It was a Friday night. After chatting online for weeks, we were set to meet for our first date the following morning. I decided to have a final talk about insecurities and expectations. She told me not to worry.
“When we meet, if that’s the thing that stands in the way of me being with someone I truly admire, who I feel more connected with than anyone before, who I feel most accepted by, who after only 16 days I feel I want to give my heart to — then I will be damned.”
I felt at peace. And so we went forward and met for a day of adventures which I had planned to carry into the late evening hours.
I was home by 6 p.m.
Then, after a few days of silence, the hammer fell: “I’ll be candid. This isn’t what I’m looking for.”
What happened? Why do things that begin with promise so often end in pain?
The real story begins earlier, with a message received, not from my date, but from a quiet voice within ― a memo from my own better angels about something I needed to take more seriously.
I failed to respond, which led to a rejection that sent me on a journey into my own head to look for answers.
I learned along the way just how much our emotions understand about who are and where we need to grow. They’re constantly sending us little signals of guidance.
Unhelpfully, we’re rubbish at making sense of them.
This matters. When their messages are jumbled or ignored, we end up living out stories less like “The Notebook” and more like “Romeo and Juliet” ― a wire-crossed affair between two human emojis that lasted four days and accumulated a higher body count than a Game of Thrones wedding.
When it comes to relationships, I’ve found that ten emotions dominate the rest, each of which has a specific message for us to understand.
#1: ENVY — “There’s a hope you need to mourn.”
We choose our paths in life based on where they promise to bring us. When something (or someone) sidelines us from getting there in a timely way, our hopes often sail on without us.
Until we acknowledge what those desires meant and what holes they promised to fill, we’re as likely to make progress as a chained man is to swim. Without meaning to, we’ll constantly make space for toxic feelings directed toward everyone who gained the things we wanted for ourselves.
#2: DISCOMFORT — “There’s a sea you need to cross.”
We all want comfort and stability. Even positive changes cause us stress. The waves which push us to happier lands rock our boats just like those which lead to shipwreck. This uncertainty terrifies us.
And so we gravitate toward stories about couples who come from the same place, who speak a shared language, who somehow just click. Of course, real life rarely works out like that ― nor should we wish it to. A complete absence of friction happens to be one scientific way of describing death.
Comfort isn’t something we should avoid or despise. But it is an addiction to be managed. The things which benefit us most usually lie on the other side of experiences sure to make us a little sea-sick.
#3: BITTERNESS — “There’s a thorn you need to remove.”
There’s a difference between the pain of a sprained ankle and the pain of a sharp object burrowing its way into soft flesh. The first makes us grit our teeth as we carry on. The latter encourages us to stop altogether as we obsess over revenge fantasies and the date of our last tetanus shot.
Here’s the truth: the road will always be littered with pointy things strewn as carelessly as a toddler’s LEGO blocks. We will step on some. It will hurt.
But the pain isn’t meant to be fuel for a flamethrower of holy vengeance. Its only purpose is helping us identify the prickly things so we can remove them.
#4: ANGER — “There’s a wrong you need to reinterpret.”
Philosopher or hurricane on legs, we all take things personally. We have specific desires for the world and detailed pictures of what we feel justice should look like. Violations are nails on the chalkboard of our composure. We can learn to contain our reactions, but we’re powerless to unfeel them.
The key, however, is to refeel them — to revisit them through a more expansive set of lenses. We’re all complex, dimensional creatures. What feels like hate or malice is often someone grasping for normalcy and love. In the larger picture, the wrongs we endure often have little to do with us.
We alone choose how to write our stories. We can be victims or overcomers, people poorly done by or people who rise above. Injustices can be pits of despair or crucibles of courage, side details or entire narratives. Perhaps we’ll suffer more than most. Perhaps far more. But it’s ultimately on us to be transformed or consumed.
#5: GUILT — “There’s an expectation you need to renegotiate.”
Debts exist to be paid. In itself this is good. Being indifferent to the costs we’re causing others to bear is the definition of immaturity. We should want to repay, to make good.
But just like allowing for bankruptcies and debt settlements ultimately makes us all richer, we have to translate that idea to the emotional realm — to allow ourselves to repay only what we can afford, to wipe the remaining slate clean so that we can move on with freedom and fresh perspective.
None of us want a community or relationship built on anything other than forgiveness and grace, where the core desire is to correct rather than condemn. Yet our sense of justice often leads us to carry weights even when those around us have told us it’s no longer useful.
#6: SHAME — “There’s a judgment you need to process.”
We measure our worth by sending out endless pings: little requests for feedback about how valuable we are to each other — which we hope will provide affirmation along with clarity about the things we need to change.
Most of us are too preoccupied to do this justice. We’re over-connected, over-stimulated, over-committed. We can only make time for so many people. For the rest we have only snap judgments.
This leaves us with a box of mismatched puzzles pieces, some of which have an obvious place, some of which have a future use, and some of which need to be discarded altogether — a set of decisions we can only make well if we have a clear sense of the picture we’re trying to create, of who we really are underneath.
#7: DISGUST — “There’s a flaw you need to love.”
Disgust is the lens we see through while shame is working behind the scenes. It makes us project outward what we feel about ourselves inwardly.
Imagine a controversial painting. If I’m not an artist, I might call it boring or ugly or bad. I might shake my head when I hear how popular it is. Then I’ll move on, never to think of it again.
But if I’m an artist — perhaps a rookie with better taste than talents — hearing it praised will be a burr in my mind. I’ll be sure it’s not as good as the best out there. More to the point, I’ll know my best isn’t either.
This same dynamic extends to how we see people in terms of appearance, success, and character. What we reject with harshness is almost always what we struggle against within ourselves.
#8: SADNESS — “There’s a weight you need to feel.”
Happiness isn’t the same as joy. Happiness depends on a “hap”, a fortunate happening. It’s a positive response to something that turned out well for us. Joy, in contrast, is a default state. It requires no trigger. It’s a steady candle that provides a measure of interior light and warmth.
Joy and depression are connected to the big, weighty things — chemistry, trajectory, contentment — that we control on longer timelines. Happiness and sadness, meanwhile, are natural and immediate reactions which we can embrace or ignore, deal with or kick down the road.
When bad events find us, sadness knocks on the door, having come to update the software of our minds to account for a changed reality. And it won’t leave until we cooperate, until we agree to let the feeling do its job. It wants good things for us — just on the other side of temporary discomfort.
#9: ANXIETY — “There’s a trauma you need to face.”
We aren’t built to do well with surprises. Our brains want to budget for everything in advance. Surprises force us to switch from experiencing and enjoying to considering and evaluating.
At its root, anxiety is a response that says “I’m unable to get comfortable again, to feel safe, to be the opposite of vigilant”. For as long as we remain stuck in this processing mode, we’ll require extra assurances from those around us. This will often cause us to feel like we’re an unworthy bother.
Anxiety can be a serious chronic condition, but it can also just be the unprocessed remnant of past surprises which caused us to question our judgment, our perception, our understanding of the world.
While both cases deserve compassion, the temporary category is much easier to fix. In essence, it’s a fee we can pay in either a few costly lump sums or via endless smaller payments that will eventually run us dry.
#10: FEAR — “There’s a reality you need to embrace.”
It’s no coincidence that so many religions share the metaphor of the open hand. It’s a visualization of the core idea of faith — of the form of strength that says “I will not hold to things not meant for me; I will act well and let come what may.”
We’re bad at open hands. We’re good at clenched fingers, frantic grasps, balled fists. We’re good at panic. When we feel like we’re about to lose something (whether an object or person or idea), our attachment to it brings out something animal within us. It’s never a good look.
Thing is, not everything we’re afraid of losing can be saved. Sometimes we only have power to act and accept. When we’ve done all the wise and brave and responsible things we can, any leftover unrest is really an unnecessary tax we’re paying to maintain the illusion that life is fully within our control.
WHAT NOW, CHARLIE BROWN?
Truths are simple. Change is hard.
Neuroscience says progress sticks best when we take on new adjustments one at a time. That in mind, I’ve created a free micro-course for those who want to join me in making sense of their emotions one-by-one.
I’ll email participants every other day with a 2–3 minute read about one specific emotion — a story followed by a question for deeper reflection.
My hope is that, like it did for me, a deeper look inside will open new doors of growth.
May a clear mind and a joyful heart find you all.
This piece was originally published on Medium.