Mindfulness: Is It Better to Reflect on Emotions Before Responding or Exercise Feelings in the Moment?

The Former

I just want to feel everything.

This line echoes in Fiona Apple’s Every Single Night and often echoes inside my own mind. I think that most of us, just like Miss Apple, want to feel the entire spectrum of emotion. Emotions ranging from hate, anger, and jealousy all the way to empathy, joy, and love.

However, with all of these emotions constantly erupting inside us, is it better to internalize these emotions and reflect on them before acting? Or, is it better to experience and exercise these emotions in real time?

I tend to side with the former.

American Writer and Soldier, Ambrose Bierce, graciously said:

Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.

And I can not disagree with him. Think back to a time when an emotion had taken total control of you and caused you to behave in a way that you later regretted. This is a tale as old as time and the premise for most T.V sitcoms. Whether it’s Homer Simpson disappointing Marge or Peter Griffin going to great lengths to win back the affection of his family after an inappropriate reaction — these raw emotions, flowing like colours from our bodies are happening every day and having a strong influence over how each and every one of us behave.

These emotions are extremely powerful and can easily effect ones judgment. And when these emotions are handled poorly, they can have significant outcomes.

Luckily, with the practice of mindfulness and a simple understanding of what’s happening inside your head, it can be easy to avoid regretful situations and maintain an even emotional keel.

Let’s take a quick look at what’s happening when your brain is processing emotions:

Neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, are used as chemical messengers to send signals across the network. Brain regions receive these signals, which results in us recognizing objects and situations, assigning them an emotional value to guide behaviour and making split-second risk/reward assessments.(The Conversation)

While this tidbit of information might be hard to remember when you are in an argument with your boss, it can be extremely helpful to be mindful of exactly what is occurring inside your head, before you react.

So, here are some quick tips you can practice when you can feel some emotions bubbling inside of you:

  1. Take the time to understand that your brain is having a chemical reaction to the events that are occurring in your environment.
  2. When feeling envious, jealous, or angry try to run through a simulation in your mind on the actions you would make if you gave in to impulsion and emotions.
  3. Be patient. Sounds simple, but take your time before responding. You can simply ask somebody to repeat themselves to buy yourself some more time before jumping into the unknown.

By no means are these universal instructions for controlling emotions in the heat of a dispute. The tips above, are just meant to be suggestions on how you can internalize your feelings and have a more balanced approach when dealing with powerful and abrupt mood swings. Ultimately, it is your brain and your body that has to find what works.

The Latter/Hatter

You’re mad. Bonkers. Off your head… but I’ll tell you a secret… all of the best people are.

This was said by the great Mad Hatter many years ago and something that a lot of people will agree with to this day. While there have been many versions of Alice in Wonderland told over the past hundred years, one thing remains constant and that is the Hatter’s sheer lunacy. In each story, the Mad Hatter is whacky, mad, and totally out of his mind, but isn’t that why we all love him?

It’s hard not to love someone who is bursting with emotion with every step they take and are so undeniably true to themselves. These are the same people who prefer not to numb themselves with little exercises that keep them composed and reserved. These are the same people who wont count to 5 let alone 1 before responding. These are the same people who do not believe in mindfulness.

It can be said, that some people prefer to be more aware of their minds and bodies and it turn be able to forecast their emotional stability. But there are others who believe the best way to learn the power of your emotions are by exercising them.

While I have made it clear that I tend to side with the former and believe in mindfulness, I worry that it is possible to forget what emotions truly feel like to an extent. I am aware that people who exercise mindfulness are not numb and are capable of having emotional responses. I mean, the nature of mindfulness is to experience emotions internally, understand the emotions that are occurring beneath you, and respond it a way that you are at term with.

However, by repressing these emotions and delaying their effects, even in the slightest, you are not having a true emotional experience. Instead, what you have is an emotional simulation.

The same way cold’s can exercise your immune system, love and hate can exercise your soul.

This leaves us asking ourselves, is it better to internalize these emotions and reflect on them before acting? Or, is it better to experience and exercise these emotions in real time?

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