Our feelings are not very tidy when it comes to staying within the bounds of what makes us comfortable. What to do when feelings persist after the form of relationship they’re associated with has ended? Often we may feel elation when it is considered more proper to feel chagrin. At other times we will feel sad when socially it’s expected we should be happy. When it comes to matters of the heart, it is indeed those pesky feelings which seemingly lie to us and set us down paths of confusion.
Feelings are Selective
Let’s start with assuming love still exists after the ending of a relationship. Such an experience doesn’t require any particular behavior on your part. It’s a feeling, an assessment by you about the person, selecting particular parts of them and the history you had. Unless the time was an unmitigated disaster in which every moment was epically painful, there were then periods that were good and provided the means for there to be love.
Those times are what your mind is drawing on and from those memories, there is likely going to be feelings of loss. This is completely normal. Again though, this doesn’t require any particular behavior from you. Accept the feelings as part of being human, of acknowledging there were good times and you miss those. Call it love, call it whatever you want, but none of this requires anything out of you.
From: Return Of The Ex and Hope For Rebirth
“The loss is often so large, so ridiculously painful, not because the other person wasn’t worth it (though let’s face it, there really isn’t anybody worthy of invoking the feeling of soul-spasming pain felt by romantic loss) but because in a very real sense the world created by the connection was torn away. This isn’t poetic license, this touches upon attachment and how our minds work, giving us a bit of insight into why even after all the tears and sorrow there’s a part of us that leaps for joy at the possibility the ex may return.”
Feelings Have Many Stories
This is why labeling our emotions as ‘positive’ and ‘negative,’ ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ is so unhelpful, it’s an attempt at making the nuanced, the complex, into a simple subtraction problem. Surely, so the thinking goes, without x-person in my life, we can subtract any associated y-emotions. Life doesn’t work that way however. Just as the initial attraction and shared experience drew on individual histories, social context and future desires, so then any emotional experience that comes after will draw on the same. That there will overlap to some degree allows for our internal stories to have coherence, but it also provides the space to make connections we don’t have to hold onto.
Our thoughts/emotions are not the sum total of who we are. Nor do they guide all of our behavior, not in any one-to-one sense. Spend a moment considering just how many thoughts/feelings you have that you don’t act upon or don’t do so in a particular way. You’ll quickly see that your life is far larger than any simple causal relationship between thought/feeling and action.
Relationships change/end for any number of reasons, from the obvious to the subtle, from the clear to the obscure. Very rarely is it because there was absolutely nothing good going on. Welcome to humanity, where the breadth of our relationship potential is as wide as there are people to connect with. Embrace the feelings, during and after, just know that what you do with them is up to you and the story you have about them is only partly about the person your attention is currently on.
Metaphors for living are numerous; a good thing as they provide the structure through which we interact within the world. Were they shallow and few, our lives would be equally as such. The multiplicity of metaphor, like the personal narratives carrying purpose and meaning, allow us to encounter variations in life without sitting down in an overwhelmed stupor. One such metaphor is the game of billiards (though ‘marbles’ could also work here): one ball at a time moves across a table (or floor), hitting one or another ball at a time and sending each in a prescribed path according to the dictates of geometry. The means of initial movement is directed by the cue (or finger). Substitute the cue for consciousness, the ball for your body and other balls for people/objects/situations, and you have a fairly full idea of how the metaphor works.
When talking about emotions using this metaphor, phrases like ‘I had my buttons pushed’ and ‘I put my feelings on him/her’ are common. These and other phrases are based on assumptions within the metaphor: ‘Emotions Move Us’ and ‘Emotions Have A Direction.’ These assumptions culminate in the quite common phrasing of ‘I was moved’ when describing a particularly emotional event/image. At the level of immediate, self-centered awareness, this way of looking at our emotional lives seems legitimate, even obvious. Unfortunately for the continuation of this view, it isn’t that simple.
Go back to the billiards metaphor, but this time remove the cue and attach cables between the balls of varying lengths, number, tension and substance. Here is life, an interconnected whole bound by various lines vibrating with tensions as each ball moves about the table. The truly frustrating bit is how the cue has been replaced by a hovering lens with a very poor viewing area. The result is it only ever sees a part of the table and only some of the attached cables at any given moment.
Emotions are Relationships
Within the billiards metaphor, emotions and thoughts are separate objective things, moved around by conscious will. How and whether a person responds to them is then viewed as a choice by each person. The notion that ‘I can’t make you feel that’ or ‘It’s your choice to be hurt’ is based on this, as if the potential choices a person has are limitless and no longer tied to context. Once we shift to a more nuanced metaphor, how and whether a person responds to a situation is more constrained. There’s still choice, but because of the cables binding various relationships, it’s a choice with boundaries and limits.
Every relationship comes with attachments, the stories/hopes/desires/histories we bring. The words we use are the means through which we elaborate upon and flesh out the substance of all those attachments. Emotion labels are no different. They direct our attention to the cables binding us within an interconnected life.
From Our Emotions Are Never Left Behind:
“Our minds are predictive devices, attempting to set up an accurate enough framing of our upcoming experience to guide our behavior to meet it. To do so, our past is linked with input from our current context. This combination requires constant evaluative processes, often fast and far more rarely, slow.”
Emotions are a label connecting something we care about, a Value, to the object/person/situation that said Value is perceived as embodying. Do you get angry about things you don’t care about? Do you love without someone in mind? Does frustration exist without being thwarted in pursuing a goal? Our emotions are not driving us towards anything, they are the labels we place on movement we’re already engaged in. They direct our attention to the relationships we have between our Values and the people/places/things in our lives.
Emotions Are A Means, Not the End
From Emotions of Social Interaction:
“Because objective analysis of our own demeanor and behavior in emotional exchanges is so difficult, we need to understand the function of certain emotions in our social interactions, which are likely to exert more influence on what we do than what we think we’re doing.”The Emotions of Social Interaction: Psychology Today
Function implies a tool being used, like a knife to spread butter or a cup to hold a drink. Thinking this way puts us right back in the original billiards metaphor. However, pause for a moment and consider the rarity of encountering a tool that isn’t used in many ways, often outside the original intent of the designer. Who hasn’t used a paperclip to unscrew a flat-head screw? How about using the back end of a hard object, like a stapler, to push in a nail? Function here then is more than just the utilization of a tool, it is the recognition of a connection between the person using it and the goal to which it is used.
Now we’re back in a mindset of relationship.
Too often emotions are considered the end goals themselves, as if to feel happy, angry, or sad, is the end of a journey. This is based on emotions being objective simple things that we engage with, like a ball from a sport. Seeing them as labels for particular relationships not only removes this limiting vision, it enlarges personal perception to look at all the myriad ways Values are being put into action. For instance, rather than happiness itself being a goal, we can inquire and identify what within the situation it is that we care about (Value) and be more present with the actions we’ve taken to support it.
Emotions are like that accident on the freeway, we seem to not be able to stop looking at it even if it means not paying attention to our own driving. They’re loud and take up most of our perception, so it makes sense to believe that they’re central to who we are. Thankfully we are more than the blaring sirens, we have lives dedicated to what we care about. Stepping back from the noise we can become more aware of what is actually driving us (our Values) and spend our energy supporting our Values in the most life-affirming way possible.
Photo by Joshua Fuller on Unsplash
Viewing emotions as discrete entities allows us to box them up, set them aside and ignore them. Or at least attempt to do so. Quite often we look at them as obstacles to overcome, giant boulders on the path of life. We move forward using the supposed power of reason, swinging the sword of logic and embarking on a quest to change our thoughts. Within this framework for personal progress we experience a sense of being overwhelmed, overcome by or otherwise brought down. Emotions are then a beast to be slain. However, like the beast from the fairy tale, the perceived monster hides a deeper truth.
Emotions Are Thoughts
“In fact, every supposed emotional brain region has also been implicated in creating non-emotional events, such as thoughts and perceptions.” (Barrett, 2017)
Our minds are predictive devices, attempting to set up an accurate enough framing of our upcoming experience to guide our behavior to meet it. To do so, our past is linked with input from our current context. This combination requires constant evaluative processes, often fast and far more rarely, slow.
With this in mind, we can look at our emotions as the initial conclusion of a fast evaluation. Our bodies react and, depending on context, the sensation is immediately evaluated as an emotion. This allows us to have those instinctive or intuitive responses of trust or distrust when meeting someone new. And, because the same or similar body sensation can be linked to multiple emotional evaluations, a gut-feeling can point to us being possibly sick, excited about a romantic evening or be wary of a new job. Our emotions, rather than being detrimental to our behavior, are the initial set-up for deciding how we will respond to new environments.
Emotions Are Agents of Attention
“The “emotion circuits of the brain” that are activated when we have an emotionally engaging experience also serve as evaluative centers that directly influence our focus of attention and our state of arousal.” (Siegel, 2012)
Carried with the emotional evaluation is a broader mental framing. While our intuition may leave us wondering why we felt a certain way, it only takes some time to come up with a story as to why. How much time is dependent on how fast we perceive the need to do so. Walking down a dark alley and feeling a sense of dread will be accompanied by a very quick story of potential danger. Saying yes to a new romantic connection will carry with it a sense of apprehension or excitement, followed by a story of life’s difficulties or successes, depending on how the date went.
Important to keep in mind here is our stories are just as fluid as our emotions, they respond to the current information at hand. This is constantly shifting. Only by simplifying our relationship with our internal lives do we create a sense of ‘I always knew that’ or ‘of course it turned out that way.’
Emotions Are A Relationship
“Feeling is not bad or dangerous or unhealthy.On the contrary, not feeling or fighting against what we are feeling is a more formidable threat to our health and well-being. Our relationships with our feelings are often at least as important as the feelings themselves.” (Mahoney, 2005)
We can see our lives as full of potential or as a halting walk from one wall to another. Either will find support based on how we view our internal life of emotion/thought. Seeing our emotions as obstacles to overcome sets up a constant battle. We will never get rid of our emotions nor their influence precisely because they are not separate items in our minds to be discarded at will. Seeing our emotions as part of how we construct our perspective on the road to acting out our lives allows us to accept the entirety of our humanity. We can then commit to exploring our stories, finding the nooks and crannies waiting for the light of discovery to illuminate, and step into new visions of who we are.
For help and support in working through your emotional life, check out counseling and coaching
Barrett, Lisa Feldman (2017-03-07). How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain (Kindle Location 523). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
Mahoney, M. (2005). Constructive psychotherapy: Theory and practice. United States: Guilford Publications.
Siegel, Daniel J. (2012-04-26). The Developing Mind, Second Edition: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are (p. 73). Guilford Publications. Kindle Edition.
Searching for inner peace leads us down many paths. From the shelves of books in the self-help section to gurus, coaches and spiritual leaders, we’re often looking for a direct line from uncertainty to calm. This isn’t about a quick-fix. Far too many are mocked for supposedly wanting that. I think the vast majority are quite willing to put in the time and effort. Unfortunately explanation and instruction often replace clarity with obfuscation, as if a struggle of understanding is required for wisdom. Mindfulness doesn’t have to be shrouded in mystery.
What is being mindful?
Mindfulness is an active mental state of reflective awareness about the present.
– While mindfulness is often looked at as meditation, too often meditation ends up being a passive behavior. To be active is to be intentional and focused. This isn’t about relaxation, though that can happen, but deliberate engagement with mental life.
– Don’t let the “mental” make you ignore the physical. Our minds are embodied. Mindfulness acknowledges our physical reality and how our bodies are the means through which we put thought into action.
– Being aware is one of those behaviors we often think we’re doing, but is not as broad as we think. To be mindfully aware is to actively seek out and allow more of your experience to be seen and known. This means having no single thing take over your mindsight to the exclusion of everything else.
– Time is, within the human experience, at least as much about our perception as it is a thing we live within. To be present is to recognize the transitory nature of our experience. Every present moment is immediately followed and replaced by the next present moment.
As Daniel Siegel, in his book “Mindsight,” puts it:
“Openness implies that we are receptive to whatever comes to our awareness and don’t cling to preconceived ideas about how things “should” be. We let go of expectations and receive things as they are, rather than trying to make them how we want them to be.” (Mindsight)
Not Getting Lost In Your Own Thoughts
There are many ways to talk about mindfulness and even more declarations of what its practice can bring into your life. The focus here is on broadening the contemplation of our lives to make room for new behavior. For that, we turn to how Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) utilizes mindfulness.
ACT breaks mindfulness skills down into 3 categories:
Defusion: distancing from, and letting go of, unhelpful thoughts, beliefs and memories
Mindfulness allows us to see the transitory nature of our thoughts. Mental states do not last for long at all. We only think they do because of how they loop on themselves through attention and focus. The feeling of being stuck is due to being caught in one of those loops, where all potential action becomes fused to a narrow singular thought or story. Defusion is the process of breaking free of that narrow vision.
Acceptance: making room for painful feelings, urges and sensations, and allowing them to come and go without a struggle
Our mental states change with the speed of thought. We trick ourselves into thinking they last longer through our attention and obsessive focus. This is how pain leads to suffering. Our focus is often on ‘moving past’ or avoiding the pain, but the irony is what we avoid is what ends up running our lives. Acceptance isn’t about being a doormat to be stepped on. It’s an acknowledgment that pain is an inevitable and natural part of living, an indication of change.
Contact with the present moment: engaging fully with your here-and-now experience, with an attitude of openness and curiosity
Personal stories or narratives are how we split reality into what we call experiences. No single story can hold the entirety of reality and so there are always more to our lives to be explored. The present moment fades into the next present moment seamlessly and inevitably, a fertile ground for curiosity to find new growth.
Mindfulness: The Present is Calling
We are more than any single thought, emotion or story. No single action can or should define the whole of who we are. Our Values manifest in constantly evolving behavior. Shame ties us to a past that has already gone by, holding us to a falsely narrow vision of who we are capable of being. Mindfulness skills help us explore the present to find the inner peace of healthy questioning, the calm of accepting uncertainty and the personal growth of letting go of our thoughts.
Learning mindfulness skills can be an integral part of moving forward, contact me for more information on Coaching
Article: Forget Mindfulness, Stop Trying to Find Yourself and Start Faking It
Book: The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life
Book: Mindsight: the New Science of Personal Transformation
Website: About ACT
Triggers are a fascinating part of our humanity. Mentally, a trigger is a perception inspiring an emotional and cognitive assessment. Externally, triggers are any act or situation that provokes a perception. Importantly, what we perceive never holds the entirety of a situation. We only see what fits within our worldview. From this, a trigger is as common as the air we breath and the blood coursing through our veins. Unfortunately, because our minds evolved to be more wary of potential suffering rather than pursuing potential enjoyment, triggers get associated with what leads to heartache and uncertainty. A great deal of difficulty results because we do not separate our perception from the event itself, believing that what we see is all there is.
Down the Rabbit-Hole
Our stories or personal narratives provide the structure for our perception. They guide which parts of a situation are selected to support a particular trigger’s continued empowerment. Combine this with the human need to feel each and every opinion is right and the result is an enormous barrier to individual change. Ruminating, spiraling or obsession are only excessive forms of actions we all do. An event happens, we’re triggered, the story we have about it reinforces our response and that behavior inevitably supports the whole process. We simply don’t act unless doing so supports our narrative about the situation we’re in.
A result of focusing so strongly on negative assessments from triggers is moving away from self-reflection. The external object, whether event or person, bears the burden of responsibility. Lost is the other side of the relationship, that of the person doing the assessment.
Pushing Away Suffering
Pain is inevitable, suffering is the product of recurring focus. To get rid of pain is a fool’s errand, but suffering can be mitigated when we see our own role in its perpetuation. When triggers are viewed as inherently negative and we cease questioning our role in the perceiving end of the relationship of suffering, the result is an abdication of any responsibility. The other person holds all the cards, they possess all the power. Everything they do carries with it an inevitable connection to our hurt and limitation of self.
In an attempt at turning the table, the other person ceases being a person in their own right. Gone is any attempt at understanding the nuances of decision-making. Absent is any consideration of enlarging one’s own view of the situation. Instead, responses are automated and centered on demanding dismissal of the perceived offensive act. Further, anything contributing to the negative trigger must be removed. This, regardless of any functionality or worth the action of the other may have.
This isn’t an excuse for horrible behavior. This recognizes the varied relationship between an act and our reaction to it. When the perception of the hurt person is all that matters, simply by virtue of their suffering, there is no room for personal growth. It’s easy to look at verbal abuse and say the reactions of the person its directed at should matter. What about when it’s not abuse? What happens when it’s another person’s success or achievement?
Removing the Positive
A person who strives to better themselves is not concerned with the perceived grievances of others. Nor should they be. Engaging in exercise and losing weight to contribute to a greater self-image is not a knock against those struggling with eating disorders. Working hard to achieve business success is not a mockery of those who are poor and disenfranchised. Simply having been born in a family with greater access to societal resources is not an inherent slight against those who weren’t.
An exclusive focus on being negatively triggered by looking at success and achievement diminishes the legitimacy of any work that went into those results. Further, it closes us off to a more nuanced look at the systems in place which facilitated personal progress.
Moving from Value
We can maintain or regain a sense of empowerment without dismissing or belittling what another person has done. This involves turning back to the other player in this drama, your own self. Nobody gets upset about something they lack concern about. Flipped on its head, we only get triggered over the perception of things we care about. Here is where strength can be found:
- Identify the core Value being violated (or supported).
- Reflect on why this Value is important to you.
- Assess whether what the other person has done takes away what you Value.
The easy answer to that last question is: it doesn’t. What the other person did is far less important than you being a person who Values what is important to you. Further, by reminding yourself of what’s important, the space is open to search out what may be learned from the other person’s successes. You may not want your life to look completely like theirs, but there are many ways to express an appreciation for what you Value.
If you’re finding yourself faced with difficult emotional reactions and want to live a freer, more expressive life, I can work with you to achieve that goal. Check out Counseling or Coaching.
For further exploration, check out the podcast episode covering triggers: Our Humanity Is Being Triggered