Our culture has a poor grasp of emotions. While psycho-spiritual sources (i.e. religion and mental health therapy) are beginning to appreciate the function of emotions, they rarely appreciate the environment and purpose of emotions. And just as commonly, especially in religions, we find that repression is the go-to emotional tool. Even so, we now know that painful emotions indicate unintegrated psychic trauma, usually from childhood. We also know that anxious emotions indicate avoidance mechanisms for unresolved fears. Etc. Despite these clear advances over the straight-faced repressive attitudes that psycho-spiritual authorities have tended to take prior to Freud, emotions are still largely a mystery–especially when they are not highly charged. It is still typical that men today actively suppress all effeminate tendencies in an effort to live up to the mainstream masculinity enforced by contemporary solider and super-hero protagonists. This, despite the consistent rise in contrasexual expression (exemplified by such slogans as “real men cry”).
Part of the problem traces back to our culture’s overwhelming preference for a materialist interpretation of reality, exchanging magical mythoi for their more drab counterparts. Ritual and magic, as a rule relegated to spiritual bastions, have historically revolved around practices designed to evoke emotions, and the symbols that populate these practices are chosen and arranged to evoke specific emotions. Although praise for ancient wisdom is rapidly becoming a New Age cliché, there is no denying that these cultures at least paid more attention to their emotions than we do. Nevertheless, we find an equal dependency upon magical (i.e. vague and dogmatic) thinking in ancient texts and holy books whether the subject is symbols, emotions, or the rituals that use one to evoke another, leaving us largely empty-handed in sources for genuine understanding.
The reductionist method of mainstream science further compounds the problem. Because the only acceptable scientific data is physical data, every other form of experience must be cashed out for physical phenomena. Thus, we do not have emotions; rather, we have brain-chemistry and the endocrine system. Empirical data confirms unequivocally that emotions are directly associated with chemical changes in the body and especially the brain, but the materialist orientation of contemporary science prevents anyone from seriously raising the question, “Is chemistry primarily a cause or an effect?” Although scientists may ask us “What else would you have me do?” it is clearly folly to casually disregard the vivid intensity of an emotional experience as simple chemical interaction: at no point in a fit of rage do I experience anything remotely connected to chemistry, despite the chemical reactions undoubtedly occurring within my body.
In response to the materialist reduction of emotions to chemistry, our psycho-spiritual authorities tend to approach emotions as symptomatic of a chemical imbalance, rather than the reverse. While there can be no doubt that therapy is beneficial and that some people need psychiatric drugs in order to even begin to approach balance, the question of primacy must still be answered.
There is no scarcity of literature on the emotion, and yet sources confuse more often than they enlighten. One source will encourage active expression of emotions where another will encourage non-expressive feeling. Yet another source will identify all emotions as “good” only to be contradicted by sources that warn against the dangers of “negative” emotions.
It is high time we filter these muddy waters. The essay that follows describes the nature of emotions and how to manage them. Be advised that most emotions occur in complexes, which are groups of emotions with subtle layers and interconnections. Nevertheless, I’ll use the term “emotion” rather than “emotional complex” for the sake of simplicity and readability.
The Shape of the Human Emotional Experience
A philosophical primer on emotions and their context in human experience
The Golden Mean
Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy.
Aristotle, in his best remembered work, the Nicomachean Ethics, endorsed an ethics whose centerpiece we remember as the Golden Mean. According to his ethical model, virtues and vices occur along a one-dimensional axis. Two vices, equally corrupting but opposite in content, occupy the extreme poles of the axis, while a corresponding virtue rests at the careful balance between. Thus, all virtues exist at the balance between opposites and all vices represent the extreme manifestation of a trait that would be virtuous in moderation. Courage, then, is the balance between cowardice and bravado; frugality is the balance between stinginess and wastefulness. The list goes on.
Aristotle’s ethical model of virtues and vices is the same basic framework that I use (though he and I disagree on how to strike the golden mean), but this model can also, by analogy, be applied to emotions. There are, indeed, “positive” and “negative” emotions, if what we mean by these terms is emotions occurring along a one-dimensional axis whose two poles are named “positive” and “negative”. Since emotions are naturally passive (that is, they happen to us, like sensation) it would be a disservice to name them “virtuous” or “vicious”–suggesting that some emotions are good and some bad can only result in repression. Instead, we can simply use the root visual for this model: emotions are either balanced or unbalanced. Hence, any emotion you experience falls somewhere in the range between the two extremes. Enthusiasm, then, lies between overeagerness and boredom, forgiveness between outrage and guilt, acceptance between anger and depression, and trust between naivety and cynicism.
Emotions Are the Dynamic Aesthetic Aspect of Mind
Emotions are always moving. Etymologically, the word means “a stirring” or “a moving out.” Because they are always in motion, your emotional state is guaranteed to change from moment to moment. Even when emotions are balanced, they are still in flux; the difference between balance and imbalance is a matter of efficiency, not dynamism. Because emotions are in flux, there is an energy cost associated with them: the price of maintaining the particular course of motion in which this energy flows. Emotions that move efficiently can actually increase the available emotional energy (it’s as good a name as any); whereas, emotions that move inefficiently enough can absorb all available emotional energy. Hence, a faithful and accepting attitude leaves plenty of energy for action; whereas, anxiety demands our constant attention, leaving us drained.
The energy associated with emotions is energy for action. In common parlance, we call this energy “desire“: One does nothing unless it is so desired. Desire is dynamic, for it is always in motion, but it is focused only upon its object and the means of getting from here to there. By contrast, emotion revolves around its subject. When we are filled with hatred for another, we may have associated desires (such as the desire to bury the person in a tar pit), yet the emotion itself is a sense of disgust and revulsion concerning the object, but affecting only us. When we separate the emotion from its associated desire, it is easy to see that the emotion describes the experience, filling it with meaning and substance; whereas desire motivates the experience, imparting drive and purpose toward an end not yet achieved. Emotion, then, is essentially a dynamic aesthetic.
Geometrically, the relationship between emotions and desires is analogous to the relationship between a coiled electric current and the magnetic field this current induces. Moving emotions, when organized and coherent, produce a vector desire along the axis perpendicular to the emotional rotation. The intensity and coherence in the path of the emotional energy determines the focus and intensity of the desire. Hence, desire pierces your emotional cloud, but the two are completely different in purpose.
Every Emotion Has Its Belief
Just as every emotion or complex of emotions has a desire or complex of desires associated with it, so it also has thoughts associated with it. But not just any thought is associated with desires and emotions; it must be a thought in which we are invested, also known as a belief. In the mind, beliefs are the static counterpart of emotions and desires; however, beliefs are prior to emotions. That is, an emotional response only emerges when there is a belief that triggers the response.
Suppose you are a five year old child. Your mother has just had her heart broken by your father and in her pain, she tells you that you’ll never see him again. What do you feel? Well this depends entirely on what you conclude. Since you’re five, of course, you may conclude that your father doesn’t love you. Out of this belief emerges an entire complex of emotions that are likely to haunt you well into your adulthood.
Consider a milder example: you are on a crowded train and someone’s elbow wedges painfully between your ribs. What emotion do you feel? Depends on how you interpret the situation. If you are quick to jump to conclusions, you may assume either maliciousness or carelessness, plunging straight into outrage. If, however, you discover that the jab was unintended and that the jabber is conciliatory, you probably won’t be very upset. In either case, it is the belief which starts the emotions spinning.
Emotions and Cravings Are Two Different Animals
I’ve seen plenty of lists of emotions, and on these lists I’ve sometimes seen “lust.” There are many ways to define this word, and some of them are appropriate to the concept of emotion, but the word typically denotes the instinctive bodily craving for sexual stimulation. If it is safe to assume that the sexual instinct is a natural appetite of the body, then this instinct is clearly at home among other natural appetites, such as hunger, thirst and drowsiness. The simple governing principle is that where there is an appetite, there is a craving sensation.
Because both the range and the domain of cravings is the body, their mechanics are not identical to those of emotions. No amount of reflection on your childhood will change your propensity for becoming hungry a few times a day. Nevertheless, emotions are mistaken for cravings, famously leading to eating disorders and sex addiction (etc.): you notice that something feels absent from your life but, not knowing and not reflecting upon what it is, you attempt to fill the void with food or sex as if the emptiness were in the stomach and not in the mind or spirit. This confusion, though, only reinforces the clear demarcation between craving and emotion.
The most salient feature of balanced emotions is their stability. Consider compassion. This emotion, a form of love, is associated with a simultaneous peace and sadness, the sincere will that the suffering of another may be somehow alleviated. It is stable because a compassionate state of mind may be maintained in virtually any environment (unless, of course, you get knocked into unbalanced emotions, but we’ll get to that later), and because it is happy to exist simultaneously with the decision not to act but only to feel. I feel compassion whenever I see a car stalled on the road. Because I know nearly nothing about cars, I rarely stop, but I still have compassion, trusting that someone more knowledgeable will come along (and experience tells me that they usually do).
Balanced emotions impart a sense of wholeness or completeness. Compassion knows no anger and no anxiety. It knows no judgment. Compassion recognizes the beauty and value of the other, senses the pain as a wound calling for treatment, and wills that the treatment and healing find their way to the recipient out of pure desire for the well-being of the other. It is common, of course, that the one feeling compassion also treats, but we are considering emotion here, not action.
Balanced emotions are also uplifting and pleasant. Somehow, even though I do nothing outwardly to assist the stalled car, the simple sensation of compassion induces a welling up in the heart, a soft bliss that, despite the awareness of the suffering of another, still feels peaceful. The stability of a balanced emotion acts as a dynamo, inducing greater energy flow. The upliftment I feel from compassion yields a greater emotional availability toward both myself and those around me. Compassion for one begets compassion for another.
Similarly, it is easy to find stability, completeness, and upliftment in such balanced emotions as trust, acceptance, and security.
Imbalance is unstable. The extreme counterparts of compassion are pity at the positive pole and indifference at the negative. We commonly mistake pity for compassion; in fact, I’ve noticed that people often say “sympathy” and mean “pity.” Unbalanced positive emotions have an active unpleasantness to them, an energy drain. In pity, I am declaring that the suffering of the other is an indicator of the other’s value and I am filled with a kind of pleasure that I am not the other, that it is not me suffering. In pity, there is recognition of the suffering of the other, but there is no sense of the other as having value. The feeling, far from peaceful, is a subtle resentment that the suffering of the other is impeding upon my senses: “It sucks that you are in pain, but I’d prefer to not see it.” The cost of feeling this emotion is the energy that resentment drains, and it contributes to the instability of the emotion: we seek escape from the energy drain of pity by escaping from the sensory barrage. It is quite common that those who assist the suffering do so out of pity rather than compassion, for in providing assistance the emotionally draining barrage of suffering is removed from sight.
Conversely, unbalanced negative emotions are passively unpleasant. Whereas a positive emotion costs energy because it is outward moving, a negative emotion reduces the sum total of energy available by shrinking the stream of usable energy. A positive emotion saps energy, but a negative emotion reduces energy flow. Indifference, the negative unbalanced emotion associated with compassion, is felt as a cold rigidity, a hardening of the heart. In this experience, we might witness suffering, but we see it as completely foreign, and perhaps we do not even register it as suffering. Indifference is associated with the feeling that there is no energy available to care about the situation of the other, that energy reserves have all been spent already on something else.
Unbalanced emotions are characteristically unstable and draining, due to the separateness (whether self from self or self from other) associated with them.
Unbalanced Emotions Exist in Pairs: One Conscious, One Unconscious
Unbalanced (or polarized) emotions always occur in pairs. While we never feel both emotions at the same time, it is impossible to experience one polarized emotion without at some point experiencing the other also. Thus, there is an emotional cycle produced by imbalanced emotions; in psychological circles, this cycle is often called “manic depressive” or “bi-polar.” Bi-polar emotions are actually common–we all have them–but what is uncommon (and therefore diagnosed as a psychopathology) is extreme switching from one emotional state to another. In the polarized emotional cycle, we maintain a positive (or “manic”) emotional state until we have exhausted all available emotional energy, at which point we transition into the negative (or “depressive”) emotional state. So a person who is accustomed to resolving pity through actively attempting to alleviate suffering will eventually feel drained and begin to meet all suffering with indifference until energy reserves build back up.
The polarized cycle of emotions is not a simple experience. Most of us do not even know that we are experiencing this cycle when we experience it, and the reason for this is fairly simple: all things being equal, we are only conscious of feeling one of the two polarized emotions. And I don’t mean one at a time. Unless we carefully work on a mindful attitude, we are always inclined to identify consciously with only one of the two unbalanced emotions. So, for example, a man who tends toward bashful deference, the kind of patience that indicates poor self-image, sees himself as a patient person (heaven only knows what the name of this emotion is). But every now and then he will reach a breaking point: he can take it no longer and a righteous fury emerges from this mild-mannered nobody, taking everyone by surprise. The man insists that he was “not himself” yet the evidence is there: in this person who consciously experiences an over-abundance of passive receptivity, a seething frustration lies dormant, occasionally gurgling out like an overfull septic tank.
Because one of these emotions is buried in the unconscious, it is only ever so rarely allowed to emerge–and when it does, it is a devil, a thing to be embarrassed about. It is part of the shadow. The trench-like threshold between conscious and unconscious is what makes the process of balancing our emotions so very difficult: at any given time, only one of the two emotions is easy to locate. Relegated as it is to one side of the trench, the conscious mind feels the impact of one emotion so strongly it might not even recognize an apparent counterpart to the emotion. This can lead those already aware of the benefits of balance to assume that the emotion is already balanced.
Emotions Seek Balance
All systems tend toward homeostatic balance. This principle is normally applied to the systems of the physical universe, but it applies equally well to emotions (and not because they are reducible to physical phenomena!). Emotions, however, are always in balance. Even if our emotions are unbalanced in the extreme, they still balance each other by virtue of the see-sawing of polarized emotions: where one polarized emotion goes, the other can be sure to follow. Balance, then, is inevitable.
The see-saw balance of polarized emotions, however, is unpleasant to say the least. Pain and discomfort (whether bodily, mental or spiritual) are unconscious instigators of change within us, so the unpleasant nature of polarized emotions always carries with it a sense of temporariness. I knew a woman who, in her fear of being alone, would head out to the club over and over until she found a man to bring home. This man would then become the gravity well about which her whole life orbited. The emptiness that she felt without him always threatened the exuberance she felt with him, so she would sabotage the relationship by smothering her new beau. Those of us who loved her knew that if this pattern were to continue repeating, she could potentially spiral downward into violent responses to her increasingly desperate situations and even institutionalization if we thought she became a danger to either herself or her men.
The severity of the see-saw balance is always changing: at any given moment an emotional complex is either becoming more tranquil or more turbulent. That is, you are always either improving or declining. And the only way to decrease the severity of see-sawing polarized emotions is to consciously process the emotions. The two possibilities, then, are clear: you either spiral downward to eventual destruction or you cultivate balanced emotions rather than unbalanced ones. These options have a rather Darwinian ring to them: survival of the emotionally stable.
Nearly Balanced Emotions
While emotions do want to move in balanced patterns, there is no blinking neon light that indicates Balance has now been struck! The barrier between the conscious and unconscious–as well as the shadow self whose vigilance protects this barrier–makes striking the balance a slow, subtle process. We are always at risk of falling prey to misjudgment: we mistake imbalance for balance; we discover a balanced emotional state and are suspicious because it seems too simple; what at one time looked balanced later reveals subtle imbalances that were previously unperceived. We are perennially imperfect. We will always have emotional imbalances. But, though perfection lies always on the horizon, we can hope that the polarized see-sawing between unbalanced emotions becomes ever more slight, like the almost imperceptible oscillation of a pendulum that appears to have found rest.
When your pendulum approaches rest, your slightly imbalanced emotions take on the qualities of perfectly balanced emotions–as long as you are mindful about which emotions you are experiencing and you choose to act in accord with the melody of the emotions. Think of your emotional states as psychic weather. When your emotions are unstable, you experience successive turbulent bouts: raging storms followed by long droughts. But when you emotions approach stability, the oscillation between states is subtle and pleasant like the change of seasons or a light rain followed by sunshine.
While perfect balance is the natural aim of human growth, you and I are probably never going to get there. So we will always have psychic weather. Nearly balanced positive and negative emotions can give energy just as much as perfectly balanced ones, but you have to make sure that you are catering to their strengths. If you go outside to mow the lawn while it is raining, you’ll encounter no end of difficulties. Similarly, if you try to socialize while you are feeling somber and melancholy, then you will only foster frustration. Melancholy can feel just as “happy” as light-heartedness, as long as you spend the emotional energy moving in the direction of its associated desire: inward. Moreover, light-heartedness can be just as frustrating as melancholy if you are trying to force yourself reflect on heavy thoughts.
But even if the emotional pendulum swings only slightly, new events and circumstances can emerge in our lives that rearrange our emotional environment, shaking up all our emotional furniture, wiggling all our emotional pendulums. I feel I have a balanced set of emotions surrounding death, because when someone I know dies I experience sadness for about half an hour and then I transition to compassion for those who were closer than me. But if my fiancée were to die suddenly, I would probably be sent straight into emotional imbalance (shock, shutdown, confusion, grief–all of it) due to the sheer vividness of the experience. Even less traumatic experiences, such as witnessing the cruelty of others as a third party or being mistreated by rude drivers in traffic, can shake up your emotional environment. What we often do not realize is that our various emotional arenas are all interconnected: finding balance in one arena helps us find balance in another, but shaking one up can also shake up another.
Athough these jarring events send us directly into imbalanced emotional states, all is not lost. We are still mindful, we still know what balanced emotions look like, and we still know how to get from here to there. The human experience is architecturally designed to reveal subtle imbalances through these jarring shake-ups so that we can zoom in on imbalances that we would not otherwise notice. You never really know how you are going to act in the heat of the moment. So life gives you the heat of the moment. And once you find out how you act, you will probably have lots of material to work with in order to be ever more balanced and stable next time. So even though balanced emotions can be sent out of whack, the general trajectory is still toward an ever subtler balance–assuming you are consistent in your mindfulness.
Unbalanced Emotions Indicate Unfulfilled Desires
There is an evolution or a teleology to emotions. Although emotional stability is rarely a matter of life and death, it is almost always a matter of success and failure. Authority and responsibility are only given to those who have or who can simulate emotional stability. (I don’t recommend simulating. This is what I call the tightrope or unstable balance.) So if the survival of your life as a fulfilling and uplifting experience requires emotionally stablity, then we must interpret that the path of individual growth or evolution trends toward balanced emotions. The purpose of life is to experience the variety of self, other and world, but, while the possibilities for experience are unlimited in all directions, the avenues of growth are not. Human Nature gives us the directive EXPERIENCE! But it also applies the rule GROW!.
Emotions both guide and obscure the trajectory of desires. While emotions swirl around their subject, the desires associated with these emotions pierce the emotional cloud, taking direct aim for the object. Emotions swirl perpendicular to their associated desire, encircling the straight-line of desire. Although this relationship suggests that desires are easy to locate, the two are typically experienced as a dynamic muddle. Two factors contribute to our messy emotions: (1) The majority of the emotional cloud is experienced beneath the conscious surface (due to lack of mindfulness and the trench between polarized emotions) and (2) desires are also polarized, but their polarization manifests as conflict.
Muddle not withstanding, your unbalanced emotions, if explored and given expression, always indicate desires that you have left unfulfilled. The very existence of unbalanced emotions originates with a divergent belief (a belief that creates imbalance). The divergent belief generates desires attuned to the belief. So a child that believes his father does not love him (divergent belief) might feel unworthy (+) and indignant (-) (polarized emotions). These two opposite emotions induce not one, but two corresponding desires. Hence, if we imagine that balanced emotions rotate in a circle with their associated desire piercing the center of this circle, then unbalanced emotions rotate in an ellipse whose foci are pierced by the two desires associated with the opposite emotions. In our example, the desires created by the divergent belief are to prove himself worthy (+) and to prove he doesn’t need a father (-). Regardless of which emotion is unconsciously felt (or which desire is repressed), the child’s desires are in conflict and therefore cannot manifest. Emotional processing leads to the discovery that each desire must be allowed manifestation in its own right without being sabotaged by the other.
Sources of Unbalanced Emotions
Unbalanced emotions don’t appear out of nowhere. Desire has natural channels through which it prefers to move (we call these channels “will”), following the most efficient course–unless the way is blocked. Then, like a chasm in the middle of a trail, emotional energy must navigate around the blockage until it finds a bridge to cross the abyss. Consider, for example, a time when you found someone so revolting that you went out of your way to avoid interacting with that person. This is an outward expression of blocked emotional energy that must be re-routed. In deviating from their natural pathways, emotions reinforce or energize the desires associated with divergent beliefs, together creating the famous downward spirals we see in the eyes of our most desperate neighbors. Because these three components (divergent beliefs, conflicting desires and unbalanced emotions) always exist together, the roots of an unbalanced emotional environment curl around them all.
The Shadow Self
The shadow is the archetypal enemy. It is the rejected self projected upon the hated other, whether that other is a person, an organization or an object. There are many arenas that influence which aspects of ourselves we choose to relegate into the shadow, but there are three influences that always affect our Shadows; culture, parents, and peers. Culture, whose mythos and rules of conduct give natural limits to human expression, always brings with it a concept of vice and taboo. Thus, as children indoctrinated into the culture of our heritage, we believe that the traits of our specific cultural devil are inherently unacceptable, regardless of whether we, in some way, actually desire to express these traits. In my case, casual sexual desires figured prominently in my Shadow, thanks to my cultural mythos.
Equally, parents provide their own contributions to the shape and content of the picture each child has of the devil. While our parents typically operate squarely within the culture of our heritage (though perhaps not the culture of their heritage), they are also uniquely drawn to the cultural emblems that jive most readily with them. When I was a child, my parents were members of the right-wing conservative Christian segment of the American South. However, being the beautiful people they are, they managed to avoid imparting any significant racist or sexist biases to their children. This trait may seem to be in conflict with my cultural backdrop, but human beings cannot be reduced to culture.
Finally, our perception of what our peers accept or do not accept is another variable that, despite also being situated in the cultural backdrop, moves independently due to the unique blend of personalities that each social grouping boasts. A child will consistently find that her peers reward some traits (such as fashion) and punish others (such as contrasexual expression). The child’s response to peer judgment is unpredictable. Some children become brazen iconoclasts, some become lifeless robots, and still others find that the norms in vogue are perfectly suited to their natural modes of expression. Each child will form a different picture of the Shadow: the iconoclast will see conformity with social norms as inauthentic, the robot will see authenticity as a perilous challenge to social order, and the golden child will see anti-social behavior as indicative of inner weakness.
Regardless of where the Shadow originates, its impact upon the psyche is undeniable: no matter what the Shadow wants, it is not allowed to have it. And while some traits are well placed into the Shadow for the sake of social stability (such as the desire to kill another), just as often, if not more often, we characterize benign desires within ourselves as unacceptable and then twist and torment them until they take on a raucous bestial visage. What begins as a simple desire for direct sexual experience becomes, through careful repression, a depraved obsession with carnal extremes (or at least it did with me).
The frustrated will of the Daemon, despite its golden touch, becomes virtually unrecognizable as virtuous when repressed and relegated to the shadow self. Thus, a natural leader who is born into a rigidly policed environment becomes sullen and timid; an athletic girl born to parents who put her in dresses and pageants becomes awkward and frumpy. These thought patterns imparted by culture, parents, and peers instill beliefs designed to protect and preserve the integrity of the instinctive self, whose concerns are survival, sexuality and socialization–but these protective beliefs invariably sacrifice the subtler aspects of the self because such traits are dangerous. We, each of us, have sold ourselves out for the sake of social integration.
While the steady influence of environment digs and paves the road upon which unbalanced emotions travel, imbalance also has a much more pointed entryway. Most children, at some point in their lives, are subjected to something traumatic. While culture, parents and peers instill values that are designed to help children manage trauma in a reasonably conscious and healthy way (as far as a non-self-aware culture can go), rarely do children have the resources to handle more extreme cases, such as violent abuse from parents or authority figures, abandonment, or concerted social aggression like gang-rape. As children, we respond to these dramatic experiences with very strong beliefs embedded deeply into our personal mythoi. These beliefs carve deep thought-trenches in the mind, with powerful complexes of unbalanced emotions such as guilt, shame, fear, and rage clustering on either side of the trenches.
Whereas the slow formation of the Shadow through cultural indoctrination accounts for the emotional overgrowth that bewilders young adults who suddenly recognize that their values are confused, the instantaneous onset of trauma–though rarely recognized as such in the moment–typically accounts for sudden changes in emotional stability.
And yet trauma and the Shadow are not so easily distinguished from each other. In a sense, the entirety of the Shadow is composed of traumatic experiences of varying intensity, some of them introduced gradually, others suddenly. The importance of mentioning trauma as distinct from the Shadow is that the beliefs, desires and emotions surrounding a traumatic experience are the most difficult to smooth and require special attention. While the steps that follow in section two of this chapter give the general outline of emotional processing, traumatic experiences can benefit from a more detailed method.
Putting It All Together
Now that the details are in place, it may help the reader to have a larger picture of the function of emotions in the mind.
The human mind has static elements and dynamic elements. Thoughts are a static element because, although they change, they exist in static states (logical, structural, contextual, etc.). Thoughts change from state to state, but while they are in any state, they do not change. Emotions and desires are dynamic elements because they exist in flux states. They may move from one kind of flux state to another, but in flux there is never stasis.
Desires arise and split off from your unique will (the will of your daemon). Thoughts arise in an effort to match your experience with your mythos, which is the model or explanation you have of your experience. The thoughts that you confirm or invest as part of your explanatory model are beliefs. Divergent beliefs are invested thoughts that contradict either your will or your archetypal nature. Divergent beliefs produce unbalanced emotions, and unbalanced emotions cause conflicting desires.
When will and archetype are not aligned with each other, usually due to a mythos that cannot adequately handle your experience, the conflicting desires that result frustrate your conscious self and force a deep split between any two desires in conflict. Half of these desires are placed into the unconscious Shadow self in order to preserve focus of will and consistency of thought. The other half are treated as part of the “acceptable” self, the Ego. In attempting to disallow the Shadow’s expression, we cause the total Self’s emotional energy to dissipate by attempting to acting out only the Ego’s desires, and not the Shadow’s desires–thought neither set of desires accurately reflects the genuine will of the total Self
How to Process Unbalanced Emotions
Practical steps for approaching emotional balance
Introduction to the Steps of Emotional Processing
Emotional processing is not something that you do only once. It is a habit that you cultivate in yourself in order to encourage growth and maturity. You have a vision of yourself perfected, a vision in which you joyously live your life by doing what you love and serving those you care about. In order to make this vision a reality, you need to develop a habit of processing your emotions rather than repressing them.
Emotional processing is a kind of cleaning. Your car needs regular maintenance and cleaning. Your dishes need to be washed every time you use them. Your psyche is no different in this regard. Just as you will never run out of dishes to wash, so you will never run out of emotions to process. So if you’re hoping that you’ll one day outgrow this stuff, then you might want to begin your emotional processing with that very desire.
You have a complex of emotions, beliefs and desires for every facet and sub-facet of your life. Anything that is important to you or that affects you has a complex that can be made healthier through emotional processing. So when you decide which emotions to process, I would suggest that you begin with the desires and emotions that are the strongest and most urgent.
As with anything you do consciously, you have to choose a direction before you can make any headway.
1. Act Out Your Desires
Alright, so you’ve chosen a complex of desires and emotions. First you need to focus on the desires, because their urgency prevents you from processing the emotions that cause those desires. Emotions organize the energy that desires funnel into action. The actions you desire are a natural expression of your divergent belief and its associated energy cloud. A desire wants to be satisfied, to be given fulfillment. Unless you have explored your desires through action and decided “I do not want this anymore,” you are risking repression by not acting out your desires.
Sounds pretty dangerous, doesn’t it? It is dangerous, but probably not as dangerous as you think.
In fact, you already do act out your desires, just not all of them. And when you have acted out your desires, you’ve probably found on many occasions that your desire wasn’t exactly what you thought it was. This is why when you act out your desires, you must do so consciously. Anything else can only reinforce the imbalanced cycle. Pay attention to everything you are doing, everything you are feeling, and exactly how and why all of these things manifest in your actions as they do. You are collecting data for when you eventually begin to process these emotions and desires.
And I’m not talking here about rape and murder, or even cheating and stealing. Taking risks is healthy, but you need to be aware of which risks are worth taking. I do not recommend consciously acting out desires that will hurt others because this will incur karma, and the more conscious you are in your actions, the more karma they incur. But responsibly living out your desires is an important part of discovering how you feel about the consequences of your fulfilling your conflicting desires and whether doing so provides a sense of fulfillment. Desires to act in potentially harmful ways must be scaled down (as in BDSM and boxing) if acted out at all. So if you desire to cheat on your spouse, yes you need to act on this desire, but you need to do so in a way that does not violate your own sense of integrity. talking to your spouse about your desire to have sex with others is one possible way of acting it out.
So if you have a desire to prove someone wrong, to fill a spiritual void with sex, to give the cold shoulder to the homeless because they have no job, or even just to sleep until 5pm, acting out these desires is the only way to familiarize yourself with their consequences. The consequences of these actions reinforce your will to process emotions in the first place: for what is there to do except what you want to do? And if you want to follow the course that your desires outline, then frustrating this desire accomplishes nothing. It is the moment of disgust, of complete and utter dissatisfaction, as when the smoker admits to herself that this cigarette is contributing nothing to her experience, that further strengthens the desire for emotional balance over the desire to act out the unbalanced emotional energy.
There is little gained from not acting it out, because doing so is inauthentic. There are, however, occasions when you are not willing to pay the price of authenticity. If you know that acting precisely as you desire could cost you your job or your freedom, then that is good reason not to act it out in exactly the way you desire. Breaking something is a classic expression of anger. However, the only purpose of acting out your anger–or any desire to express unbalanced emotional energy–is to see it in all of its grotesque and gory detail. Do not fool yourself that breaking something somehow takes care of the anger. It will release the energy wrapped up in the anger at the moment you experience it, so you may think the emotion is settled, but your consciousness has merely begun to move toward the opposite emotional pole.
Finally, if the desire you are working with doesn’t point to an obvious expression, like “I want to be a millionare,” or “I want the man of my dreams to sweep me off my feet,” then you need to dig a little deeper. You are already acting these desires out, so look for the ways that you are doing it and you will find the actions that your desires are motivating. When all else fails, experiment. Mindfully attempting to act out your desires always helps you to learn what they are.
2. Catch Yourself in the Act
We all act out our emotions. Admit it, you do too. Sometimes I tell my girlfriend that she should change something about herself rather than reflect on my feeling that she isn’t good enough right now, just as she is. Some of us may be better at reflecting before acting, but it still happens. Because I know where acting this emotion out leads, it is imperative that I catch myself as I begin to do it, so I can cut back on the habit of acting out a desire that I no longer want to act out. I know that loving her as she is and seeing her beauty and perfection here and now will propel her into greater vistas of self-expression, far greater than if she were to take my advice. So I would rather catch myself in the act than completely act out the emotion. In other words, I am authentically choosing not to act out the desire.
Repeatedly catching yourself in the act habituates the tendency to reflect upon the emotions and desires rather than to act them out. Whereas acting out your desires reduces their urgency and reveals their unpleasant consequences, catching yourself in the act halts the habit of acting on any particular desire. Both of these practices, however, can only be successfully accomplished with mindfulness.
Only once you are satisfied that you no longer want to act out your conflicting desires and have begun to stop yourself from acting them out are you truly ready to begin emotional processing.
3. Wait for the Emotion to Resurface
First, a caveat: intellectualizing emotions is a constant danger to any effort at emotional processing. It is not enough to plainly state in a lucid moment, “I have an anger problem.” To be sure, this is an important step as some degree of awareness of your emotional cycles is necessary in order to begin processing. However, if your goal is make an active effort to rearrange your emotional clouds, the rational intellect is only a supporting instrument.
Now that your conflicting desires are no longer urgent and you have paid attention to the emotions that arise anytime you end up in situations that bring them to surface. The first step to processing emotions is to let yourself feel the target emotion. For some (feeling personality types), emotions are easy to re-feel by memory cues. For thinking types (like myself), the emotion is often so bogged down with intellectualizations that it is very difficult to feel them without experiencing a triggering scenario. I can remember people who annoy me, but merely remembering them doesn’t usually make me annoyed. It is possible, just difficult.
Fortunately, unbalanced emotions are cyclical, so regardless of which emotions you need to work with, they (and their triggers) will surely find you if you wait a little while. I have found that the best time to work with an emotion is as soon you have time alone after the emotion arises naturally in your experience. If you’re very lucky, you will be alone when the emotion arises. If you are less lucky, then you will have to consciously revisit the emotion in a couple of hours.
4. Name the Emotion, Be Ruthlessly Honest, and Be Prepared to Accept Whatever You Find
So now you are sitting with your emotions. Either you are consciously re-feeling emotions you have acted out a short while ago, or the emotion has just arisen and you prefer to sit with it than act it out. What comes next? Give the emotional complex a name. Always start with a name. It’s like starting with a title when you are writing or starting with a goal when you are exercising. The name cuts out a space in which the emotion can roam.
“I’m disappointed,” I might say to myself. As soon as I say this, the door opens for further exploration: What am I disappointed about? Who am I disappointed with? When else have I felt this same disappointment? What do I believe that leads me to feel disappointed (i.e. what’s the divergent belief)? Etc. This is not a time for maintaining illusions about yourself, so face the ugly truth.
You have to be more than honest, though. You have to accept every thought and every feeling you discover in this process. You are as you ought to be. You are not evil or broken or bad. You need not be anything more or anything less. The emotions you experience are perfect, whether balanced or unbalanced. The question is not “What is acceptable?” it is “What are you and what do you want to experience?”
5. Feel the Emotion as Intensely as Possible
Once the emotion is named and exploration can begin, you must maintain the emotional nature of the experience. Thoughts and desires are relevant, but they are not the center of the process. The purpose of exploring the emotion, of asking questions about how you feel, is to intensify the emotion. There is no right way to do this. All that matters is that the fine details of the emotional complex lay out before you and you have feel each layer in its intensity.
In my case, “I’m disappointed,” can lead to “I’m disappointed with myself. I have a responsibility to service and I am still not evolved enough to meet this responsibility I feel.” Here, there are lots of emotional elements to the complex: disappointment is the overall tone, but there is also a duty or responsibility that I feel supersedes my own desires, a feeling of inadequacy in my own ability to meet this perceived responsibility, as well as a host of other finer sensations surrounding the specific instances in which this complex arises. Over-confidence or the feeling that I have something others do not is a common element of this complex, as is a sense of complete deflation or despair that I’ll never be able to measure up to the perceived responsibility.
The elements of an emotional complex are often revealed through rational thought, but, since they are fundamentally emotional in nature, it is necessary that I carefully feel each one. To process emotions is to dance with the emotional complex. I must devote attention to each part of the emotional complex, notice its rhythms, observe its nuances, and let it be as it is before moving on to the next part of the dance. Only when all of the details and nuances of the emotional complex have been given their turn is it safe to approach the entire complex as a whole, to feel its completed essence, to become drunk on the emotion itself.
6. Wait for the Feeling to Subside and Its Opposite Arise
There is a climax or a crescendo to emotional processing. At some point, you will have felt the emotion in its maximum intensity, all details appreciated, all aspects loved and embraced as they are without judgment. The natural inner response to this climax is a decline in the intensity of the feeling. You and the emotional complex have shared an experience and the experience is now coming to a close. But emotional processing does not end with the climax or with the come-down.
In the course of emotional processing, emotions are felt in the shape of a sine-wave in their intensity. Because all unbalanced emotions have an opposite, there is also an opposite climax that remains to be experienced. Whether you began with the emotion consciously expressed or the emotion unconsciously relegated to the Shadow, there is still an opposite experience that remains.
Once I have thoroughly expressed my sense of disappointment in myself, confidence reasserts itself without the need to actively search for it. I begin to remember that I do have something of value to offer, that I can be of service. I will remember all the ways that my experience has demonstrated to me the uniqueness and usefulness of my perspective, of my way of thinking. I remember that other people have thanked me just for being me.
At this point, you may notice something strange about this “opposite unbalanced emotion.” Doesn’t my description above sound balanced? This is precisely the point. From the perspective of one pole of a polarized emotional duality, the opposite pole always looks like balance because the balanced midpoint lies between here and there. In contrasting how I have just felt (deflated, disappointed, foolish, etc.), to how I feel at the opposite extreme (assertive, confident, brazen), there is no way to clearly perceive a difference between the balance (genuine confidence) and the unbalanced opposite pole (arrogance).
The appearance of the balance that the opposite pole takes is the mechanism that balances the emotions. Because one of these emotions is unconsciously felt, it is avoided. This is why we remain unbalanced unless we consciously balance and face the emotions we are avoiding. So, if I’m avoiding feeling arrogant, the emotions associated with confidence and arrogance will look identical to me. Therefore, in order to balance my sense of deflation, it doesn’t matter whether I’m feeling either confidence or arrogance. What matters is that I am approaching the midpoint.
Some emotional complexes are very stubborn, especially if you are new to processing, so a prompt or a worksheet can often help in identifying the original emotion and in locating its opposite Baron Katie has developed a good worksheet for just this purpose.
7. Attempt to Feel the Two Simultaneously
This is the most complicated and the most difficult part of emotional processing. If it proves to be too difficult, I personally recommend waiting until you master the previous steps before attempting this one.
Polarized emotions are two sides of the same coin: one never exists without the other. But you never feel them simultaneously in the course of normal events, because you have separated one part of yourself from another. The goal of emotional processing is to reunite the separated self, bringing together the polarized emotions so that their influences can meet and synergize with each other. Fearfulness and recklessness can then reunite to form security; pity and indifference can reunite to form compassion.
A powerful way to accomplish this end is to straddle your two selves. Now that I have experienced myself as both deflated and over-confident, I can blend the two emotions together. The way I do this is to imagine my body split in two: one side feels the negative emotion and the other feels the positive. Then I imagine myself in normal situations with these two sides present, both distinct, but communicating with each other. I imagine myself responding to the situation simultaneously in both modes. Say I imagine that someone asks me for advice. I feel simultaneously certain of my perspective and doubtful that I can be of help in any way at all.
The purpose of this part of emotional processing is to approximate the feeling of a balanced emotion in order to encourage the natural expression of this balance in the moment. In a balanced emotion, I feel no tension, having instead a sense of inner clarity and peace: I know that there is some measure of value in my perspective, but I appreciate that its value to another is limited. The absolutes drop off and in balance I do not feel the extreme oscillation. If we are processing unbalanced emotions, we do not yet have access to this feeling, but attempting to approximate the feeling helps bring it forth naturally in an authentic environment.
8. Identify the Necessary Changes to Your Mythos and Your Habits
Because emotions, habits, desires and beliefs are all interrelated and interdependent, it is crucial that emotional processing attends to the other elements, even if only in a closing affirmation. I do strongly recommend engaging in other exercises that focus specifically and primarily on beliefs and/or habits, but I recommend doing so at a separate time.
Affirmation of Thought
By now, you should have already revealed the divergent beliefs that sparked your polarized emotions and conflicting desires. And, if you have acted out your emotions through their corresponding desires satisfactorily, you also know which habits need adjustment. Now you must commit yourself to a new belief.
Continuing with the example of feeling disappointed, my divergent belief is that the urgency of my responsibility to service comes at the cost of pleasure. I have believed that I can not afford to have unbalanced emotions or conflicting desires because perfect balance is necessary in order to accomplish the work that I feel compelled to accomplish. This thought births polarized emotions: a sense of arrogance (+) and a sense of ineptitude (-). The belief and its emotions converge upon a set of desires: to plunge into the work and abandon personal pleasure (+), and to secretly indulge in desires that I think I’m not supposed to have (-).
Now that I have explored the desires and balanced the emotions, I have to address the divergent belief. This is where affirmations come in. I don’t really recommend a long list of affirmations because they are unwieldy. Rather, a simple, direct affirmation is what I use. “I am equal to my service. I can be of the greatest service to others by growing and experiencing at my own pace.”
The affirmation may not come easily, though. If not, then you may have to change some larger part of your mythos. I find, for example, that Christians often maintain an image of the self as valueless (e.g. “we do not deserve your grace and salvation, but you gave it to us anyway”). The perceived valuelessness of the self reinforces an all-or-nothing spiritual attitude: either it came from the Holy Spirit or it came from the Devil. A person who waffles between these two extremes will always feel herself to be in danger of not being saved. The see-saw of emotions and their desires, of course, plays out as you’d expect. But because the entire Christian mythos, as perceived by the individual (not necessarily as it is in itself), reinforces the divergent belief, affirmation only produces cognitive dissonance. The mythos itself must be addressed. It is at this point that a different–thought complimentary–exercise must be engaged.
Affirmation of Habit
This final stage is the foundation of inner commitment that reinforces your habit of catching yourself in the act. If you have explored your desires sufficiently, then you know what the consequences of action are. All that remains is to re-shape your habits so that they align with your desires. In this phase, all you need to do is locate the habits that you want to have and remind yourself of them.
In my case, I tell myself things like “I serve enthusiastically. I am responsive to the specific needs of others. I teach only what I know. I am happy to be proven wrong.”
Some examples from my own experience that may help enliven the concepts in this essay
My Teenage Rebellion
When I was a kid at a Catholic middle-school, my parents were poor and very religious. These were the years when my wardrobe consisted primarily of shirts with Christian messages on them. And while you might think that these would be a hit at a Catholic school, trust me, they were not. I thought I had no choice but to present myself as uncool because my parents either refused or couldn’t afford to dress me up the way the cool kids dressed. It didn’t help, of course, that I was awkward, quiet, mild-tempered, and had no sense of style. Quite ignorant of these traits, I thought that it was my family who kept me from being accepted by others. In response to this divergent belief, I felt a conscious resentment toward my family for being so uncool. Unconsciously, however, I felt a complete dependency upon them because I knew that they were among the few whom I perceived to accept me as I was. In response to these unbalanced emotions, I had both a desire to distance myself from my family and a fear of leaving the house (which is a desire to stay inside). And you better believe I unconsciously acted out both of these desires.