Right now we’re being bombarded with advice to thrive during COVID19 by being grateful, seizing the opportunity and remaining positive. All sounds great, right? Wrong.
Behind this positivity propaganda, the implicit message is that it’s not ok to be angry, sad, confused, scared. It’s not ok to have strong feelings and we should be doing anything we can to chase these feelings away.
There’s a dark side to this bright side. What we know about emotions is that they hate being pushed away, and they push back.
It doesn’t feel great to be glum, worried or furious, but if you ignore these feelings they have a nasty habit of going deep under the surface and festering like a boil ready to explode at the most inopportune time. Like on a conference call with your team, or when talking to your kid’s teacher, or when your spouse forgets to put the washing away!
The good news is we also know that emotions are like weather, they are always changing in both subtle and sizeable ways. Whilst this article focuses mainly on emotions that are more generally seen as negative, this is true for all emotions, ‘good’ and ‘bad’. The chemicals which create emotions take about 6 seconds from being created in the brain to being absorbed by the body.
For example, in the space of 5 minutes you may feel ecstatic that you’ve managed to get an on-line delivery slot one moment, devastated that you can’t visit your mum and frustrated that your kids homeschool portal has gone down…again!
The most healthy way to make your emotions work for you is to feel and release them, making room for the next one to come. Keep the feels R.E.A.L. with this simple 4 step process.
1) Recognise what you are feeling
This is harder than it sounds. Generally, we are TERRIBLE at knowing how we are feeling.
We may recognise that anger makes our chest tight or guilt sinks to the pit of our stomach, but we haven’t spent time considering the sensations associated with more subtle emotions like disappointment or contentment.
Compounding this we have an abysmally limited emotional lexicon. Whilst a study at Berkeley identified 27 distinct categories of emotion, most of us know the ‘primary colours’ like sad, angry, fear, happy (all, not co-incidentally, characters from the movie Inside-Out). However, we don’t easily have words for more complex hues like discouraged or playful. This means that we don’t have a way to register each emotion feels, so we know it when it appears. Changing this is the first step.
Take a moment, grab a emotion wheel like this one (there are others online) and choose which word is closest to the emotion you’re feeling right now. Take another moment and scan your body. What do you feel? What triggered it? Where do you feel it? Remember the ‘sensation signature’ so you can recognise the same emotion next time.
2) Expand the feeling as much as possible
Now breathe into that feeling and make it as big as you can. Lean into that joy, jump around, shout. Or curl up and rock with that sadness. Feel the excitement in the pit of your stomach, or the anxious butterflies in your chest. Feel the tightness in your jaw, or the tingles in your fingers. Turn your attention to making the feeling as big and all encompassing as possible. You may find other sensations come up, for example your left knee may itch, your eye twitch. Let yourself explore what’s there.
3) Allow yourself to feel exactly what you feel
Emotions are by nature neutral, just a signal trying to tell us something. When we assign judgement as ‘good or bad’ emotions, we invite shame, ‘what should be’ and if we reject the feeling, we start the festering. Instead of judging, step into the role of an curious observer. Watch it unfold like a movie. Be curious and pay attention. Maybe there’s a message for you, and maybe there’s not. Either is totally fine. Give yourself permission to feel however you feel.
4) Let it go
As you go through this process, your emotions and feelings may change and evolve. They may naturally pass, or taper away. Notice the changes, breathe and release the emotion. If it lingers that’s ok too – remember no judgement. Thank the feeling and let it go.
That’s it….simple! Try it out. Be REAL. According to a study of over 11,000 people, on average, people reported experiencing emotions 90% of the time. The more you practice this process, the better you will get at recognising and managing yours.
As added incentive, the top 3 positive emotions joy, love and satisfaction were more frequently experienced than the top 3 negative emotions – anxiety, sadness and disgust. According to those odds, the better you get at keeping yours REAL, the more your balance should naturally swing positive.
We’ll get through this, one big emotion at a time.