Emotions: What are they, how they cause suffering, what to do about them



Emotions: what are they?

Let me start by stating some obvious facts:

  1. you are a human being;

  2. you were born with a whole range of emotions.

Emotions are part of your human-beingness. In fact, since Charles Darwin's famous study of emotions, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, we know that humans in all cultures the world over have the same range of emotional expression.

Below is an image of a tribesman in Papua New Guinea. Just look closely and see how instantly familiar the facial expressions are:


In more modern science, particular in the field of (tonguetwister alert!) neuroendocrinology, we know that emotions occur primarily in the limbic system of the brain, when peptide molecules attach themselves to certain receptor sites they release chemical messengers into the bloodstream. For example, Oxytocin is a peptide hormone known as 'the love hormone': released when a mother gives birth, after orgasm, and when we cuddle each other.

             Tigran Tsitoghdzyan, Mirror

             Tigran Tsitoghdzyan, Mirror

Why Do Emotions Cause Us to Suffer?

a) The paradox of expressing our emotions: In or Out?

If emotions are so very natural, why is it that we spend huge amounts of time, money, and energy trying to 'fix them'? If you are struggling with your emotions, this could be one of the most important questions you ask yourself.

I have dedicated most of my life to supporting people struggling with their emotions and the thoughts that are born of them. And, after all this time, one thing is absolutely clear to me: we struggle with our emotions, not because of the emotions themselves, but because of the family and cultural and social rules and expectations we have absorbed about our feeling states. 

Indeed, from the cultural point of view, we live in very confusing times, when it comes to knowing how to relate to our Emotional Self.  


A constant struggle between emotional expression and suppression

On the one hand, we are all children of the 60s, and grandchildren of Sigmund Freud: we are all part of a 'better-out-than-in' culture of emotions. 

But, on the other hand, the spectrum of emotional expression that is deemed culturally appropriate to express is very narrow indeed. It is OK to cry if you are an XFactor judge, or if you are mourning the death of a public figure, such as Steve Jobs. But what happens to our emotions when we walk past a starving homeless person on our street corner? What happens to the green-eyed monster envy when we see someone posting another photo on Facebook showing off their incredibly wonderful life?


Judging Our Emotions

Most tellingly, in a Western culture that values the pursuit of happiness through pleasure-seeking above and beyond all other emotions, an increasing number of people are suffering from depression.  This is not a coincidence! Lost in the false belief that happiness is the only emotion worth cultivating, we are losing touch with our very natural, very human range of emotions. 

Just take a moment to think about what judgments you make when someone else gets angry. Most of us will judge this person to have 'lost control' in some way. These deep-set judgments about certain 'undesirable' emotions then cause us to repress these emotions in others and in ourselves, much to our detriment.

Not only do repressed emotions come back to haunt us, but they often lead to a build up of a powerful secondary emotion, shame. So many people I work with feel ashamed because they are not as happy as they think they need to be or should be. The secondary emotion of shame makes it very difficult to befriend your emotional states.

 Repressed Emotion + (Repressed) Shame = Physical and Psychological Dis-ease


What can we do about our emotions?

Remember, your emotions are 100% a natural part of being human. That includes anger, rage, jealousy, fear, sadness and all the other so-called 'negative emotions'. The challenge we are all faced with is two-fold: a) we need to recognise the value of our emotions, especially the so-called 'negative' ones, in giving us important information and b) we need to cut through the cultural and personal narratives we have built up around our emotional selves. 

How do we recognize the value of our emotions? Well, lets say you feel angry about a situation. Don't dismiss that feeling. Anger is a vital human emotion that, when expressed appropriately, can lead to powerful transformation. In fact, it is often said that depression is anger bottled up. If you are depressed, it is very possible that you have been very angry about some aspect of life and have not been able to find an outlet for that anger. So, now is the time. What are the things, events, people that have really pissed you off in your life? Maybe it is this fast-paced, hard-working, anger-suppressing culture that pisses you off. Recognise this. This is the truth, and the truth, as they say, shall set you free. 

To finish, let these powerful words from American poet C. Joybell soak in and emancipate your beautiful Emotional Self:

Anger is like flowing water; there’s nothing wrong with it as long as you let it flow. Hate is like stagnant water; anger that you denied yourself the freedom to feel, the freedom to flow; water that you gathered in one place and left to forget. Stagnant water becomes dirty, stinky, disease-ridden, poisonous, deadly; that is your hate. On flowing water travels little paper boats; paper boats of forgiveness. Allow yourself to feel anger, allow your waters to flow, along with all the paper boats of forgiveness. Be human.
— C. JoyBell C.