When all else fails, I say, ask a child. So this week I had the opportunity to sit down with a few of my grandchildren to ask them “What are emotions?”
Kevin said, “If you go fast, it’s fast emotion and if you go slow then it’s slow emotion.” “Oh Kevy”, I said, “You’re talking about motion, I’m talking about e-motion,” to which he cocked his head and shrugged his shoulders. We then shared stories about being happy and sad, and he quickly knew what I was talking about. He said, “If you’re smiling you feel happy because of your emotion. If you’re frowny then your emotion is sad. If you’re normal, your emotion is easy and normal.”
I said, “What does it feel like when you’re scared?” He got a look of fear on his face and said, “Icky.” “What makes you happy Kevin?” He said, “When my dad tickles me.” I followed with,”What makes you mad?” to which he replied, “When I want to do something I can’t.”
I asked him if he could tell how other people were feeling by looking at their faces. He emphatically said, “Yes.” By the expression on his face, I could only assume he was thinking about when he knows he’s in trouble.
If I ask older people the same questions they use more sophisticated language, but the answers are similar. We know what emotions feel like and sometimes they seem to be running our lives; but beyond that, they are a mystery. A mystery for good or bad, that we often feel captured by.
Close your eyes and imagine this scenario…
We’re sitting in a room talking to each other and all of a sudden, I throw my pencil on the ground.
What would your first thought be? You might think, “She’s either mad at me or maybe being dramatic trying to prove a point.” Another thought might be, “What’s wrong with her? Is she having a stroke, or is she just being silly?” There are so many possibilities.
Dropping the pencil is a “cause and effect” result. I had the pencil in my hand, pivoted my wrist, open my hand, and the combination of centrifugal force and gravity made the pencil fall to the ground.
Life would be a lot easier if we could leave it at that, but as human beings we are not wired that way. We are wired to create meaning out of what we see; first to determine our safety, second, to label and categorize it, and third to know how to respond.
Emotion happens as the result of what we make a situation mean. For example, if you think I’m angry, your brain is wired to release adrenalin and noradrenalin to prepare your body to respond to what it interprets as a potential threat.
When those chemicals get released into your body, you may notice your heart beating faster, your jaw getting tense, and your face getting flushed and hot. You may even feel your hands begin to clench and have the urge to lash out, or you may want to run as fast as you can to get away from the situation.
It might be surprising to learn that emotion is nothing more than your body responding to chemicals released into your system, based on how you have interpreted a situation. When you feel those physical reactions, you are experiencing emotion. It’s really quite amazing!
1. A situation happens.
2. We make it mean something.
3. Depending on what we make it mean, our brain determines if action is required.
4. If action is required, the brain sends messages to release chemicals, which prepare the body for action.
5. If the brain doesn’t sense the need for action, chemicals don’t get released and you will not experience emotion.
From a survival standpoint this is AWESOME! But what if I we’re only trying to teach an object lesson, or I had butterfingers and accidentally dropped the pencil. You can see how misinterpretation could cause unnecessary negative emotion and in addition, potentially damage a relationship.
Can you think of times you misinterpreted a situation and suffered as a result? If you can, you are not alone because we all do it. We don’t have crystal balls and we are not mind readers so we are at a disadvantage in making accurate assessments.
An example on the lighter side might look like this:
We’re sitting in a room talking together when unexpectedly I hand you an envelope. You take the envelope, open it, and pull out a hundred dollar bill.
What’s your first thought this time? It could be, “What a generous gift,” or “I feel cared for”, or you might think, “Ok, what’s the hitch?”
If you make the situation mean I am cared for, you will have a set of positive emotions spurred on by the release of endorphins, dopamine,and oxytocin. You may feel the corners of your mouth turn up and find yourself smiling. You might feel like jumping up and saying “Thank you”, or even feel the urge to reach out and give me a hug.
Whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant emotion, it all works the same way.
Let’s review… 1) A situation happens 2) We make it mean something 3) Depending on what we make it mean the brain determines if action is needed 4) If it is needed, the brain will send messages to release the appropriate chemicals in order to prepare the body for action. Emotion is what you feel as your body is preparing to respond.
Situation –>Thought –>Emotion –> Action
In the next ‘Emotion School’ post, I will explain why the relaxation skill, 123-pause-321 works. Until then I encourage you to practice discovering what thoughts you are having when you experience emotion, as well as what physical sensations you experience as a result. Observe how the meaning you attach to a situation affects your mood.