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Compare your behavior with the behavior of an emotionally healthy child (although with the average upbringing most children lose their emotional health very soon): how much of that curiosity do you still have? … that playfulness… mobility… openness… energy… trust… joy of life…? Can you imagine bringing those qualities back into your life? These are our true qualities, which cannot be destroyed; we can cut them off and bury them under limiting beliefs, during unpleasant experiences, but we can access and live them again.
Emotions are “voices of our subconscious minds“, parts of us that are closest to our inner core, to our primordial, spontaneous and intuitive being. Whenever there is a conflict between rational thinking and emotions – if the emotions are healthy – my experience leads me to believe that emotions will usually contain information that is more relevant. This is because our subconscious minds notice much more details and process much more information than our conscious minds can.
Emotions offer information of how the deepest, truest parts of ourselves experience what is going on around us. Emotions are messengers from the huge reservoir of the unconscious rather than limited rational knowledge. Whenever somebody violates our personal boundaries and integrity, even in a subtle way, our emotions will warn us much faster than our logic. They can warn us about the danger of manipulation, exploitation or other kinds of hurt. Unfortunately, we are trained to censor them much more than we are even aware of. Often we will notice this in others, but not so much in ourselves.
Subliminal, emotional parts of us will register much more information about other people’s personalities and intentions than our conscious minds can interpret. They can register every detail in others’ nonverbal signals (including microsignals we’d never consciously notice), and offer the inner knowledge that we call intuition.
Facing our emotions
Since emotions are parts of our core being, we cannot ignore them without consequences. In my opinion, too many religious, New Age and coaching approaches suggest that people reject, ignore, conquer or ”rise above” emotions, resulting in deep inner conflicts that can lead to even more suppression, control and fear of self-awareness, less tolerance and less consideration for other people’s point of view.
Even people who are truly committed to personal development, sometimes have difficulty facing unpleasant emotions. Most unhealthy emotions are deeply connected to a toxic self-image. Becoming aware of them can be unpleasant – but less unpleasant than people often fear. Fear of our own emotions is usually acquired in childhood, too, if we felt overwhelmed by them or were punished for them.
When we block unpleasant emotions, we also block pleasant ones, since they are all intertwined. To small, dependent children, immature behavior of people around them can be so frightening that they try to absorb the shock by creating limiting beliefs and suppressing their feelings.
The reason it is so hard to resolve those feelings and become aware of them is that infantile parts of us, once dissociated and suppressed from consciousness, never had the chance to mature. They stay on a childish level of perception even when we grow up. Even now, those parts of us are still just as afraid of difficult emotions as when they were originally created – and they might also be afraid that giving up toxic beliefs means giving up on one’s family.
Healthy and unhealthy emotions
How can we distinguish healthy from unhealthy emotions? Here are some guidelines:
Healthy (adult) emotions:
– The intensity of emotions is appropriate to the situation (in everyday situations, it’s usually mild discomfort, like a warning)
– Healthy emotions motivate us, give us energy for appropriate action, for example defending our boundaries and integrity
– We usually have no problem expressing them, as those parts of us were able to mature because they could be recognized and expressed within our families. (We might feel problems and tension, though, if our adult emotions are mixed with unhealthy feelings and guilt. This is most common, since many people learn at an early age to feel guilty if they express their feelings sincerely.)
– There is no tension and discomfort left once the situation is resolved
– There is no black or white attitude, we perceive both sides of the story
– We do not feel humiliated or bad about ourselves, nor do we feel a need to humiliate or hurt others.
Unhealthy (childish) emotions:
– are either overly intense or suppressed
– They are followed by an inner conflict, usually between guilt (maybe it is my fault) and shame (I acted stupidly) on one side, and anger (they have no right to treat me like that, I should tell them what they deserve!) on the other, accompanied by unpleasant bodily sensations. This conflict can persist long after the unpleasant situation is over. Even if you are objectively right, such emotions can show you that there is a part of you that either is frightened or feels guilty. Some childish emotions can feel good temporarily (arrogance, spite…) but the inner conflict remains.
– These inner conflicts sap your energy and, if prolonged, result in stress and tiredness
– You feel that you are (primarily) right, and the other person (primarily) wrong (sometimes the other way around, although that is more common with children or extremely abused people)
– You feel uncomfortable and doubtful about yourself, which may motivate you to criticize and find even more faults in other people.
Sometimes, details in other people’s behavior can trigger very strong emotions, so strong that we are easily convinced that they are justified, even if everyone, including our common sense, tells us that our reactions are too intense. This can often happen in intimate relationships, since they arouse our deepest emotions. In those moments, it is difficult to stop thinking about the other person’s behavior and take responsibility for our emotions – but at those very moments, this is most important and brings most benefits.
Physical discomfort is a common signal that something is suppressed – a feeling of pressure, a soft cramp, pain or burning sensation in the body. For example, if we feel hurt or threatened, usually some immature part of us will surface, for example a part that believes that we somehow deserved the hurt, even if we are rationally aware of reality. To suppress those uneasy feelings and defend themselves, most people use counter-attack or start blaming others. The more intense your fear and guilt are, the bigger is the need to criticize not only the behavior, but also personalities of others.
As we can experience every day, this process happens almost unconsciously and is rarely questioned. During such moments, physical discomfort continues and intensifies, sending warnings that we are missing something. If we fear confronting those unpleasant emotions, it seems much easier to continue the same behaviors (although they do not bring results), rather than to focus inside and face our pain.
I would define emotional maturity as accepting responsibility for our feelings, our experiences, our behavior and circumstances in our lives.
One of the easiest ways to avoid unpleasant emotions, and one of the hardest to unlearn, is passing responsibility to others by pointing out mistakes in their behavior. Even if you are right, when you notice that you keep thinking about the actions and faults of others, imagining what you would like to say to that person, while at the same time feeling uncomfortable sensations in your body, you can be sure that you are avoiding something (for example, fear, guilt or a feeling of inadequacy). It is very easy to get caught up in this process, especially if you realize that the other person is passing responsibility to you too. Then both of you can be caught in a direct or indirect “ping pong” game – a game called ”Who started it first” – with both players feeling more and more attacked and therefore attacking back.
In the long term, you can create more and more similar feelings, until you finally decide to take full responsibility to resolve them. You can be certain that you have resolved the cause of a problem when a challenging situation no longer triggers unhealthy emotional reactions. For example, healthy anger will come up if there is a necessity to react, but in healthy anger, there is no need to hurt others or humiliate them, more an urge to set boundaries. Afterwards, if your reaction was constructive and appropriate, there are no lingering unpleasant feelings.
In my opinion, a foundation of successful self-development is an ongoing awareness of our feelings. In this way, we can recognize issues that we have to confront, build true intimacy with ourselves, honesty to ourselves, which leads to self-esteem.
Sometimes unpleasant situations can be so frightening that we would rather do anything else rather than confront them. Yet this very fear of confrontation is a major cause of discomfort. If we can overcome it and allow ourselves to fully accept our feelings, we will usually experience that they are much less unpleasant and frightening than we thought.
When we are afraid or embarrassed to express our emotions, we send ourselves a message that our needs are not important. On the other hand, it is wise not to send others the same messages by acting as if only our feelings matter. Be aware that there are many ways to express the same emotion. The words that first come to your mind might not be the most mature of all.