tell us what we are feeling, or should be feeling, instead of allowing us to experience what we are actually feeling. Tell children that they’re happy, or grateful, when they’re not, and they’ll get confused, won’t they?’
‘And, some of us are told to not feel certain emotions: “Don’t feel bad, Don’t be angry, Don’t be jealous!” So we get good at avoiding those emotions. We still feel angry or jealous, but we have lost our awareness of it.’
He continued. ’Some emotions are uncomfortable to feel, so we can become adept at avoiding them. Many people think it’s bad to be angry, so they don’t let themselves be angry. The trouble is, their anger reveals itself in other ways – in sarcasm, in the way they snipe at their partners or friends, or in their chronic complaining . . .’
I was grappling with that when he added, ‘Or, they twist their anger into other emotions, becoming bitter or anxious. They may even sink into despair.’
The lesson stayed with me. Years later, I discovered other examples of the distortion of unacknowledged emotions: someone who is jealous but not aware of it might become possessive; someone who is racist might not realise they are fearful; someone might think they are angry when the emotion they are feeling is envy, or humiliation, or loneliness, or shame. Some people aren’t even aware of their disappointment; they are being so stoic they don’t let themselves experience it.
It wouldn’t surprise me if some people didn’t realise they were joyful!
If we are not aware of an emotion it can undermine us or lead us astray. It can prompt us into engaging in behaviours that we ourselves don’t fully understand. We might do something silly, and later ask ourselves in exasperation, ‘What was I thinking?!’ A better question would be, ‘What was I feeling?’
Only when we are aware of what we are feeling, and fully experience it, can we begin to deal with the emotion in a healthy, constructive manner.
It’s not just emotions that we need to be aware of, but all the ‘dark bits’ inside us. Instead of keeping them hidden from ourselves, and from others, we need to acknowledge them. When we do, we realise that they aren’t so bad after all. After a while we come to accept them, and when we come to accept them, we come to accept ourselves.
Then we can relax. We feel better about ourselves and go easier on ourselves. With nothing to hide, we lower our guard with people, and connect with them on a deeper, more meaningful level.
Further, the more we understand ourselves, and accept those dark bits, the more we understand other people, and accept their dark bits. With that empathy, we become less judgmental and more easy going. We adjust our expectations of others, and become more flexible and easier to be with.
In short, one way to become resilient is to get to know ourselves: to be aware of what we think and feel. In particular, we need to be attuned to the dark bits inside us, because it’s those dark bits that create anxiety.
The keys in Part 2 address this.
‘We are taught many things in a lifetime, but rarely do we get a chance to learn about emotion and ways of relating to others. We make a great effort to develop the mind, but apparently we are supposed to deal with our emotions instinctively.’
(Thomas Moore, from his book, Dark Nights of the Soul.)
‘Why is it bad to confuse our emotions?’
If you don’t know what you are feeling, how can you address it? You can’t. So, it keeps popping up, niggling and misleading you. If, however, you know precisely what you are feeling you can start dealing with it. And, when you get good at dealing with your emotions you become less anxious, because you know you can cope with them and not be shattered by them.
‘It’s rare that we don’t have issues in life, but it’s the belief that we’ve gained the tools to deal with them which gives us a belief in our resilience and capacity to thrive.’
(David, from Leongatha, Victoria.)
‘How do we know when we have “fully experienced” an emotion?’
When the emotion has lost its sting. When it’s easy to cope with it.
Fully experiencing emotions isn’t easy, and takes time. Take as long as you need, especially if you have experienced trauma. Delve into your emotions at your own pace. There is no correct amount of time.
‘We don’t always have to be aware of our emotions, do we?’
No. But we do want the ability to identify what we are feeling, because there are times when we need to know.
‘If I come to accept myself, isn’t there a risk I might come to accept my badness too?’
Accepting your ‘badness’ does not mean condoning it, but it’s the first step towards changing it. You will have a greater chance of adjusting your behaviour if you understand the emotions underpinning it in the first place.