We respond to life with emotion—spirits leap, chemicals flow. Biological programming pushes us forward in excitement or recoiling in fear. Emotions pull on strings of the past, inviting memories into the feelings of the present. The past isn’t the past at all; it lives in the present. We can vehemently hate our past. We can fight it, detest and blame but here in the present the past resides. However, we can grasp all the intricacies of our emotions through mindful check-ins.
Accepting past behavior differs from stagnating settlement. We don’t accept and ignore impacts of our behaviors. We accept but evaluate for better. We’re not satisfied with yesterday’s subpar performance but accept we have worked subpar. We are human; subject to errors—momentary lapses causing pain to ourselves and others. We can grieve the pain-creating behaviors; often the grief motivates change. Whether it’s grief, sadness, anger or love, the emotion encourages movement. The need to act can arise from the feeling.
Emotions are complex. We use words to describe feelings to satisfy verbal expression; but words aren’t emotions. The experience is more than a simple word—sad, angry, afraid or ashamed. Our bodies experience a change, a chemical movement motivating action. The emotional waves immerse the organism in changing balances and intensities. We feel something. Culture and language give meaning to the internal movements. In psychology this is referred to as emotion differentiation. Our human need to understand illuminate prominent feelings that we give life to with an explanation of words—I’m mad or sad.
Constructing a workable theory, presentable in words, transforms feelings into conscious understanding. These theories can be constructive or destructive. A poorly constructed theory has power to transform feelings into debilitating guilt, shame, and self-loathing. A well-constructed theory may deepen the experience, giving a complex understanding to human loss, motivating a beautiful treasuring of current connections, and wisdom.
Mindful Check-In of Feelings
There’s a difference between primary feeling affects and the following complex explanations. We give priority to the explanation because they are most salient, clinging to meaning while overlooking the feeling. The practice of mindfulness focuses on the feeling, avoiding or reworking troublesome and drawn out explanations; we sometimes need to forget the associated thoughts and bathe in the moment. Daniel Siegel refers to this as taking a “time-in” (2012).
This proves difficult for most, accustom to thinking. The practice of mindful feeling draws us closer to an experience, allowing chemical changes to ebb and flow without muddying the experience with wandering thoughts.
A Three Step Mindful Check-In
We revert to natural reactionary modes. Habit is an energy saving measure of an efficient system. However, many reactionary modes represent out dated adaptations. The pause breaks the customary cycle of reaction. Many use mindful breathing practices to achieve this pause. We can experiment with different methods to interrupt harmful automatic processes, creating a peaceful pause. Once the reactionary cycle has been broken, move attention inward. Without words and judgement, move into the arousal.
The three steps of a mindful check-in are:
- Feel it.
- Examine it.
- Accept it.
Feeling an emotion begins with a pause to notice what we are feeling. We often react without much thought. We go into auto pilot, blindly behaving without awareness. This is great when we are jumping put of the way of a speeding car, not so great when communicating with a spouse. We must stop and notice the feeling at the foundation motivating the reaction.
After narrowing our focus, directing attention to the raw feeling affects, we can now step back and widen our view. Identify the trigger that ignited the emotion, connecting to similarities from the past experiences that sparked the same emotional response.
For more on this topic: Focusing on Feelings
Awareness can extend beyond simple focus on feeling. We still need workable theories for clarity of experience, giving a cognitive handle for reflection and refinement. Siegel succinctly puts it, “name it so we can tame it” (2012). The handle of a linguistic label helps stabilize attention, allowing experiences to be easily recalled.
Feelings are important to understand, bringing new lessons, and valuable guidance. But successful integration requires attention, moving experience from automatic responses to probing observations (examine it). We move from blind justifications to skeptical examinations, challenging thoughts, questioning our impulses, and identifying dysfunction. Only through openness can we entertain a possibility of change. With intention we add depth to incidents of emotion, broadening our vocabulary, and expanding our categories.
Gaining valuable insight to emotional reaction often requires stepping beyond our personal boundaries of knowledge. Personal knowledge tends to build on itself. Biases invisibly form new experience around already formed internal working models. To break these stubborn biases, we must extend beyond our boundaries, absorbing the wisdom of others to expand our personal knowledge. Our past cannot become the context for everything new.
So in so suggests that we can bring invisible biases to the surface by “checking our perceptions, observing and asking questions of someone new to our lives, getting help from impartial and insightful friends, or calling on the aid of a psychotherapist for particularly thorny problems” (2014, Kindle Location 2,065).
The reactionary chain between feeling affects and behavior can be broken, harmful translations can be challenged and replaced. Feelings are a sacred encounter with our humanness, to be treasured. We shouldn’t be ashamed because we feel nor should we allow feelings to be a burdensome task master. Guilt can motivate healthier practices; sadness can stir future appreciations; and anger can direct attention to injustices. But any of these emotions can morph into something harmful and debilitating.
Stopping the run away train of feeling experience with self compassionate acceptance creates a pause. A moment of mindful peace where a sense of self thrives. Basically, we step beyond judgements of how we “should feel,” away from habitual ego ideal designs of perfection, and into the serene world of accepting present realities. Feeling affects are discomforting at times. Yet, the discomfort doesn’t need to be solved. We accept it.
Moving Into the Arousal
A mindful check-in is all about moving into the arousal. We gain wisdom by learning from our missteps. Excusing the past through defense mechanisms to protect against uncomfortable emotions limits the value of experience. Discomfort over blunders is healthy when the feelings give meaning and direction to future action. Labeling hurt as evidence of our insufficiency magnifies the hurt, using the pain to ruthlessly demonize our worth is damning, leading to protective practices such as pathological avoidance.
We should repair mistakes, express sincere apologies and then forgive our self for the misdeed, moving forward with renewed desire to improve. We must muddle through the dynamic path of change throughout our lives as we navigate the challenging roads of living. Checking in with our emotions provides valuable insights during this confusing and complex journey.
Mayer, John D. (2014). Personal Intelligence: The Power of Personality and How It Shapes Our Lives. Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Siegel, D. J. (2012). Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology: An Integrative Handbook of the Mind (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). W. W. Norton & Company; Third Printing Used edition