- Breaking the Emotional Cycle: Introduction
- The Three Emotional Programs for Happiness: Power and Control
- The Three Emotional Programs for Happiness: Esteem and Affection
- The Three Emotional Programs for Happiness: Security and Survival
- How Not to Get Swept Away By Emotions
- The Welcoming Practice: Letting Go
Imagine you are standing by the side of a busy road, watching the traffic go by.
Got that clear in all your senses? Close your eyes if you need to.
Now, imagine, just as vividly, that you are in one of the cars and it is taking you somewhere you don’t want to go.
It’s a very different experience, isn’t it? That’s the difference between being associated and being identified.
Let me explain those terms quickly. When you’re associated (as opposed to dissociated), you are connected to what’s going on, aware of it, paying attention to it, but from a position of being an observer – you are looking at it in the third person, if you like. On the other hand, when you’re identified, you’re immersed in the experience. It’s like the difference between being in a boat and being in a river.
I remember an interesting experience of being associated, but not identified, from an acting class I took years ago. In the class, we were partnered up, and we had to act out a scene with our partners. The script my partner and I were using was a domestic dispute between a couple, and it called for me to act angry.
Now, I wasn’t actually angry. I was pretending. But leaving the class afterwards, I felt the sensations of anger in my body, while simultaneously knowing that I wasn’t really angry. It was rather like those dreams where a place both is and isn’t your house.
The reason I took the acting class in the first place was to help me to become more comfortable about expressing emotion. I used to be very poorly connected to my emotions, which led, inevitably, to my being driven by them unconsciously. My friends would ask me if I was upset and I would honestly deny it, because I didn’t feel upset, even though they could hear it in my voice and see it on my face. I was, in fact, dissociated from my emotions a lot of the time.
The acting class was an important step in connecting to my emotions, and by a stroke of fortunate timing, I took it just before my father died unexpectedly. I was able to grieve my loss much better as a result.
Over the next couple of years, I was able to develop my first successful romantic relationship and get married. Within our marriage, I’m able to express all kinds of emotions, positive and negative, in what is usually a helpful way. (I say “usually” because, as with anything else, the learning continues.)
These are the benefits of being associated to my emotions. I recognize them, I can name them, I’m aware that they’re going on, and I can express them appropriately.
Of course, sometimes I go beyond being associated into being identified. I run out into the traffic and jump into a car. I fall out of the boat and am swept away by the current.
But that happens very rarely these days, because I know how to use the Welcoming Prayer.
The secret of the Welcoming Prayer is that you are associated, but not identified. The basic form of the Welcoming Prayer is to pause, recognize the emotion with which you are becoming identified, and welcome it by name. You aren’t welcoming the circumstances; you’re welcoming the emotion, and that requires that you recognize it and pay attention to it and name it.
Paying attention to it and naming it sets up a process which was explored in a brain scan study published in Psychological Science by Matthew D. Lieberman and colleagues. The parts of your brain which handle emotion are conveniently located deep down inside, close to the brainstem, which connects to your spinal cord, and other very basic, well-protected parts of the brain which regulate your breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure and so forth. This is why they can so quickly and efficiently get your body ready to fight or escape danger.
Most of the time in modern life, though, the kinds of things that get us wound up are not things we can physically fight or run away from. Getting our bodies ready for physical effort that isn’t going to happen is counterproductive; it fills our bodies with chemicals that aren’t going to be used and, left unused, can cause damage over time. So what we want to do is calm this reaction down.
When we name the emotion, what it does is create a circuit from deep inside our brains out to the verbal parts of the brain, which are closely connected with rational thought and higher-level decision-making. This circuit seems to bleed off the activation of the deep, emotional brain and calm it down. Your perspective shifts, and you’re no longer identified with the emotion, feeling an experience of (for example) overwhelming anger taking control of your whole being; you are associated with the emotion, paying attention to it and being aware of it, but from the outside.
It’s extremely simple – but it works. Consult my page on the Welcoming Practice for the instructions, and give it a try.
UPDATE: I’ve now revised the material in this series and turned it into a self-reflection process as part of my ebook, Your Emotional Hamster Wheel and How to Get Off It. It’s included when you sign up for my free Simple Stress Management Techniques course.
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