6.22.2009

Breathe Easier with Emotional Awareness

Emotional expression is as important to life as breathing. So when we suffocate our emotions, they inevitably arise in some form. Unacknowledged emotions can build up and burst from us like a desperate gasp for breath— often in a way that is misdirected, over-reactive, or self-destructive.

See if any of these unintended emotional eruptions sound familiar to you: lashing out at a friend; excessive use of food, sex, or alcohol; and stress-related illnesses like depression or high blood pressure. These conditions and behaviors may feel involuntary or beyond our control, but with practice we can learn to manage them more effectively.

We Learn Emotional Awareness

The first step in this process is emotional awareness. If your family openly expressed emotion, then as an adult emotional awareness probably comes naturally to you; you easily identify and articulate your emotions. However, if your family sent mixed or negative messages about how to handle emotion, you may struggle to detect, label, and communicate your feelings.

I fall into the latter category; my tendency is to push emotions aside. As a child, it was to my advantage to appear calm and happy—to comply and “be good” even when I felt upset or unsure. It felt safer to suppress fear and sadness.

As a teenager and adult, I continued this pattern of obedience, self-control, and perfectionism. Rather than fully experience emotion and appear vulnerable, I denied the discomfort of sadness, insecurity, or hurt. Yet they always popped up somehow, taking me off-guard with unwanted outward (angry outbursts) or inward (depressed mood) expressions.

Acceptance and Emotional Management

Nobody likes to be surprised by these emotional eruptions, but we can interpret them as signals that our emotions need some breathing room. If you listen closely, the information you gain through emotional awareness allows you to respond in a balanced—rather than impulsive or reactive—way to your emotional needs.

For example: do you ever have one of those days when you feel overwhelmed and off-kilter? I had a day like that last week, and I tried to ignore my emotions and be “productive.” That didn’t work for long. I had to tune into the emotional cause of my distress in order to regain control. Fortunately, once I became aware of the fear that caused my anxiety—and let myself feel it—I was able to focus on my work again. Emotional awareness led to emotional relief.

Becoming Aware

Emotional awareness involves the ability to sense, identify, and accept your feelings. On a personal level, these skills breed contentment and increased self-esteem. In relationships, they lead to more authentic interactions. An understanding of your own motivations, preferences, and desires leads you to live with integrity and make choices based on your values rather than on impulse.

To assess your emotional awareness:

Examine your underlying beliefs about emotions.

  • Were you discouraged from showing feelings? Were you taught to hide or deny them?
  • Did you learn that emotions are dangerous and should be feared or controlled?
  • Do you think that certain emotions are “good” and others are “bad” or shameful?
  • Are your beliefs productive or counterproductive to your mental health?

    Tune in to emotional signals.
  • Do you experience nausea or stomach upset? What about headaches, chronic pain, high blood pressure, panic attacks, or frequent colds?
  • Do these symptoms worsen during times when you feel anxious, sad, lonely, or fearful?
  • What about when you are around a certain person or group or in particular situations?
  • Do you use food, alcohol, or sex in a compulsive way?
  • Could unhealthy patterns in your life represent unmet emotional needs?
  • Do you make any solitary, quiet time in your schedule when you allow your emotions to come to the surface?

    Here are some tips to help you develop your emotional awareness:

    Accept feelings as a natural part of life. The way you feel is always okay; it’s just how you express yourself that might need some adjustment! Try to accept your feelings without judgment.

    Have an “emotion session.” If you find that a powerful emotion interferes with your productivity or concentration, try setting aside half an hour per day to let that emotion flow freely. By dedicating a time slot for freeing that emotion, you regain some control over the rest of your time and diffuse its subconscious power. When the time slot rolls around, let it all out!

    Identify the source emotion. Joy, hurt, anger, and fear underlie almost every other emotion. When you feel upset, try to determine what the underlying emotions may be. Sometimes we choose a more culturally accepted emotion to disguise vulnerability, such as when someone criticizes others (trying to appear powerful through anger) to disguise fear of rejection or hurt.

    Build your emotional vocabulary. Consult a thesaurus, talk about your feelings with a trusted friend, or use the link below to refer to an "Emotions Chart." Try to label your emotions as precisely as possible. Just giving a feeling a name can bring some relief. If you can’t name the feeling, that’s okay, too. The important thing is to be aware.

    Keep a daily journal. Even when you aren’t sure what you feel, writing can express your emotions in a way that thinking and talking about them cannot. If you let yourself be honest, you may discover things about yourself as you write that surprise you.

    Exercise and eat right. Your physical health and emotional health are inseparable. Exercise is a great way to release tension when you are angry, and it can elevate your mood when you are sad or hurt. Also, repetitive exercises like swimming or walking are opportunities to reflect on or process emotions.

    Practice mindfulness, meditation, and conscious breathing. As you learn to be in the moment, you grow more aware of your body and emotions. I frequently use the Emotional Ease guided meditation from Meditation Oasis (link below). It helps me to get in touch with vague or uncomfortable emotions and to let go of my resistance to certain feelings. And don't forget to breathe! That will keep you calm and ready to process any emotional signals.

    With practice, emotional awareness enriches self-knowledge and integrity. As comfort with emotional identification and expression grows, so does our ability to regulate emotion and live more authentically.

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    Click to view an Emotion Chart

    Visit Meditation Oasis to purchase the “Emotional Ease” meditation on CD (or listen for free by clicking the podcast link on the home page).

    Or, you can download the free Emotional Ease podcast at iTunes - Meditation Oasis

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