Emotion is one of our primary information sources about ourselves, our connection with others and the surrounding world. With the latest fMRI brain imaging technology we can now look inside normal brains and observe in real time when an emotion arises and how it can be processed. Emotion once thought to be random and irrational—which it can be at lower levels of emotional intelligence—is now understood to be an information signaling and processing system designed to quickly sense and reorganize behavior for survival. ^1 This survival is not only physical, emotional as well, in that neuroscience now demonstrates that emotion is the language of connection, which are felt, transmitted and empathetically sensed through our bodies. The Latin root of “emotion” means to “move through and out”. Some, in the vein of Einstein’s E=mc2, think of emotion as subtle “energy (e) in motion”.
Emotions can guide preferences, desires, needs, and actions. In their most fundamental functional forms, fear helps keep us safe, desire helps us move towards, anger fuels determination and helps protect our personal boundary, joy allows us to celebrate, etc. Emotion is actually an important part of the decision making process and discerning direction in our lives. Studies of people with damaged emotional brain centers lose their compass and discernment of direction as well as struggle with decisions due to a now evenly weighted multiplicity of options. Emotions were also once thought to come exclusively from the right brain, which considered an over-simplification. And while the female brain may experience emotion more intensely, if men are not emotionally numb are also potentially capable of experiencing all the same emotions. Finally, different people have varying degrees of capacities for emotional presence and being with emotional intensity in themselves and others—both of which can be trained.
So, emotion if felt and expressed or released can be transient information animating our brains that we experience through our bodies. We are emotionally more aware when: an emotion arises, we are aware of it, allow it to be, fully feel it for a short while and release it on its own or express it in relation with another. Ideally, we learned these phases of emotional intelligence through attunement, empathy and verbal acknowledgement from our caregivers as children. Since this probably didn’t effectively happen for many of us and since they didn’t teach emotional intelligence in most schools in the 20th century, most us have had to do the best we could to learn greater emotional presence. Our culture makes it even more challenging in normalizing the avoidance feeling by distracting ourselves with technology, suppressing “bad emotions” and remaining stoic or putting on a smile, mentalizing our emotions, taking a numbing medication at the slightest onset of pain, or soothing with substances like food, drugs, or alcohol. Yet, these distractions are temporary, because the emotions are information that are not being processed, not allowed to be felt and moved through. Process with it now or store it for later reducing your power, aliveness and openness until you do deal with it. In reality, many of us are not aware of what we are sensing and feeling moment to moment throughout our day. Emotions can be uncomfortable, intense, or not easy to “deal with”; sometimes we are unconscious of them, allow our attention to predominate in the mental world, distract ourselves from feeling, avoid feeling by engaging in activities, use substances to numb the feeling. What follows is 5 phases of emotional presence.
NOTICING & NAMING
Brain imaging research at UCLA by Matthew Lieberman demonstrates that naming an emotion begins to reduce emotional intensity in the emotional limbic brain. ^2 Noticing a change in our emotional state has occurred and then naming the emotion is the first step in greater emotional awareness. It is helpful that the naming be specific, as just saying “I feel emotional” is a good first step to noticing a state change, but tuning into the feeling more closely, helps our system to register it and begin the feeling and releasing process. Without this conscious noticing and naming our tendency becomes to act out a variety of avoidance, suppression or emotional vomiting strategies.
Allowing means simply being with sensations in our body—resting in the sweet-spot, neither being over-taken by nor avoiding. Many of us have a limited range of the emotions we allow ourselves to feel and so we can utilize a variety or strategies to avoid feeling our emotions including: judging emotions, being overwhelmingly over-taken by, trying to dump on others, suppressing, avoiding, dissociating out of the body, numbing or mentalizing, etc. With this later example, we can get stuck in our heads, talking about it in endless loops without feeling in in our body, which is required for the effective feeling and releasing process. In one fMRI study at Stanford by James Gross, suppressed emotion built up and while the participant tried not to show any outward expression, their body became more tense, it made future emotionally charged situations more exacerbated and their brain showed more stressed activation as opposed to the group that more effectively processed in real time. ^3 Despite our unconscious or cleverly conscious attempts to suppress our emotions, they continue to affect us anyway. The Body Keeps Score, a New York Times Best Selling book by Bessel van der Kolk, psychiatrist, researcher and professor Boston University School of Medicine is one of the world’s leading experts on trauma and how neuroscience demonstrates that suppressed emotions can be stored in our body and require emotional presence and body sensing based approaches to desensitize and release the past so we can restore aliveness to our bodies and lives.
As we are beginning to become more emotionally aware and allowing ourselves to feel, here are some helpful reminders:
- “It’s okay for me to feel this emotion & my whole body”
- “Men & women both have emotions”
- “It’s safe for me to feel”
- “Stay out of the story; don’t talk, just feel the sensations in my body”
- “I experience emotions in my body but I am more than my emotions“
As we increase our capacity for body & emotional awareness, we develop greater emotional presence which allows us to intimately “be with” emotional sensations in our body. For many of us, the moment we permission ourselves that “it is okay to feel” is the most significant threshold on the emotional awareness and freedom journey. The more we practice allowing ourselves to feel whatever is arising—pain, discomfort, anger, hurt, vulnerability, sadness, joy, excitement, etc.—the more we strengthen our emotional intelligence muscles and attune our instrument to the ever-changing landscape of sensory experience and the more we open our systems to the vital flow of life through us.
When our nervous system has learned to fully feel an emotion it can feel so simple, but the process of being able to is not always so. Fully feeling happens in our body either in solitude or in the relational connection of presence with another person. Recent research suggests that emotions are an embodied phenomenon and actually originate not just in the brain (limbic emotional zone and the brainstem) but are more broadly dispensed in the body proper, especially the face, throat, chest and belly. ^4 Fully feeling might feel grounded in our legs, aware of our surroundings, sensing our whole body, while breathing and focusing attention to the location with the most emotional intensity. Ways in which we avoid fully feeling can included those mentioned above judging the emotion, distracting ourselves with activities, suppressing, numbing, dissociating out of the body, addictions, etc. But there are also ways in which we partially feel with some attention on the emotion and most outwards on others or in our own mental head. Partial feeling includes looping thoughts with an emotional correlate in the body, endless processing, crying while talking, verbal vomiting, blaming, etc. Initially as we are learning to feel, there is disorientation as in “What are these sensations in my body?” or “I don’t want to be feeling this.” Sometimes our mind might try to convince us to avoid fully feeling because it will be:
- too intense
- out of control
- if we start feeling it will never end
These are tricks of the mind that keep us from actually fully feeling and then expressing or releasing. Another trap is trying to “understand the emotion” first before it is fully felt—this is a trick of the mind to avoid feeling and the brain research shows us that when we feel emotionally triggered we don’t have our full access to wisdom and mental faculties so it is better to feel and release first and then a natural reflection, integration and reframe period can effectively occur. Many conventional mental health professionals make up all kinds of cognitive diversions that help us be more rational or to mentally talk about emotions but ultimately they, too, are advocating avoiding feeling, dissociation or partially feeling the emotions directly in the body—perhaps this is what they were incorrectly taught in school or perhaps it relates to their own comfort with emotion, but either way it is not congruent with the latest neuroscience described by Bessel van der Kolk, PhD. in the The Body Keeps Score.
A good way to check to see if you are fully feeling in presence is if you are talking for than a few words you are probably not fully feeling the emotional sensations directly enough for the emotion to be effectively processed. This is a sign that we need to pause, name, allow and fully feel the direct sensations our body and then do an emotional presencing process or an freedom technique, so the emotional charge can be fully felt, expressed or released and then the wisdom and understanding extracted from the emotion.
EXPRESSING or RELEASING
Remember the Latin root meaning of emotion is ‘to move through or out”; so to emote involves actual feeling and expressing or releasing. When we suppress, partially feel or attach to our emotions, they get stuck in our bodymind. And if we do a cognitive technique or something else to temporarily distract ourselves from feeling–such as taking a walk—it might change our state temporarily, but when we think about the emotionally charged event, is it still there? The difference between using an emotional freedom technique or fully feeling and releasing as opposed to a distraction methods is: “when we think about that event, do we still feel an emotional charge in our body?” If we are not fully feeling and releasing our emotions, they get stuck and at the end of the day we have lots of tension, stagnation, and emotionally charged baggage in our bodymind.
Expressing on our own after fully feeling might include either crying, using vocal sound, journaling, expressive dance, etc. Real time authentic expression with others would involve all of the previous steps: NOTICING & NAMING, ALLOWING, FULLY FEELING while being in relational connection with another person. This might include naming, allowing, fully feeling—without much talking—moment to moment changes in sensation, emotion and perhaps even quality of connection if between romantic partners.
Releasing emotional presencing methods that can be done on our own that support feeling and releasing include Sedona Method or Presencing. Newer therapeutic modalities that can help to increase emotional intelligence and presencing skills in the moment as well as release or desensitize the charge on past stored emotion that be done with a trainer psychotherapist, healer or body-oriented coach include Somatic Experiencing, EMDR, EFT Tapping, Luminous Awareness or other subtle energy work
Most of these methods again are quite subtle and oftentimes tearless but allow us to actually focus our attention, go into the sensations in our body and then release past emotion it so there is no longer an associated emotional charge on the person or event an hour, day, week, or month later on. While these methods can help us safely and effectively release unintegrated emotions from the past, which is essential for deeper presence, openness and aliveness,
but ultimately they can help us learn to engage in greater emotional presence and the ability to feel & express or release emotions in the immediacy of moment.
The Latin origin of the word emotion is “to move through or out” but in order for this to happen, we first have to be aware of emotions before we fully feel them, before expressing or releasing them. Unfelt and unintegrated emotions creates congestion in our system, looping ruminations and mental chatter, attraction to or avoidance of similarly emotionally charged people or situations. Emotional presence is our capacity to feel and maintain presence and connection with others amidst emotional intensity whether pleasurable or painful. This emotional presence requires staying in the sweet spot of feeling—neither avoiding feeling nor getting overwhelmingly lost in or attaching to it. Emotions unfelt from the past or emotions too intense to feel and integrate in the moment, somehow seem to remain in subconscious or unconscious awareness. Sometimes when we seem to become emotionally triggered to a disproportionate degree, it might be pointing us to previously unintegrated emotional charge or trauma. The more inner emotional body-based healing work we do, the less past charge from the past stays stored in our body to get hooked or triggered, which in this context means less emotional content to process. So in addition to releasing our emotional past, we each have a capacity to process emotion in real-time. When we avoid feeling, numb, dissociate out of our body or we stay stuck in an emotion it significantly decreases our overall presence. The more hijacked is our attention in emotionally charged looping thoughts from an earlier event, the less free attention we have available. The more we can enhance our capacity to fully feel & express or release our emotions in the moment the greater the presence and aliveness we embody. Of course it is natural to get emotionally triggered but the virtue of the skill of emotional processing is the amount of time and how skillfully we can fully feel, express or release, reopen and reconnect. Emotional Intelligence is at the foundation of a civilized society in being able to feel empathy, morality–the moral impact of words and actions on others—and compassionate action for a better world. Overall, limited capacity for emotional processing is THE most significant inhibition to deeper presence.
1 Johnson, S. (2013) Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships Little, Brown and Company
2 Siegel, D.J. (2010). Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation. New York: Bantam.
3 Johnson, S. (2013) Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships Little, Brown and Company
4 Siegel, D.J. (2010). Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation. New York: Bantam.