You Are Not Your Emotions

We’ve grown up learning about emotions in ways both implicit and explicit. And in the last decade or two it has become more culturally acceptable to actually express those emotions, whereas previously the suppression of them was considered the virtuous action. But we are trained through culture, religion and even biology to react in some way. “An emotion requires a response” says everything around us and inside of us. So we look for a way to assuage those desires for action and response. We shout, we say something hurtful to another person, we push the feelings deep down inside, or we dig into a distraction.

Our phones are one of myriad tools we use to avoid dealing with the emotions we are feeling with. I definitely do. When I’m feeling bored, anxious, depressed, lonely, or any of a number of unpleasant feelings I find myself on my phone playing with an app, checking Facebook, or just wasting time on the internet reading articles I don’t really care about. Sometimes every ten or fifteen minutes. My phone battery is a good indicator of when I’m having an off day. It’s like pressing the morphine button in the hospital for pain relief except there’s no limit on how often you can do it.

Food is another way I use to try to change my mood. Like my phone battery, I can usually tell I’ve been having a bad day when I look back and realize I’ve eaten only junk. It’s a drug just like any painkiller. And like a painkiller the relief it causes wears off and I’m left with the feelings I was trying to run away from and the consequences of eating food I don’t want to have eaten.

Distraction doesn’t work though. It gets my mind off of the feeling I’m having for a time, but when the distraction is gone the feeling is still there. I still feel bored or depressed or lonely afterwards. Often more intensely so because of the unconscious expectation of relief that doesn’t come.

So what does work? What if we just observed the emotion? Look at it as a thing that isn’t me, but a reaction to a thing in the world. We don’t confuse the reaction our retinas have to the photons reflecting off of a tree and coming into our eyes with our identity. The reaction still takes place inside of us, but we know that it’s simply that, a reaction. So why are emotions any different? This idea doesn’t mean the emotions are any less real than the image the tree photons create in our brain. But it does mean we don’t have to see the emotions as ourselves. We can take a step back and get just a bit of separation from them. It doesn’t mean that emotions don’t have causes and real effects. It does make them a bit easier to deal with however. We don’t have to BE the grief, the pain, the pride, or even the happiness we are feeling. Identifying so strongly with any emotion is damaging. We reduce ourselves and our ability to reason to a reaction to something outside of us. If I see myself as only the pain I feel after the loss of a loved one that makes me a hollow one-dimensional creature. Not even a creature because I am reducing myself to a reaction. A part of a thing.

I’ve learned a strategy to practice this habit of observing feelings. It’s meditation. While meditating and an emotion (or any thought for that matter) comes up the idea is to just sit with the emotion. Try to look at it objectively without letting it wash over me. Observe it and how it makes me feel. Look at it as I would a table that is in front of me, but doesn’t particularly interest me. Eventually that emotion passes. It reveals itself as being as ephemeral as any of the other random thoughts that pop in to my head at any moment. I don’t make any claim to being an expert at this though. I don’t utilize this strategy as often as is good for me. It’s a lot easier (though still quite hard) to do this when I’m relaxed and sitting in a comfortable quiet room than it is to do it out in the world with all the stuff of life going on around. I try and I fail. Or I forget to try entirely and I then obviously fail. But the next time I try again. Some days are better than others.

It’s something that’s gotten easier, but it’s still not easy. I feel more capable of dealing with the ups and downs of being a human because of this idea, but it takes constant practice and renewal. And in that I’ve discovered it’s like most things in life. There is no end point of perfection when it comes to dealing with emotions and meditating. There will never be a final destination or resting point. It’s all constant change and hopefully growth.