Friends with Your Emotions
Bret Lyon, PhD
We are all born with the capacity to feel a full range of emotions. And
they are designed to flow through us easily, one giving way to another,
like the multicolored handkerchiefs that emerge from a magicians magic
hat. When we try to "control" our emotions by holding them in
or denying their existence, we fight against our very nature. And the
consequences can be destructive to ourselves and our relationships. Let
me tell you a story about how emotions are designed to work.
Little Johnny comes home in tears. His mother is concerned. "What's
wrong" she asks. "I was playing in the sandbox with Billy. And
he pushed me. And I'm never going to play with him again, ever, ever."
He rushes into his mother's arms and she holds him lovingly. After a few
minutes, his tears subside. His mother puts him down and he heads outside
again. "Where are you going?" his mother asks. "To play
with Billy," he replies.
Only five years old, Johnny is a master of emotional fluidity. Upset and
angry when Billy pushed him, he only begins to cry when nearing his house
and his mother's comfort. A few minutes feeling his upset fully and being
comforted and he is ready to play with Billy again.
Unfortunately, after Johnny left, his mother called Billy's mother
to discuss Billy's aggression. Now, Johnny and Billy still play together
when they can, but their families aren't talking to each other.
I have seen this pattern with many adults, especially couples. They don't
stay with their feelings in the moment, but get into being "right."
They are unable to comfort themselves or empathize with each other. I
often think couples fights would go more smoothly if each person would
just jump up and down and growl. This would help both people get some
of the upset out of their systems without having to blame the other. And
the silliness would probably change the emotional climate.
There is a paradox here. Emotions are transitory and need to pass through
us. At the same time, emotions are powerful and vital. They give us information
we need in order to make good decisions and take action in the world.
For instance, if Johnny experienced constant bullying from Billy, his
emotions would not be so transitory.
When our emotions are strong and lasting, it's almost always because they
hook into feelings generated in the past. I call this the 90/10 split
10% of the feeling we're having may be caused by the immediate
slight or frustration, but that frustration brings up all the times we
were similarly upset in the past. Once we come to terms with the past
90%, or transform the old feelings in some way, then we can deal with
what is really happening in the present.
As we grow up, we are taught that there are "good" and "bad"
emotions. This division varies from family to family and often by gender,
as well. Men are often socialized to be comfortable with anger, women
with sadness or hurt. In many families, children are expected to be cheerful
all the time. In others, no emotion is really okay, even happiness and
joy. If a child gets excited, she is told "Don't be silly."
Crying can elicit "I'll give you something to cry about."
The result is that many of us grow up to block our emotions and feel very
little. Others find themselves getting stuck in the same emotion over
and over. Since emotions are, in the words of Trungpa Rimpoche, "Energy
plus Story," it is possible to cover one emotion with another. So
someone who is used to being angry can cover sadness or fear with anger
and someone afraid of anger can feel sadness or fear instead.
It is also possible to have two or more emotions at the same time. Johnny's
mother may have felt confused about what happened to her son, worried
about the effects of the pushing and angry at Billy's mother for not supervising
better all at the same time. If she didn't take time to sort out her feelings,
it's no wonder her conversation with Billy's mother turned out badly.
There is an amazing natural process that can allow us to experience the
full range of our emotions and also free us from holding on to
feelings from the past. And that process is breathing. Wilhelm Reich discovered
that in order to shut down our emotions, we have to tighten our muscles
and inhibit our breathing. The more fully we breathe, the more we can
feel all our feelings as they flow through us. For many years now, I have
explored for myself and with others the magic that happens
when we unlearn childhood conditioning and regain our natural full, free
Through breathing, you can learn to make friends with your emotions
letting them flow through you in their own natural rhythm like waves that
crest and subside. As you breathe through emotions rather than trying
to stop them, you ultimately get back to the pleasure and joy underneath.
As you accept and experience the full range of your feelings, you have
more choice in how you express them. When you can more precisely feel
what your emotions are, and how they relate to the present moment, you
expand your ability to love yourself and others.