We cannot think our way through an emotion. Emotions must be experienced.
We have to feel emotions viscerally, let them move through our body until their energy dissipates then releases. That is precisely how we feel better.
Most of us spend a lifetime figuring out how to avoid emotions. But that’s because we don’t know any other way to deal with them. It is not our fault that the culture we live in does not value or understand the science of emotions or the role they play in fostering overall wellness. The great news is that we can learn some basic brain science to help ourselves.
No doubt, our emotions, and their corresponding physical sensations feel weird at best, and totally overwhelming and painful at worst. Our brains resist moving toward emotional experience at first because, let’s face it, emotions are scary. “How big will the feeling get?” or “Will I be able to stand it?” are just some of the concerns that can come to mind. The truth is, we can all learn to tolerate and even embrace getting in touch with deep emotional and physical experiences. The benefits include feeling calmer and more authentic!
A Two-Minute Exercise to Demonstrate Your 3 Brains and the Self
Think of a recent experience that had some (but not too much) emotional punch to it. It could be as simple as remembering a compliment someone gave you, a nice moment with your child or partner, a moment of road rage, or a minor disagreement with a colleague, friend or partner.
When you find it, just stay with it so the memory grows stronger and stronger. Think about the details of the story, noticing the images that go with the memory as if you are watching a movie. Make the memory as vivid as possible.
Holding the memory in mind, see if you can label the emotion(s) that the memory evokes. If tuning into your emotions feels scary or you notice you don’t want to — that is OK — just find another memory that is less negatively charged. Part 5 of this series will explain more about why we are sometimes afraid, uncomfortable or reluctant to get in touch with emotions.
Let’s go back to the exercise.
What emotions come up for you as you bring up this memory? Sadness, fear, anger, joy, excitement, sexual excitement, disgust, embarrassment, shame, nervousness or any combination of those? Try on each emotion word, without judging or evaluating it, to see if it fits with your experience of this memory. Literally ask yourself, “Do I sense sadness?” Then pause and check in to see if sadness is there.
Go through each emotion one by one until you find all those that fit. When you find the emotion word that fits best, validate it saying to yourself “I feel ________ (insert the emotion that best fits).” There should be a click of recognition to tell you you’ve labeled the emotion correctly. Great! If you’re having trouble, don’t worry and definitely don’t judge yourself. Just read on, keep trying and you’ll get it with some practice.
Now, let’s check in with what is happening below your neck.
If you slow down enough and give yourself a good 15 seconds or more, you might begin to notice changes in your posture and physical sensations. I cannot stress enough the importance of slowing down for this part, as the body takes much longer to be perceived than the thoughts in your head.
Scan your whole body slowly — very slowly — from head to toe, seeing if you notice any sensations that go with the emotions you’ve noticed. You might sense a weight or a lightness, a muscular tightening or relaxing, energy up, out, or swirling cyclically, fast heartbeat, quick or shallow breathing, dizziness, butterflies, or a knot in your stomach, just to name a few. You also might notice impulses to move: to fold in on yourself; to retreat; to set a boundary; to stand, sit, yawn, or even to make a fist if you are working with anger. Rest assured all emotions have associated physical sensations. In fact, what defines an emotion is really just a collection of physical sensations that we come to recognize as a specific emotion.
Lastly, know there are no right or wrong answers, just the subjective perception of your internal experience. Anything you notice is right, by definition.
Now, here is the intellectual explanation for what we just experienced:
- Your Self is the part of you that conjured up the memory at my request and noticed the images, noticed the emotions and noticed the body sensations.
- Your thinking brain spontaneously generated thoughts that arose during the exercise like “I can’t do this” or “this exercise is stupid” or “this is really interesting” or “This is too hard” or “I think I’ll make chicken for dinner.”
- Your emotional brain experienced the associated emotions triggered by the memory.
- Your body brain caused the changes you noticed in your body.
To notice your three brains and what they are doing requires patience, courage, compassion, and acceptance for the aspects of yourself you judge as flawed or unlovable.
Anyone and everyone can work with their thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations to foster positive change. Great job for trying!
Part 4 discusses triggers; the things in the environment that cause our 3 brains to react. Part 5 is on the challenges every one of us has when it comes to being aware of emotions and the 3 brains.