Emotional intelligence is undervalued. When you feel stuck, frustrated, stressed, upset, or overwhelmed, skillful emotional awareness is key to moving forward. Beneath your discomfort is a specific feeling that can guide you. The key, then, is to understand the messages in your feelings and to become adept at using their energy appropriately.
Even so-called “negative emotions,” such as sadness, anger, and fear, convey important information and energy to take specific actions that can help you and others. Feelings arise for a purpose and when that purpose is achieved, the feeling subsides. Unfortunately, as a society, we have not been taught to adequately understand and appreciate emotional energy and information, so we tend to treat these feelings roughly.
For example, with an emotion like anger, you may express it explosively or push it below the surface, because you don’t want to act angry. You either express your feelings reactively, or you stop feeling completely.
Emotional intelligence expert Carla McLaren describes the healthy third alternative. You can facilitate the healthy flow of emotions, she says, by consciously “channeling” the information and energy that emotions provide. In other words, emotions contain meaningful messages along with the energy to do something related to those messages. This is true of so-called “negative” emotions as well as “positive” emotions.
For example, McClaren suggests the following:
• Anger arises when you or someone or something you love is threatened and you need to take preventative action or set firm boundaries.
• Grief arises when you need to let go of what no longer serves you or what is past, so that you can move on.
• Fear arises to prompt you to take preventive action.
• Joy motivates you toward expansive, expressive, and creative work.
• Compassion urges you to care for others.
Therefore, every emotion has a message and energy to do a certain kind of action. Tuning in to your feelings helps you receive these messages and take these actions.
Let’s explore the first three of these feelings in more depth. Grief, anger, and fear are often misunderstood and mishandled. We tend to suppress them, stay stuck in them, or express them unsubtly, with negative consequences.
So, while working with these feelings, it is important to do so mindfully. Approach them as a curious observer with an attitude of paying attention, intentionally, in the present moment, without judgment. Realize that emotions are just information about yourself, others, and events, along with the energy to do something about that information. They do not identify you and will pass by while you collect their information and take appropriate action.
(Note: If you feel so overwhelmed or paralyzed by emotions that you cannot consciously process them on your own, seek the help of a counseling professional trained in dealing with intense emotions.)
The positive purpose of grief
The purpose of grief is to enable you to let go of what is no longer working or is past and gone. Sadness is a watery energy that flows downward and enables you to release what no longer serves you, so that you can return to fluidity and flexibility in your life.
By allowing appropriate sadness to flow through you, you will make room for new energy and new possibilities. If you don’t consciously acknowledge sadness or don’t know how to flow with it, you will bury it inside, where it will perpetually spin, or you will get lost in the feeling and feel overwhelmed.
Here’s a practice adapted from Carla McLaren’s book, The Language of Emotions, that can help you consciously process feelings of sadness.
1. When you feel sad, take some quiet, private time to focus on that feeling. Immerse yourself in the feeling of sadness, locate it in your body, and approach it with curiosity to see what it has to tell you.
2. Take a deep breath as if you were filling your whole body with your breath. As you exhale, let out a sigh, and feel the energy of your grief flow like water down through your body, through your legs and feet, all the way to the floor.
3. Stay centered in your inner space and ask your grief the question: “What needs to be released or let go now?” Don’t rush to fill out an answer. Instead, leave the question open. Listen and feel inside.
Repeat the sigh breathing through your body as many times as you feel the urge and leave your question open until your deeper knowledge responds. You may find that you know right away what you need to release or you may find that it becomes obvious later. Either way, carefully managing your grief (or any emotion) starts a process of discovery and integration that will help you move forward.
The positive purpose of anger
Anger arises to create and maintain personal boundaries and protect personal space. You feel angry when personal boundaries or the boundaries of someone or something you care about are disrupted or violated. When you are able to identify the source of the perceived threat and use the energy available in anger to strengthen your personal space and take appropriate action, the anger will subside. It will have served its purpose.
Here’s an exercise adapted from McLaren to gather information and use energy in your anger:
1. When you feel the anger rising, focus inside your body and become more in touch with the feeling felt. Deal with the feeling of curiosity to find out more about him.
2. Take a deep breath. As you exhale, visualize and feel as if the energy in your anger is moving outward into a sphere about an arm’s width around you, your personal boundaries, and strengthening them with a brilliant color. Do this until you feel a shift in your energy, so that you witness, feel and act on the energy in your anger without it being used up.
3. Ask your anger this question: “What needs to be protected or taken back?”
4. Then ask, “What action will restore healthy boundaries and protect what is important?”
These questions help you determine what you feel is threatened, so you can take appropriate action. Try this when anger arises and see how it works for you.
The positive purpose of fear
We are told “fear is what holds us back” and “the only thing we fear is fear itself”. If we can overcome our fears, we will be able to live fully and fulfill our hopes and dreams. But, what if this ageless wisdom about fear was missing something? What if fear in its most basic form was one of our wise guides?
Emotions have three basic forms: the unconscious reactive expression, the repressed cycling state, and the healthy free-flowing state. We may be familiar with the first two forms of fear: the reactive expression that makes us fearful and the repressed state that creates persistent low-level anxiety.
Fear in its healthy, flowing form is something else entirely. What if fear refers to an intuitive perception of something that needs attention? What if he could alert you to an important action?
This type of fear is a sixth sense that reaches through your personal space to pick up cues about what’s going on inside you, with others, and in your environment. Fear can alert you to what is going on in your body. It can alert you to the actions and intentions of the people around you and conditions in the environment. When you learn to discern this information, it can help you choose wise actions.
To learn to use fear as a wise guide, try this simple practice:
1. When you feel fear arise, take a quiet, private moment to focus on the feeling. Immerse yourself in the feeling of fear, locate it in your body, and approach it with curiosity to see what it has to tell you.
2. Take a deep breath as if you were filling your whole body with your breath. As you exhale, imagine and feel your breath filling the sphere of your personal space about an arm’s width around your entire body. Feel in your personal space and in the wider space around you and look for the subtle cues. For example, you might be drawn to an area inside your body or look at something or someone in your environment. You may feel the need to move toward or away from something.
3. Stay centered in your personal space and ask your concerns the question: “What action should be taken now?” Don’t rush to fill out an answer. Instead, leave the question open. Listen and feel inside. See what he presents himself with. You may be inspired to take a certain action.
It can take time to learn how to recognize the way signs. Be as patient as possible. The simple act of tuning in to emotional cues is a developing skill. You will develop your ability to feel the inner guidance of fear and all of your emotions through mindful practice over time.
You will also learn to discern the quality of signals that are an accurate orientation to the present from misinterpretations based on past traumatic experiences. There is a different hair quality for precision guidance versus misdirection. Misdirection can seem worrying, stressful, or hasty. He is focused on what happened in the past or very concerned about the future. Careful emotional direction has a realistic, present, moving-forward quality that feels like perfect timing.
So, in short, when feelings arise, instead of being wary of them, what if you welcome them, be curious, and ask:
• What is the sense of these feelings in my body?
• What exactly are these feelings?
• What is the message in this feeling?
• What is he asking me to do?