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Feeling through emotional truths
dance the dance of life
To live well is to be in touch with what I call “emotional truths”. By this I mean: knowing the answers to questions like “why does going to parties make me anxious?” or “why do I hesitate to accept intimacy even when I’ve said I want it? or “why do I feel angry when my friends argue about capitalism?”
Your emotions are a signaling mechanism. They are your subconscious mind’s toolkit for protecting you from dangers, improving your circumstances, and navigating an otherwise incomprehensibly complex world. Every emotion has some adaptive purpose: fear keeps you safe; anger enforces your boundaries; sadness slows you down; joy speeds you up.
The first step towards living better is to recognize that your subconscious mind is trying to tell you things you don’t yet know (primarily through your emotions, but also via other channels like your dreams). A lot of people struggle to realize even this basic fact; they think of emotions as a disruption: a distraction from, say, their career development, or an impediment to their capacity to “be rational.”
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But soon enough you learn that your emotions are worth heeding because they carry wisdom your conscious mind doesn’t have access to. And at that point you must embark on the second step—the much harder step—of figuring out what it is that your mind is trying to tell you. This is the step where you can spend years going in the wrong direction: namely, thinking too hard about your emotions. It’s probably worse to think too hard about the meaning of your emotions than to disregard them altogether, especially if you’re on the neurotic side.
The beginner’s mistake when exploring questions like “why does X make me sad?” or “how come I want to do Y but keep doing Z instead?” is to treat those questions like a math problem. You scrunch your eyebrows, look off into the distance, rub your chin. Journal a little, draw a diagram, scroll twitter, go to the bathroom. Scrunch your eyebrows again. Come up with three unnecessarily elaborate explanations for your anxiety, none of which ring true, get bored and frustrated, move on.
A better approach is to feel your way into the answer. With a math problem, the answer is outside your mind and you are orienting yourself in different directions to get there. With emotional truths, the answer is already inside your mind, and your focus is to declutter, open up the metaphorical blinds, and maybe light some incense, so there’s ample space for the answer to bubble up to your conscious awareness.
Some concrete strategies:
Do a sentence completion: “If I didn’t feels anxious in this situation, then…” Avoid thinking about the answer. Just say immediately what comes to mind. The idea is to figure out what purpose your emotion is serving. “If I didn’t feel anxious at parties then…I would say some dumb shit and become socially ostracized.” Another kind of sentence completion: “I hate to admit it, but…”
Imagine the emotion as a character and ask it: what are you trying to say? what do you want? Go Inside Out-mode if you feel compelled to: imagine your various emotions as minds of their own with their distinct dispositions and motivations, and engage in a loving, curious dialogue with them. This is called internal family systems.
Locate the emotion in your body and play close attention to the physical sensations underlying it. This doesn’t necessarily give you an answer to your question, but sometimes it completely dissolves the emotion, at which point you don’t need an answer anymore. It also helps you become better friends with the emotion; emotions don’t like being pushed away, so the sooner you become friendly with them the richer your emotional life will be.
List out the implicit beliefs that underlie the emotion. An example: you feel resentment towards your close friends, and you find an underlying belief that states: “If my friends don’t make an effort to see me every week, they don’t care about me.” Importantly, you want to uncover beliefs without any prejudgement about whether they are true. You just want to figure out what they are, so it’s clear where the emotion is coming from.
The key to succeeding with any of these techniques is that you have to take a specific mental orientation towards your emotions: an attitude of curiosity rather than doubt. Embodiment rather than intellect. You find the answer by allowing yourself to be playful, generative, and spontaneous; not by being methodical, intentional, and constricted. Sit back and feel your way to the answer; don’t think it.