This month, I’m writing a 3 part series on the anatomy of emotions for 3 main reasons–
1) Emotions are easily misunderstood and get a bad rap as being mysterious and complex;
2) When understood, emotions are good sources of data for making decisions, and 3) Emotions direct almost every single human interaction and decision.
Recently, I attended a business conference among a few thousand entrepreneurs on the east coast. Guess what was one of the most discussed topics at the conference?—How to use EQ, or emotional intelligence, and learning from neuroscience for future business innovation. One speaker discussed how understanding EQ helps us begin to evaluate AQ–Agility Quotient– in employees, workforce systems and business models. AQ is “the ability to adapt and thrive in an environment of change.”
This conference confirmed what I relearn daily in my work as a psychotherapist–innovation does not completely replace humans–We need people! Humans need contact! AQ is the newest measure of human flexibility. I believe that it has merit in how we think about emotional growth as well.
As a therapist in Washington DC/Bethesda, I talk about emotions all day long. I help couples understand how they can tap their emotions to create greater energy and improve their connection in their relationship (Part II in the series). I talk with adult clients about inside and outside feelings, which are our primary or secondary emotions (Part II in the series). And I break down the function of each emotion for all of my clients–which includes teens, children, couples/families and adults–so that they can see their emotional worlds more clearly and understand their minds and actions more simply (Part III). I see it as my job to help both kids and adults understand the nuts and bolts of their emotions so that they can use their emotional tools more effectively in their lives. Once they understand how to navigate their emotional worlds better, they have a better chance of adapting to all that’s changing so quickly in their lives. It allows them to be more agile emotionally.
Here are a few things that I teach.
- We have a committee of emotions at play, always: Have you seen the movie Inside Out? It does a wonderful job choreographing our committee of joy, sadness, fear, anger, and disgust.
- We have secondary emotions that we feel first on the outside (i.e. anger, anxiety) and primary emotions that are more deeply situated inside our bodies and psyches (i.e. sadness, fear). Outside emotions act as our cue or signal that an inside emotion is in need of attention. We have to take time and to have patience to uncover inside emotions because they offer clearer data about how we are feeling, what we might need, and how to act rather than react.
- Feelings are not FACTS–feelings just offer us information for decisions or action.
- Thoughts (at least in relation to feelings) are not even FACTS–But when fused with big emotions, thoughts feel like FACTS.
- Feelings are often not rational–they glom onto old and new events, thoughts, experiences or other feelings.
- It only takes 90 seconds to fully process a feeling if it doesn’t become hooked on something else, yet it almost always does. Therefore, give the feeling time to move through, unhook, and unearth what else might be there.
- Surprise–a primary emotion– almost always amplifies a feeling, which can be confusing or overwhelming. [Surprise was not included as a primary feeling in the movie INSIDE OUT. In my opinion, it was probably too difficult to animate and then choreograph its’ effect on the other primary emotions.]
- Emotions that are escalated above a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10 (0 = no emotion and 10 =most extreme emotion) need moving and body-based calming strategies (i.e.exercise or something that creates a change in your body state)–not just talking or thinking strategies.
- Emotions that range from 4-6 can be soothed by talking, breathing, thinking and expressive strategies. Emotions below 4 respond to changing our self-talk (***We make the mistake of prescribing the wrong strategy to an emotion when we don’t consider how escalated it is. That is why kids get so frustrated when adults say, “just take 10 deep breaths.” It explains why many of us resist meditating).
- We need a method or a practice to develop our emotional muscles. According to Robert Masters who wrote Emotional Intimacy: A comprehensive guide to for connecting with the power of your emotions, empathy is present within 24 hours after birth. Yet, we have to grow into our capacity for empathy. As our brain matures, it develops greater capacity for thinking about ourselves, others, and problems. Empathy requires thinking clearly about yourself and others with enough closeness to feel another person’s emotional state and enough distance to still know how you feel.
In the next blog, I’ll write about how emotions act as energy in our relationships and how to use what we know about the anatomy of emotions to develop a practice for yourself and in your relationships.