Discoveries from the inside out

We are more than our feelings and thoughts. Acknowledging our emotions, stepping back and noticing where they are leading helps our relationships

4 min read
Elisabeth Öhlböck

The other day, a colleague at work walked past me in the corridor without acknowledging me. I noticed a quick firing of emotions and feelings within me: sadness, confusion and anger.

These turned into a series of thoughts: “Did I do anything wrong? I bet that she’s angry at me for that thing that happened a week ago. She shouldn’t ignore me, that’s just rude.”

As I was sitting in my office, at the mercy of these feelings and thoughts, I realized that emotional self-regulation was needed. I engaged my thinking brain by naming my feelings and by trying to find alternative explanations for her behavior.

After that, I decided to act according to my values and not according to my conflicting feelings. I got up, went down the corridor into her office and said to her: “How are you? Did you have a good weekend?”

My colleague looked up and told me about her father, who had an emergency admission to hospital at the weekend, and about how worried she was.

Understanding our emotions

Emotions and feelings are among the foundations of our relationships. Without them, our interactions would be nothing more than transactions or factual exchanges of information.

However, to integrate emotions and feelings meaningfully with the values that guide our lives, it is advisable to take a deeper look at them.

Emotions, feelings and moods are not the same thing, but they’re often used interchangeably. Emotions are prompted by a trigger and activated by neurotransmitters and hormones in the brain. Emotions can be detected (and measured) through physical changes in our body: heart rate, breathing, skin conduction, etc. Emotions set something in motion: that’s why they are called e-motions.

Core emotions have similar expressions all over the world, independent of cultural differences. The six most common of these emotions are happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear and disgust.

Feelings can be described as cognitive interpretations of emotions and can differ culturally. Their interpretation is also shaped by personal experiences, beliefs, memories and thoughts.

Moods are emotional states that can last over a long time.

Emotions are good teachers

One of the most important things I have learnt over the last few years is that emotions are events in our nervous system which arise mostly without our thinking brain being involved. Emotions and feelings are morally neutral until we make a choice about acting upon or dealing with them. If we become aware and attend to them, they will tell us important things about our lives. Vice versa, an unattended emotion or feeling can dominate and manipulate us.

“Emotions in and of themselves have no moral value; they are neither good nor bad,” says Richard Rohr, OFM. “They are just sirens alerting us about something to which we should pay attention. If we learn to listen to them instead of always obeying them, they can be very good teachers.”

Name it to tame it!

Even though there are no bad emotions, there are unhealthy (maladaptive) ways to express them. When emotions are very strong, they can literally hijack our thinking brain and make us feel out of balance or react in ways we later regret.

If this happens, however, we are not at the mercy of our automatic brain wiring.

There is something we can do about it. Pausing for just a moment and naming what we feel activates the prefrontal cortex (the thinking brain) and reduces the activity in the limbic system (the feeling brain).

Dr. Dan Siegel, a psychiatrist from the University College of Los Angeles, coined the phrase “Name it to tame it.” This means that naming our emotions decreases their intensity—it puts the brakes on our big emotional reactions. It’s a skill that can be learned. That said, it’s not always easy, or at least not for everyone, to become aware of and name feelings. There are six groups: sad, mad, scared, joyful, powerful and peaceful.

Research shows that becoming more specific at naming feelings makes people more self-aware and therefore more able to engage in affirming relationships.

Being able to step back

Self-awareness theory is based on the concept that we are not our feelings and thoughts, but someone or something more. We have the capacity to take a step back and observe our thoughts and feelings.

This skill, also called “metacognition” (thinking about thinking), allows us to see things from the perspective of others, practice self-control and work creatively. It leads to better decision-making and better communication skills.

Self-awareness is also a valuable skill for people who choose to align their lives according to transcendent values. The spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola places great emphasis on learning to acknowledge and name feelings in a non-judgmental way.

In his book God in All Things, G. W. Hughes, SJ writes: “The first step in discernment is the acknowledgement of our moods and feelings; the second step is to ask ourselves about the source of the moods and feelings. The third step is to notice where they are leading.”

Reflecting on the experience I had with my colleague in the corridor, I was grateful to my discerning brain for having kicked in, rather than closing in on my perceived hurt, allowing me to engage in a meaningful and affirming relationship.

First published in New City, London.

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