Demonstrating emotion is not as easy as one might think. There are a host of factors that go into what we choose to express, and what we don’t. We have inherited bodies through which emotions flow. We experience present issues which influence those emotions. And we have hopes and dreams that also impact on our emotional state.
Expressing emotion is therefore a conflation of our past, present and future, a diplomatic tour de force with a huge number of inputs, and a large number of concurrent processes to manage. On top of all that, we have to find a way of showing outwardly, in a daring act of communication, what we are experiencing inwardly. It is truly a wonder we express anything at all sometimes.
OUR HISTORICAL LEGACY
Whether we like it or not, we all have bodies which are the result of millions of years of development. We are the survivors, the ones who didn’t die.
We have built into us a few straightforward felt needs:
The need to acquire or consume
The need to retire or reject
The need to collaborate or coexist
The need to act independently or freely
These felt needs are experienced calmly when they are met, but we get upset when they are not met, or are in conflict. The way to upset someone is to frustrate one of the four above needs: block their access to something they want; prevent them from getting away from something they don’t want; frustrate their social networking; or prevent them for acting for themselves. Furthermore, as individuals, we can become internally upset when two or more of the above are in conflict. For instance, if we want to consume a drug, but we also want to reject it; or if we want to partner with someone, but we also want to experience freedom.
These are natural conflicts, born of the fact that we are built that way. It is our legacy, the product of our development before we were born.
OUR PRESENT EXPERIENCE
Our past is not the whole story. We also, every day, have situations to face which are full of chance and complexity. These situations are time-limited – in other words, they can arise and disappear without warning, and they do not arrange themselves for our convenience.
We can wake up one morning with an illness. We may be rendered unable to eat; unable to reject the germs inside us; unable to interact with others; and stripped of our ability to act freely. This can cause a bundle of emotion inside, just at the time when we need other people’s help. It explains why some people can fluctuate between silence and hostility when unwell: expressing our upset releases the feelings, but causes conflict; alternatively, silence avoids conflict, but bottles up the feelings.
OUR HOPES AND DREAMS
As if this wasn’t enough, we are also creative beings, gifted with the ability to anticipate. On top of our historical legacy, and our present situations, we insist on speculating about our own futures. We worry about what might happen tomorrow to take away what we love, force us to accept what we don’t like, isolate us from others, and strip us of freedom.
UNDERSTANDING AND COMMUNICATING OUR ANGST
To communicate our emotions, there is a further two-stage process to be undergone.
Firstly, we have to find a way of understanding the full range of our emotions, and collecting it into a story that makes sense to us. Just as a scientific list of ingredients doesn’t make a good menu, so a scientific list of our hormonal imbalances doesn’t make a meaningful understanding. We need a way of knowing, for ourselves, what we are going through. This meaning has to be manageable, brief enough to express to ourselves and hold in our mind.
Secondly, we have to find a mutually acceptable language with which to express to others what we are going through. Our meanings might not match other people’s meanings. We therefore have to undertake an act of translation, making ourselves undertandable and acceptable to others, without losing our own sense of meaning and self-acceptability.
Counselling is a process in which some of this can take place. (It doesn’t have to be counselling. You can do this yourself, or in collaboration with trusted others. But counselling is a designed safe space useful for such a process.)
The rough process is that we:
Come to appreciate our own legacy of basic needs, and the emotions which can arise if those needs are frustrated
Develop an awareness of how, in the present moment, we experience subtle fluctuations of emotion in response to events
Develop an appreciation of our own hopes and dreams, and how perceived threats to them can cause anxiety
Collect all of the above into a self-expressed story or narrative that makes meaningful sense to us
Find a mutually acceptable language with which to introduce the story of ourselves to others
We will never remove conflict while we are on this Earth. But we can find ways to comprehend and manage the conflict as it runs through our own mind. This does not remove difficulty, but it can certainly make us more skilled at expressing what is in our minds. This makes it less likely that we will suffer breakdowns of functioning and communication. It makes it more likely that we can function peacefully, both in relation to ourselves, and others.