It's important to be emotionally aware

Paradoxically, we can more easily self-generate sadness than we can enjoyment.

By Marianna Pogosyan

Published: Mon 15 Jan 2018, 8:00 PM

Last updated: Mon 15 Jan 2018, 10:38 PM

Research by Paul Ekman has shown that people would like to be able to choose what they become emotional about and how they behave when they are emotional. But we don't really have that choice. The key to both is having better awareness. Usually we are not aware that we are emotional until afterwards, when we say something like, "Oh, I lost my head." Well, you didn't lose your head; you just lost your awareness of what you were feeling at the moment.
It would be very dangerous if we didn't have emotions. It would also be a very dull life. Because, basically, our emotions drive us - excitement, pleasure, even anger. Anger can be a force for social justice. It can motivate us to try and change the environment, because what we see is what we think is wrong. So emotions are fundamentally constructive, not destructive. However, in particular instances they can also be destructive, like when what we learned in the course of growing up becomes not very adaptive for our current environment.
Our emotions have a dual influence. They are influenced by what has been adaptive for our species and by what has been adaptive in the course of our upbringing. If you want to have a choice about what to become emotional about, it would be very hard to override those things that are a result of the evolution of a species. You may be able to learn to override some things that have to do with your individual development and growth. Freud was right: The things that you learn early about your emotions, even if they no longer fit your current environment, still have a large influence on you. The key to having choice about your emotional behaviour is to be aware of the fact that you are becoming emotional. Until you become aware, you aren't acting with any choice guiding your behaviour. That's what we would like to be able to do. But that's what our emotions would like us not to be able to do.
Paradoxically, we can more easily self-generate sadness than we can enjoyment. Everybody can smile, but the contraction of the muscle that creates the smiling lips doesn't generate enjoyment. You would also have to contract the muscle that orbits the outer portion around your eye, and only 10 per cent of people can do that voluntarily. Memory is a good path to self-generating past emotional experiences and having them once again, if we are not in the grip of an emotion. So, everybody can self-generate joy by remembering an enjoyable experience.
Emotions don't tell us what triggers them. We presume that it's going to be obvious what triggers emotions. But our own preconceptions can be very misleading. The enemy of being able to tell is our own pre-conceptions of what we are expecting. We have to have an open mind and that is not an easy matter.
With a calm mind, you are more likely to be able to act by rational choice and appropriately to the situation. When you are in a grip of an emotion, that's going to bias your perceptions of what is occurring to what fits that emotion. So, a calm mind is an essential precondition for being able to respond to the reality, not the unrealities that you are preoccupied with. The Dalai Lama says that if you are only aware of how you felt afterward, that's pre-kindergarten. If you are aware immediately afterward, that's kindergarten. High school is being aware during and college is if you become aware as the emotion arises. That's what we would all like to do, so we can choose whether to engage or not, in order not to have episodes that we'll later regret. And I think it's possible for everybody to learn this.
Marianna Pogosyan, Ph.D., is an intercultural consultant specializing in the psychology of cross-cultural transitions.
-Psychology Today

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