Talking About Our Emotions Guiding Us by Nigel Summerley and Rowena J Ronson
Image: Clarity by Rowena J Ronson
RJR: Have you ever thought why we actually have emotions, and how they actually might serve us? I am interested in exploring our primary emotions in this Double Take with you Nigel, and I also welcome our readers to contribute. What do you think our feelings of anxiety might be trying to tell us?
NS: We have given labels to all sorts of emotions, as if they were colours of the rainbow or different species of birds, but in reality perhaps there is only emotion and emotional responses. Anxiety or neurosis, or whatever we call it, does not come out of nowhere and take control of us. It is actually us. This is what we are. So what that feeling is telling us is this is what you are. But then we are capable of having – and being – what we call ‘mixed emotions’. So what meaning does that have for us?
RJR: I am wondering about the role of anxiety telling us there is something wrong in our lives that we need to put our attention to. What do you think about that?
NS: Yes, that must be right. The anxiety is a sign of our dis-ease and we need to attend to that. Sometimes our anxious state can be triggered by external events, for example, just out of the blue, suppose an idiot or a bigot became the head of state of a major power in the world – it would be quite understandable for us to be in an anxious state. We can attend to our internal imbalances, hopefully, but what do we do about being anxious for an arguably good reason?
RJR: What a great question. Well I think there is much we can do internally to keep our equilibrium when something external creates dis-ease in our emotions. I think the answer lies in how we choose to think about a situation. Do we allow ourselves to be influenced by the media, for example? Do we have the opinions of certain people whom we trust? Do we have our own self-reflection process to rely on to get us back into our own state of balance? Do we know how it feels to be balanced? For me Donald Trump, at this time, represents for people the issue of change. None of us are mind readers, but most of us resist change. And for those that resist, change brings about anxiety….
NS: Obviously, I don’t want to talk too much about Donald Trump, and I think that your answer spells out how to look at our anxious state when it is created by outside factors. But aren’t there times when it is completely the right thing to be in an anxious state? Or a state of fear? Suppose you are being attacked or having to confront a bully?
RJR: Absolutely! The oldest part of our brain – our reptilian brain – will hopefully save us from danger by triggering numerous chemical reactions in our bodies to enable us to either protect ourselves or move us swiftly out of danger, by way of our fight or flight response. But what happens if the danger is more chronic? Suppose we are doing something in our lives that is not sustainable? Perhaps we are in a relationship that we know is not good for us or we are living beyond our means? Perhaps we are not taking care of our health or forever procrastinating on something that we know we need to address? Do you think our system sending out anxiety is a good way to help us to focus in?
NS: Yes. In those ‘acute’ situations, fear or anxiety spur us to action – it’s all instantaneous. The ‘chronic’ situation you mention is different, of course. But I would argue that our system isn’t ‘sending out’ anxiety – we are that anxiety – it’s how we are and how we live – and we do everything in a constant state of anxiety. If that becomes our normal way of being, how can we get out of it?
RJR: Mindfulness teaches us that we are separate from our thoughts and our feelings to a certain extent, and by perceiving ourselves that way, we can calm ourselves out of anxiety. I am not sure that we all do live in a constant state of anxiety. So in answer to your question – mindfulness.
NS; How can the thinker be separate from the thought? Isn’t it only when there is awareness (or mindfulness, if you like) that there is no separation, that there may be clarity? I didn’t intend to suggest that we are all living in a state of constant anxiety – I was just referring to when we are in that state. The question remains: are our emotions useful or do they make life more difficult?
RJR: Mindfulness is a practice. If you see that you have control over your thoughts, then the result is that you have control over your thoughts. Your thoughts define how you feel, so you can influence both. The separation can lead to clarity, especially when we are overwhelmed by circling thoughts, and intense feelings. Our emotions guide us, I believe. They all serve a purpose somehow.
NS: If ‘you’ and ‘your thoughts’ are inseparable, I can’t see how the former can control the latter. We probably have to disagree here. But we may not act on thoughts, for example, we might feel like killing someone, but it’s unlikely that we will actually do it. Emotions are a guide, and maybe we need to embrace them. Maybe they are proof that we are alive. Could we live without emotions?
RJR: In my reflective process today, I have chosen to have different thoughts than I did yesterday, yet I am still me. I am so much more than my thoughts. I agree it is a great idea to embrace our feelings. That is why we experience them. If we are feeling sad, the best way through that sadness, however painful, is to experience it. What is life like for those who suppress anger? A life without feelings is a regular complaint of people on antidepressants. They come to my practice in order to find an alternative, and most say that they cannot feel their emotions, and they are suffering as a result.
NS: Sorry to be argumentative, but isn’t choosing to have different thoughts… a thought? I think we agree about embracing emotions such as sadness – rather than go into denial about them or to spend our time wishing things were different to how they are. Emotions may be the best guide to what is going on with us, yes?
RJR: I would say it is more of a process than a thought. Emotions are our guide to finding out truth in any given situation. What do our readers think?
NS: Emotions are definitely a guide we should pay attention to in this complex area of thought, choice, decision and understanding. And sometimes perhaps doing nothing but paying attention – or even doing nothing – may lead to fresh insight. I think we definitely need some input from our readers on this.