Answering the BIG Questions
In our digital age, we are becoming more and more reliant on reinforcement from the outside to tell us how we "should" feel and what we "should" need and care about. Don't know which product to choose? A quick Google search will give you expert reviews and opinions. Not sure about a guy you like, a short text to your friends can get you a consensus. But you simply cannot find the answer to the BIG questions, like "What is my purpose?" and "What is important to me?" from the outside.
Only our internal experience and our emotions can truly guide us towards the answers to the big questions. But emotions get a bad wrap! We all know we have them. Yet, somehow, us humans get caught in a struggle to control or get rid of them. Emotions are like the unwanted party guest whom we find every possible means of avoiding.
Humans naturally and automatically move towards what feels good, and away from what feels bad, including emotions. Okay, seems like a normal thing to do. Who wants to difficult emotions like sadness, embarrassment, anger or anxiety? The problem emerges when we get so good at avoiding our emotions, we loose the access to the important function they serve.
The fact is our emotions serve an essential function in connecting us to what is truly important. Evolutionary theorists believe the full mind-body response of our emotions was a way for our ancestors to ensure their safety, get their needs met from others in the group, and provide our self with important information about what we need. In short, emotions are the fastest, hardwired, means of communicating and connecting to others, and our true self.
As you read on, I hope you will consider how avoiding your emotions might impede your own ability to connect to your needs. This knowledge is the first step in moving out of the struggle with emotions, and towards the willingness needed to listen to their messages.
The 3 Purposes of Emotions: Yes You CAN Have Emotions!
The Purpose: Emotions COMMUNICATE to others. It is in the vulnerable space of emotional communications that we connect through empathy. Our facial expression, tone and tempo of voice, and body language are more impactful than the words we use. Emotional expressions are universal and cross-cultural. No one had to teach you that a smile means someone is happy, or a frown sad. So, they bring us together to cross the barriers of language.
When We Disconnect When we close off our emotions, we loose an essential piece of the communication. Imagine a friend comes to you, to share something meaningful, but does so with blunted emotional expression. You will feel less compelled by her message. Empathy is what compels others to offer the help we need.
The Purpose: Emotions motivate ACTION impulses: Scientists are just beginning to discover that each emotion has a unique biological footprint. These biological underpinnings convey fast acting yet subtle bodily sensations we experience as impulses to take a necessary action to get our needs met. Fear motivates us to run away from danger (or freeze or fight). Sadness motivates us to withdraw and heal from a loss. Anger motivates us to take or protect what is ours.
When We Disconnect: When we deny our authentic emotion, we can get pulled into secondary emotions. For example, we might become ashamed that we feel angry, or angry that we feel sad. But, as you can see in the table above, these secondary emotions act like a "red herring." The action tendency of the secondary emotion diverts us from the pursuit of what is truly needed. When we disconnect from the primary emotion, we loose our drive to pursue our deepest desires.
The Purpose: Emotions signal a NEED: When something is important to us, we are supposed to feel emotions. Each one is informing us of what it is we value and hold dear. When we learn to truly listen to our primary emotion, we are listening to our authentic self.
When We Disconnect: Together with the loss of connection to others and motivation, disconnection from our emotions can mute the awareness of what is important to us. This is important because only you can surmise what is truly important to you. You simply cannot Google search the answer to, "What is my authentic calling." When we disconnect from our emotions, we lose sight of what we truly care for and are more prone to make decisions based on outside demands.
Listening to the Authentic Emotion
Emotions become extra confusing when we have secondary emotions, or an emotion about an emotion. Some authors refer to these secondary emotions as "dirty emotions." They do not hold the same clean communication value as the authentic primary emotion.
Sometimes we it can be tough to figure out what our primary emotion is. This can be particularly true if we have gotten a lot of practice dismissing our feelings or referring to the outside for answers. A helpful way of identifying the authentic emotion is to "reverse engineer" your experience. If you can identify one element of your needs (see table above) in a given situation, you can identify the emotion that is calling for attention. So, you might ask yourself, "If I was watching a movie, where the person experienced X, what would they need to do, communicate, or need?"
Validating Your True Self
Learning to identify and listen to the messages of your primary emotions is the best way to become skillful at validating your authentic self. So, like any skill, it takes lots of willingness to practice staying connected to these messages, and not be led astray by secondary emotions. See my blog on the steps for practicing Willingness. Slowly but surely, you will hear the messages of your true calling, from the inside.