This is a brief exploration into emotions, and how they relate to our daily experiences. We often don’t pay much attention to them, unless they are so strong we feel overwhelmed. It may feel as though they have a life of their own, but is that really the case?
Emotions out of control
We all react emotionally to the things that we experience and think of throughout the day. Often we only notice that we have had unpleasant feelings later on when we get grumpy with loved ones for no good reason! We might then feel guilty or irritated that we ‘lost control again’.
Understanding where they come from
Researchers have been trying to understand what emotions are and where they come from in our brain for a long time. This has resulted in therapies that aim to help people manage their emotions (e.g. CBT), and theories about emotional management (e.g. emotional intelligence, emotional regulation). Often experts in emotions inform us how to focus on ‘good’ emotions, and help us manage the ‘bad’ ones that hinder us. Barbara Fredrickson’s research into positive emotions does this by helping people to build more positive emotions, strengthening our resilience.
However, there has been some challenge to this idea of focusing on the ‘positive’ emotions, where it is thought that all our emotions are important to our well-being. We should instead learn how to apply all emotions in a suitable and helpful context. For instance, guilt is good to spur us into action to correct a mistake, or envy to motivate us to achieve something we value. This is built on the premise that we construct the meaning for our emotions from the experiences we have.
Think about it; when you are about to do something new, you might have anxious feelings. You might tell yourself that this is really scary and it’s all going to go wrong. You are building unpleasant meaning. Alternatively, you might say that this experience is good, that the anxiety is spurring you on to do something that you value. You are building healthy meaning, and will likely to go ahead and enjoy yourself. It’s the same anxious feeling, just different interpretations. And according to Lisa Feldman Barrett, who has developed a theory called ‘Theory of Constructed Emotions’, once you attach a meaning to the experience, it gets stored in the memory, and when you have a similar experience again, it will be used to either terrify you, or motivate you.
Taking control of our emotional ‘language’
So, if we construct our own meanings to the emotional responses we have, we can take back control of our emotions. To do this we have to re-label experiences that we have previously interpreted as negative. So next time you have an experience and you notice that the emotional meaning you are attaching to it isn’t helpful, then find a new emotional adjective to explain the feelings you are having. The more you interpret the experience in a way that is helpful to you, the stronger than connection will be in your brain.
Finding new emotional words to use
Don’t just use words that you are already familiar with, as that will keep you in a loop of similar interpretation of emotions. For instance, don’t limit yourself to words like ‘happy’, ‘excited’, or ‘nervous’ for most of your experiences. Instead, look up the synonyms for these words, search for new emotion adjectives to use in each unique moment. These will stimulate you to think in a much more subtle and specific way.
Here’s an example:
You are about to do your ballet exam. You have worked hard and can’t wait to get your certificate to show your skills, but nerves are kicking in. You want to create helpful meanings for the emotions so you think of ‘excited’ and ‘energised’ to help you prepare. These are good, but you wonder if there are any adjectives that more specifically focus on ballet. You look them up and notice that synonyms for excited are ‘elevated’ and ‘electrified’. These are perfect for dancing as you can imagine yourself being elevated as you light up the space. Now you feel positively charged and ready to dance, the words creating a vibrant image that is perfect for the moment!
About the author: Lisa Jones has a professional background in human resource leadership. Now self-employed she is studying for a MAPP at Bucks New University where she intends to use her knowledge and learning to continue researching, primarily on the topic of social issues and meaningful living. She intends to undertake a PhD within the research area of positive social psychology.
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