I was watching a TED Talk on YouTube about Emotional Mastery: The Gifted Wisdom of Unpleasant Feelings. Emotional mastery of these feeling states is a timely question as we deal with a Pandemic, teaching children from home, and struggling with the uncertainty of our social, financial future. Knowing how to manage unpleasant emotions is always a key question for our mental health and success in life.
Unpleasant emotions include feelings of shame, guilt, anger, sadness, anxiety, depression, fear, and grief, to name a few.
The TED Talk speaker explores how emotional mastery is demonstrated by our ability to move past/through these unpleasant emotions and not be shut down or run from them.
By “move through,” she refers to the neuroscience idea that when an emotional feeling gets triggered, chemicals flood the body, activating bodily sensations that can put into a survival state of fight, flight, and freeze. Interestingly, we experience these unpleasant emotions in our bodies before we cognitively understand them. The body always reacts first, fast, and defensively. If unpleasant feelings come from a traumatic event, we will develop emotional programs that will be set in the body to protect us from other unpleasant feelings or situations. We may make a conscious vow to never “trust people again,” be put “into an embarrassing situation ever again,” or “never take such a risk like that again” to further protect ourselves from such unpleasantness. Emotional programs (from the unconscious body-mind) and cognitive vows (from the conscious thinking-mind) paint us into a corner. Although they protect, they also prevent us from growth and success.
The goal is to “move through” unpleasant emotions and not avoid or dissociate from them. To do this, we have to “surf” the wave of bodily chemical sensations and stand up on the board of our own conscious choices. That unpleasant wave of chemicals only lasts 60-90 seconds. That is less time that a song on the radio, explains the psychologist from the TED Talk. Unpleasant emotions rush and then flush from the body.
It is the fight or flight from unpleasant emotions that make the waves more significant and more threatening than they are, and the vicious cycle of the more chemical reaction and mental obsessions continue.
How do we “move through” emotionally unpleasant feelings? The psychologists claim that the uncomfortable sensations are like a wave of chemicals that go through us like a wave. It lasts only 60-90 seconds and then dissipates. Rush and then flushed by the body.
Different unpleasant emotions have different patterns of waves: Grief has waves after waves. Anger is perhaps a big roaring wave. Sadness is a slow, lingering wave. Shame a sneaky, rip curl of a wave. But all of them come and go. We can get back on the beach and feel stable again. The beach is the place of acceptance in this metaphor.
The speaker’s recommendation is to learn to surf the unpleasant waves, let them rise, and then let them retreat. Stop fighting them, fleeing them, or freezing in the middle of them. With consistent practice, insights into life and your character will develop. The speaker describes how we will be better able to pursue the goals you dreamed about, have courageous conversations, and feel more conformable in your skin. Surfing them won’t take a lifetime. It only takes a moment. The present now where change always starts.