On Having the Courage to be Emotional

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From body to body your spirit speeds on

It seeks a new form when the old one is gone

And the form that it finds is the fabric we wrought

On the loom of the mind with the fibre of thought

Ella Wheeler Wilcox – The Law


To: my coach

April 2014

Karen and I are writing a book. We met on the F**k It retreat.  God knows how we’d describe it – it’s a “fictional” tale of two women that meet on a retreat.   A sort of comedy self help, a parody of all those horrendous sounding pseudo-spiritual, hideously expensive retreats run by a guru who used to be in PR dahling who prays on rich women’s insecurities. They should be called spiritual retracts – retreats to retract the gurus from the journey they’ve gone on up their own arses. 

Of course what we’re really hoping is that it’ll be picked up for a movie, we become famous screenwriters and she fulfils a lifetime ambition of being seduced by Colin Farell when he plays Howard:0)  She’s doing the fictional character and comic bits, I’m doing to introspective, heart felt bits (it’s meant to be funny but make you think).  I am fortunate enough to have a lot of personal experience to draw upon and have been battling lots of negative feelings again, so I’ve been writing a lot.  I’ve come up with this metaphor I call the artist’s palette – what do you think?

Rumi said “the wound is the place where the light enters you”. I really get that. Get them surfaced, get the TCP on and get on with it. Lean in. The wounds that first present themselves to the light are easy to deal with. The ones that surface when the self talk drives you to the only conclusion that is possible – now you’ve got close, you cannot bear the stench of my festering wounds. What a disappointment I am. Truly I’m not worthy of your love. Those kind of wounds require surgery.

So, I write all of this to Karen, astro whizz and hypnotherapist (she used to be a civil servant!). Is there a way I can be cured of all of this? I know what fear of abandonment is, I have every event in my life that has contributed to these feelings perfectly labeled, catalogued and filed in the basement of my soul. I know I need to find love from within. I know rationally that my fears are ridiculous and indeed any one would be lucky to have my interest at all :0) But it’s an insidious thing. You can fill the bucket up with esteem-able things, but my bucket has a hole – they’re leaching out the bottom. So, a hypo session – that’s it isn’t it Karen?

Her reply: “are you maybe not just sad that you have a whole universe of feelings, whilst other’s have only a moon-ful?”. I muse on this and don’t sleep well. I think about feelings and emotions and think about how I use my head to label rather than feeling the feeling….

And slowly, this metaphor starts to emerge….I thought the end point was the cataloguing, the labelling and the filing. Suicidal mother, angry father, born a mistake to too-young parents, I could go on and on and on, they are all there – experiences I have 100% faced into, owned, cleaned up, assimilated, accepted, absorbed into the filing cabinets in my soul and embraced as making me who I am. I thought that was the end point.

But I think that something else goes on in the background. I think the content of these files are cleaned up, swirled about and separated into their constituent emotional parts. They are then put into a paint palette, with each emotion represented by a colour. The vibrancy of the colours is dependent on the depth of experience and how much you’ve put into the filing cabinet in the first place. This palette is what you use to create your life – as long as you’re prepared to be bold and not be afraid of the strength of the colours and recognise that you can tone them up or down by adding light and shade.

Then you can create a life that is remarkable, with the paintbrush that is your heart.

Uncovering this metaphor changed my life. It is proof of how the brain utilises its own resources to create a narrative within a framework of meaning that resonates with the self.  As a storyteller this thrilled me.  How thrilled was I though to discover there was actually scientific validity in it.

In Intelligence in the Flesh: Why Your Mind Needs Your Body Much More Than it Thinks  cognitive scientist Guy Claxton explores the emerging neuroscience of embodied cognition – the entire bodily system that constitutes intelligence. This is what humans use to answer the question: “what do I do next”.

Clapton explains that we have evolved to have pre-set modes of response to given sets of circumstances – these are called emotions.

Emotions are therefore part of our intelligence system – the fact that they become perverted or unreliable speaks to cultural overlays, not to emotion itself. We cannot be smart without them – they are a “deep bodily-based constituent of every kind of human intelligence”.

As Claxton describes them, these basic emotional modes (there are eleven: distress; recovery; disgust; fear; anger; sorrow; shame; desire and enquiry) form a set of primary emotional colours – out of these, different cultures, families and individuals mix their customised palettes of shades and hues. For example in Japan anger is an unacceptable emotion to display amongst colleagues or relatives.  In the US, UK and in Mediterranean countries, anger amongst people that like each other is common.

Families encourage or prohibit different colours and thus influence the palette each child will take forward into life.  Children’s emotions are tuned by their parent’s – we learn how to respond emotionally by watching them. So they become distorted, convoluted and entangled. We might learn to be afraid of things we value, such as success or intimacy and we often deploy emotions unskilfully: as Aristotle put it “Anybody can become angry – that is easy; but to become angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy”.

Research shows that attempting to minimise or ignore thoughts and emotions serves only to amplify them. Harvard Psychologist Susan David calls the ability to “unhook” ourselves from undesirable thoughts and feelings “emotional agility“. The key is to approach them in a mindful, values-driven and productive way – to notice our thoughts – to step out of them and observe them with curiosity and courage and to have a clear why.  In other words being mindful and purposeful.

Through this lens “emotional intelligence” as defined by Daniel Goleman feels incomplete; we grow our all of our intelligence by learning to more skilfully deploy emotion through understanding why and which colours have become a bit muddied.

In other words, being emotional is having the courage to live with all your intelligence.  Time to paint your remarkable life.

Double Flourish Grey

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