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Observing Our Emotions

Pausing allows us the equanimity to observe and observing allows us to more clearly see the present moment (see blog, Observing: So Much I Haven’t Seen!). One of the things that we can observe are emotions. Most people struggle to recognize various feelings in others or identify them in themselves. Rarely are emotions explicitly expressed. Emotions are based on our implicit assumptions, rooted in our needs, and informed by our fears. Feelings can be messy, inconvenient, confusing, contradictory, and connect us to our fears. Unexamined, suppressed emotions grow in their intensity and impact over our lives—possibly becoming quite toxic.

Emotions are an interaction between our subjective experience, cognitions, and physiological responses. Our thoughts, our cognitive response to a stimulus (current or remembered), trigger an emotion. Emotions are biological states—they have physiological components. We have full body responses to our feelings. Emotions result in neurophysiological changes that last about 90 seconds. If our bodily responses continue longer, we have maintained the heightened state through ongoing thoughts.

Many people have a limited vocabulary with which to express their feelings, which impedes their self-understanding and ability to communicate with others. We often revert to programmed automatic responses—for example, responding “fine,” though we are not, when asked how we are doing. Even when we wish to honestly communicate our emotions, we may have trouble identifying and articulating our feelings.

We are always feeling something—usually, we are experiencing multiple emotions simultaneously. The Circumplex Model of Affect states that emotions can be divided into four quadrants, based on their energy and pleasantness: emotions range from low to high pleasantness, and from low to high energy. In the low pleasantness, low energy quadrant are feelings such as lonely, sad, and tired. The low pleasantness, high energy quadrant includes such feelings as angry, worried, and tense. Low energy, high pleasantness emotions include calm, secure, and grateful. And, the high energy, high pleasantness quadrant emotions include cheerful, excited, and optimistic.

We all experience the same emotions—it is part of the shared human condition. However, what triggers a specific emotion and how much of our emotional life is spent in any one of the four emotional quadrants is individual. The first step in understanding our emotions is to recognize their existence. Trauma, and its unacknowledged impacts, makes us simultaneously more emotionally reactive and numb. As we observe ourselves and others, we can start by identifying in which quadrant an emotion falls: (1) is this a high or low energy emotion? (2) is this emotion high or low in pleasantness? Then, understanding the general nature of this emotion, we can dig into what it is that we (and our beloved) are feeling specifically.

Wow: Where Did that Come From?

We’ve all been caught off guard by a strong response to a seemingly innocuous event—in ourselves and in others. When this happens, it means that the event was a trigger for the person, based on their needs, their implicit assumptions, and their attachment security. This thick stew is usually bubbling below consciousness, but always exerting incredible influence. Worried that our ability to get our needs met is jeopardized, we respond from a flight, fight, or freeze primal mentality. Assumptions, based on our implicit memories, place historical overlays and explanations onto the present moment. And our sense of our lovability—or unlovability—clouds what we notice and then how we interpret what we took in. If we can be so magnanimous, we can be grateful for these over-reactions as opportunities to investigate that which is usually invisible.

This happened recently for me. We were dog sitting, and it wasn’t going well: the dog was pooping in the house multiple times per day. My spouse was angry with the dog, and I was feeling responsible. Why, you might ask, my sane reader, was I feeling responsible? I wasn’t the one pooping; I wasn’t causing the dog to poop. It came to a head around 4:00am one morning. My spouse got up in the dark to use the bathroom, and stepped in poop. With dog poop oozing between his toes, groggy, and needing to pee, he was not his best self. He said loudly, “The dog has sh*t again! Get me some paper towels.” Due to my history that had led to my belief that I was responsible, his command spun me into hyper-reaction: I should have prevented this, but now I—and I alone—needed to "fix the problem." I got the trashcan, a bowl of water, and the roll of paper towels, and furiously started cleaning up the piles of poop by the bedroom door. I did not pass him any paper towels—I was fixated on what I assumed I needed to do to “make everything better.” Understandably, he got increasingly annoyed that I didn’t pass him a couple of paper towels.

My strong, irrational emotional response of guilt and shame provided an opportunity to investigate my scripts about my responsibility and isolation. There will be poop in life. I am not culpable for most of it—and, I can’t stop the poop from occurring. But how I respond is within my control, is my responsibility. Further, I am not alone in this world—there are others who I can help and who will help me when there are piles of poop. When I can recognize what is and isn’t within my control, I can observe the current moment with greater clarity. I can pass my beloved a paper towel.

Learning to Observe Emotions

We are over-confident in our intuiting of others’ emotions. We all suffer from emotional attribution bias: wrongly attributing someone else’s feelings to our own emotional state. In other words, when we are elated, we see the world as friendlier than we do when we are sad. We’re best at reading the big emotional message—letting us know if we should approach or avoid—and less skilled at detecting subtle, ambiguous or ambivalent, and fleeting emotions. With both ourselves and our beloved, it is helpful to hypothesize and then work to confirm our hypotheses by asking questions and listening—to what is and is not expressed.

Conscious of it or not, emotions impact our thoughts and decisions. Emotions determine what we pay attention to, what we remember, and what lessons we draw from a situation. Emotions determine what we notice and how we interpret the behavior of others, including our beloveds. Simultaneously, our emotional state sends signals to others encouraging or discouraging interacting with us. Sadly, it is when we are sending out prickly “Stay Away!” signals that we most would benefit from people coming closer. Observing emotional states in ourselves and others gives us additional information to investigate.

The act of observing our emotions changes their potency. Because we evolved to give little attention to positive emotions while attending greatly to threatening and discomforting feelings, merely naming emotions has powerful impacts. When we identify positive emotions, it is the first step to savoring them and increasing their saliency. Conversely, when we label unpleasant emotions, it is the first step to reducing their unconscious control of our thoughts and behaviors. Psychologist and emotions researcher Mark Brackett states, “When you can understand and name your emotions, something magical happens. The mere fact of acknowledgement creates the ability to shift. When we don’t have the words for our feelings, we’re not just lacking descriptive flourish. We’re lacking authorship of our own lives.” Observing our and our beloved’s emotions increases our agency, and prepares us for our practice of the next step of the LovePOEM: Empathize.

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