What are you thinking? What are you feeling?

Nephew: You say we need to be aware of what we are feeling? Aren’t we already?

Uncle: Many people aren’t. Some people try to be always rational, and lose touch with what they are feeling. Others focus on what they are feeling and fail to think things through. Both types tend to live troubled lives. The trick is to think things through, yet be fully in touch with our emotions.

‘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)

Nephew: Most of us can do that, surely? Surely most of us are in touch with our emotions?

Uncle: Many of us aren’t. Some of us grow up with mixed messages: our parents tell us what we are feeling, or should be feeling, instead of allowing us to experience what we are actually feeling. Tell a child they’re happy, or grateful, when they’re not, and they’ll get confused, won’t they?

Nephew. I suppose so.

Uncle: 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.

Nephew: Where is this heading?

Uncle: And, some emotions are uncomfortable, so we might become adept at avoiding them.

Nephew: For example?

Uncle: Someone not wanting to acknowledge their jealousy may become possessive. Someone fearful might not realise it, and turn their fear into racism. Someone might think they are angry when the emotion they are actually feeling is envy, or humiliation, or loneliness. Or shame. Some people aren’t even aware of their disappointment – they are so stoic they don’t let themselves experience it.

Nephew: Could some people not realise they are joyful?

Uncle: It wouldn’t surprise me. The point is: if we are not aware of an emotion it can undermine us or lead us astray. It can prompt us to engage in behaviours 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 that emotion in a healthy, constructive manner.

Nephew: Okay. I understand. We need to be aware of our emotions. Gotcha.

Uncle: It’s not just emotions. We need to be aware of all the ‘dark bits’ inside us. Instead of keeping those dark bits hidden from ourselves, and from others, we need to acknowledge them. And when we do, we come to realise they aren’t so bad after all. Then, after a while, we come to accept them. And when we come to accept them, we come to accept ourselves.

Nephew: Then what?

Uncle: Then we can relax. We feel better about ourselves and go easier on ourselves. With nothing to hide we can lower our guard with people, and connect with them on a deeper, more meaningful level.

Nephew: There’s more, isn’t there?

Uncle: 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.

Nephew: You make it sound like it’s almost worth the effort.

Uncle: What I am saying is, one way to feel safe is to get to know ourselves: to be aware of what we think and what we feel. In particular, we need to be attuned to the dark bits inside us, because it’s those dark bits that create anxiety.

Nephew: How does knowing what we are feeling help?

Uncle: If you don’t know what you are feeling, how can you address it? You can’t. So, that feeling keeps niggling you. If, however, you know precisely what you are feeling you can deal with it. Then you become less anxious, because you know you can cope with the situation.

Nephew: And with less anxiety comes core happiness?

Uncle: Yes.

Nephew: How do we know when we have fully experienced an emotion?

Uncle: When the emotion has lost its sting. Fully experiencing emotions isn’t easy, and it takes time. Take all the time you need, especially if you have experienced trauma. Delve into your emotions at your own pace. There is no correct amount of time.

Nephew: Who said anything about trauma?

Uncle: I’m just saying.

Nephew: We don’t always have to be aware of our emotions, do we? It would be a pain in the proverbial if we always had to go around being aware of what we are feeling.

Uncle: We want the ability to identify what we are feeling, particularly when we feel unsettled. If we have that ability, we can apply it when necessary.

Nephew: Alright. I give in. How do we get that ability?

Uncle: One way is to label our emotions.

Nephew: Give them name tags?

Uncle: What a good idea!

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