Emotional Intelligence is severely undervalued. When you feel stuck, frustrated, stressed, upset, or overwhelmed, skillful emotional awareness is the key to moving forward. Underneath your upset is a specific emotion that can guide you. The key, then, is to understand the messages in your feelings and become skillful in using their energy appropriately.
Even so-called “negative emotions,” such as sadness, anger, and fear, convey important information and energy to carry out specific actions that can help you and others. Emotions arise with a purpose and when this purpose is fulfilled the feeling subsides. Unfortunately, as a society, we have not learned to understand and sufficiently value emotional energy and information, so we tend to deal with these feelings crudely.
For example, with an emotion like anger, you might express it explosively or shove it under the surface, because you do not want to act angrily. Either you express your feelings reactively or cease feeling altogether.
Emotional Intelligence expert, Karla McLaren, describes a healthy third alternative. She says you can facilitate the healthy flow of emotions by consciously “channeling” the information and energy that emotions provide. In other words, emotions contain meaningful messages along with energy to do something related to those messages. This is true for so-called “negative” emotions as well as “positive” ones.
For example, McLaren suggests that:
• ANGER arises when you, or someone or something you love, is threatened and you need to take protective action or set a firm boundary.
• SADNESS arises when you need to let go of what no longer serves you or what is past, so you can move forward.
• FEAR arises to prompt you to take preventative action.
• JOY prompts you toward expansive, expressive, creative action.
• COMPASSION prompts you to care for others.
So, every emotion has a MESSAGE and ENERGY to carry out a specific type of action. Tuning into your emotions helps you to receive these messages and take these actions.
Let’s explore the first three of these emotions in more depth. Sadness, anger, and fear are often misunderstood and handled poorly. We tend to repress them, stay stuck in them, or express them unskillfully, with negative consequences.
So, as you work with these emotions, it’s important to do so Mindfully. Approach them as a curious observer with an attitude of paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, without judgment. Know that emotions are simply information about yourself, others, and events, along with energy to do something about this information. They do not define who you are and they will pass as you gather their information and take appropriate action.
(Note: If you feel overwhelmed or paralyzed by feelings to the point where you are unable to consciously process them yourself, seek the assistance of a counseling professional who is trained to work with intense emotions.)
The Positive Purpose of Sadness
The purpose of sadness is to enable you to let go of what is no longer working or what is past and finished. Sadness is a watery downward-flowing energy that enables you to release what no longer serves you, so you can return to fluidity and flexibility in your life.
By allowing appropriate sadness to flow through you, you’ll make space for new energy and new possibilities. If you do not consciously acknowledge sadness or don’t know how to flow with it, you’ll bury it inside, where it will perpetually cycle, or you’ll get lost in the feeling and be overwhelmed.
Here’s a practice adapted from Karla McLaren’s book, “The Language of Emotions,” that can help you consciously process feelings of sadness.
1. When you feel sadness flood into you, take some quiet, private time to center into the feeling. Tune into the sensation of sadness, locate where it resides in your body, and approach it with curiosity to learn what it has to tell you.
2. Take a deep in-breath as if you are filling your whole body with your breath. As you exhale, make a sighing sound, and feel the energy of your sadness flowing like water down through your body, through your legs and feet, and down into the ground.
3. Stay centered in your inner space and ask your sadness the question: “What needs to be released or let go right now?” Don’t rush to fill in an answer. Instead, keep the question open. Listen and feel inside.
Repeat your sighing breath down through your body as many times as you feel the need and keep your question open for your deeper knowing to respond. You may find you know right away what you need to release or you may find it becomes clear later. Either way, tuning into sadness (or any emotion) mindfully initiates a process of discovery and integration that will help you move forward.
The Positive Purpose of Anger
Anger arises to create and preserve personal boundaries and safeguard personal space. You feel angry when a personal boundary or the boundary of someone or something you care for is 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, anger will recede. It will have accomplished its purpose.
Here’s a practice adapted from McLaren to gather the information and use the energy in your anger:
1. When you feel anger rising, focus inside your body and become more in-touch with the felt sensation. Approach the feeling with curiosity to learn more about it.
2. Take a deep in-breath. As you exhale, imagine and feel as if the energy in your anger travels outward into a sphere about an arms-width around you, your personal boundary, strengthening it with a brilliant color. Do this until you feel a shift in your energy, so you are witnessing, feeling, and working with the energy in your anger without being consumed by it.
3. Ask your anger this question: “What needs to be protected or restored?”
4. Then ask, “What action will restore healthy boundaries and protect what is important?”
These questions help you identify what feels 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’ve been told “Fear is what holds us back” and “The only thing to fear is fear itself.” If we can just overcome our fears, we’ll be able to live full-out and realize our hopes and dreams. But, what if this perennial wisdom regarding fear is missing something? What if fear in its essential form is one of our wise guides?
Emotions have three primary forms: unconscious reactive expression, a repressed cycling state, and a healthy free-flowing state. It may be that we are only familiar with the first two forms of fear: a reactive expression that makes us cower and a repressed state which creates constant low-level anxiety.
Fear in its healthy free-flowing form is something altogether different. What if fear can signal intuitive awareness of something that needs attention? What if it can alert you to important action?
This form of fear is a sixth sense that reaches out through your personal space to pick up signals about what is happening inside you, with others, and in your environment. Fear can alert you to what is happening in your own body. It can alert you to the actions and intentions of the people around you and to conditions in the environment. When you learn to discern this information, it can help you can choose wise actions.
To learn to use fear as a wise guide, try this simple practice:
1. When you feel fear arising, take a quiet, private moment to center into the feeling. Tune into the sensation of fear, locate where it resides in your body, and approach it with curiosity to learn what it has to tell you.
2. Take a deep in-breath as if you are filling your whole body with your breath. As you exhale, imagine and feel that your breath fills the sphere of your personal space about an arm’s width around your entire body. Sense into your personal space and into the wider space around you and search for subtle signals. For example, you might be drawn to an area inside your body or to look at something or someone in your environment. You might feel the urge to move toward or away from something.
3. Stay centered in your personal space and ask your fear the question: “What action needs to be taken right now?” Don’t rush to fill in an answer. Instead, keep the question open. Listen and feel inside. See what presents itself. You may have an inspiration to take a specific action.
It can take time to learn to discern guiding signals. As best as you can, be patient. The simple action of tuning into emotional signals is a cultivated skill. You’ll grow your ability to sense inner guidance from fear and all your emotions through mindful practice over time.
You’ll also learn to discern the quality of signals that represent accurate present guidance from false interpretations based on painful past experiences. There’s a different felt quality to accurate versus false guidance. False guidance may feel alarming, stressful, or rushed. It is fixated on what happened in the past or overly-anxious about the future. Accurate emotional guidance has a matter-of-fact, present, forward-moving quality, that feels like perfect timing.
So, in summary, as emotions come up, instead of being wary of them, what if you welcome them, become curious, and ask:
• What is the sensation of this emotion in my body?
• Exactly what emotion is this?
• What is the message in this feeling?
• What is it asking me to do?