The Raw Power Of Your Emotions
It’s hard to identify your lowest point, when you’re living through it. Every disaster, personal, professional, financial, always feels like the final straw, the last act.
Every time your life falls apart, you think you’re living in a sit com where the writers know their show has been canceled and they’re going into the last season with total abandon.
The true lowest of the low points is never going to be obvious to you until you’re at the end of the road looking back, with all the knowledge and experiences that you’ve gained. But that doesn’t make the individual crises any better, and it doesn’t make the moments where everything you’ve got feels like it’s not enough any more bearable. When you’re in a low, you feel like you have to constantly battle to get back to a high. When you’re in a high, you feel like you have to guard against experiencing another low.
Those high points and low points may be precipitated and brought on by a whole range of different factors. We experience high points because we do well at our jobs, because we reach our goal levels of fitness and health, because we meet someone that we love, or we buy the car we’ve always wanted. Positive experiences like that allow us to tap into our positive emotions — feelings of joy, satisfaction, contentment, relaxation, excitement, fulfilment and so on.
We experience the low points because sooner or later, things don’t go our way. We lose a job, or a project at work doesn’t go right, we lose loved ones, either to the chaos of life or through their own or our own actions. We don’t get the house, we don’t have money, we can’t find the right path, we struggle with things that are out of our control and out of our hands.
The truth is, almost everything we do is normally about navigating a series of high points and low points. It’s about trying to maximise the good feelings and minimise, confront, change, beat down and control the feelings and emotions that we’ve come to know as bad.
Our lives are less a story of us accomplishing things than it is a story of us spending 50–80 years trying to “deal” with our emotions.
We spend so long battling towards that level of control between them and throwing away the emotional strength that we need to survive because we think that what we need to do is shape every high and low — as much as possible — into the life that we want. To control it all, and to constantly exercise our authority.
The war that we fight, to control our emotions, is a losing one. It’s one that we’ve been told we have to engage with, because emotions must be kept in check, and must be tightly held down. It’s a war that we’re only fighting because the rest of the world has told us to fight it. Our parents, our teachers, the books we read, almost every message around our emotions is that they must be given boundaries and held in check.
I met a woman who was struggling with the relationships in her life. She was drawing away from her husband who had become abusive and violent, she was losing her relationship with her son and the spill over from those two disintegrating bonds was starting to affect the way she communicated and collaborated with the staff and customers in her business, because she just couldn’t keep everything inside any longer.
Here’s what she said.
“I can’t hold everything in anymore.”
The boundaries and chains and cuffs and restraints that she’d piled onto her emotions throughout the 37 years of her life were starting to break and she had no idea what to do about it. She’d begun controlling those emotions as a young girl, taking on board the advice that winners don’t cry. She’d kept controlling them through years of a fracturing and abusive marriage that was slowly eroding her own self, and she was still trying to control them when we talked.
I had one question to ask her. What happens when those bonds break, and your emotions are no longer in check?
She told me that she believed the overwhelming force of experiencing everything she was trying not to feel all at once could kill her.
And so we talked about how she could start to relax those bonds, relax the chains, let the emotions out one by one, first by identifying and accepting each of the things that she was feeling.
I asked her to go home and to look herself in the eye, in front of the mirror and say “I feel sad” or “I feel lost” or whatever it was that she was trying to hold down. Just one emotion every single day. I asked her to accept what she was feeling, and get on board with it and get to know it. Live inside the skin of her true self, shaped by that emotion and become a part of it.
When we caught up again a few months ago, I asked her how she was, and she told me that she was sad, angry, and bitter about the way her marriage had gone and the way it had taken her son from her. But she was also excited, nervous, enthusiastic and filled with anticipation about what was next. She was listing emotion after emotion, all the things that she had denied feeling or tried to keep controlled and locked away.
She told me that allowing herself to slowly feel these things, for the first time in her life, was completely changing her view. Changing it from an endless sea of black and white and grey to a vibrant and colourful new world.
There was no secret to it all that had allowed her to heal from her scars, there was no method that had let her achieve instant success in anything. But there was that freedom with her emotions that was letting her take the world and her life on with more energy and vigour than she had ever experienced before.
Even more importantly, she had started to taste and accept and identify these emotions one by one. She hadn’t become overwhelmed or obliterated by a bursting of everything, and because of that, she had learned to live inside of what she felt. That’s hugely powerful.
That’s the first myth about our emotions that I want to talk about in this book. That we have to take a position against them and be their masters.
Fact: Nobody can accomplish great things without their emotions.
Did you know that every single great idea, great movement, great product or great concept has come from someone whose emotions are powerful enough to shape their actions?
Nobody can accomplish anything of value by approaching it in a vacuum, or by failing to feel. No matter if they’re scientists discovering new secrets that could unlock the universe or they’re tech entrepreneurs in a garage somewhere designing a new technology, they key to accomplishing their goal lies in their emotions.
That’s where they draw the energy to build, to create and to work, no matter how complex and vastly difficult their task is.
Let me ask you this, do you really think that anyone could invent and design and create a product like the iPhone, if they weren’t driven by their emotions?
Their desire for success, their craving for more, their fear of being forgotten if they don’t do great work, their excitement about the new new thing, all of these emotions are hugely important to the creating or discovering or building or making process.
But there’s something else to think about, too. There’s another myth we’ve all believed about our emotions.
That belief is that there are emotions that are innately good and bad emotions to feel. We’ve been taught that feeling sadness or disappointment or anger or rage or loss are all bad in and of themselves, and feeling pleasure and happiness and hope are good in and of themselves.
Here’s why that’s a myth, and why it is in fact an incredibly dangerous myth. Our raw emotions, the raw experiencing and feeling of their nature is neither good or bad. It just is. It’s just there. It affects us, and it shapes us, but the fact that we experience a raw emotion and touch its nature isn’t something that we can saw is good or bad on its own.
Have you ever lost someone important to you? I know I have. And I know that when it happened, I felt loss. I felt loss and sadness and sorrow in an incredibly acute way. Those feelings were entirely essential though, because I had to feel them in order to come to terms with the loss of that loved person. To come to terms with their absence, I had to experience it, and to experience it I had to live inside my emotions.
The emotions of loss weren’t pleasant emotions, and I wouldn’t actively choose to feel them again just for the hell of it. But they were helpful, healthy and necessary.
There are positive sadnesses to be found in tragic movies and books and songs — the work of Tom Waits for example is something that always brings me to feel sorrow, but the rough beauty of his music is enough that I want to feel it. And in fact, that sorrow can be tremendously cathartic, and it can throw the positive parts of my life into a particularly beautiful light.
In the same way, the emotions we generally identify as being “good” aren’t good for us just on their own. If we’ve learned to experience happiness and joy through doing unhealthy or harmful things, it’s not enough that we like the emotions those activities give to us. Just because it makes you happy (in the moment, and rarely the morning after) to binge drink and take drugs and fuck people you don’t care about, doesn’t make any of that behaviour positive or acceptable.
When we’ve built up the idea that there are good and bad emotions, we’ve committed ourselves to trying to protect the good and fight the bad. Just like when we commit ourselves to achieving control, we start to waste our precious resources on these emotions.