Emotions: Too close for comfort?

Does expressing emotions scare you, or make you feel somehow weak? As much as we over-communicate these days, we often keep our emotions in check or hide how we really feel. Perhaps cultivating greater emotional awareness can help us express our emotions more often and more constructively, and lead to more fulfilling relationships at home and at work.

Psychologist Paul Ekman has written that “Without emotions there would be no heroism, empathy, or compassion, but neither would there be cruelty, selfishness, nor spite.” He has studied how our facial expressions convey emotion, and written extensively about paths to a more balanced emotional life.

Interestingly, we might not be expressing emotions in writing as much as we used to. A group of British researchers analyzed a database of over 5 million books and found that words with emotional content have declined over the past 100 years. They looked at the frequency of mood words — those that expressed anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness or surprise. The one exception to the declining trend was the emotion of fear, which has actually increased. The use of different mood words also tracks closely with historical events such as World War II, when there was a notable increase of words expressing sadness and a decrease in words connected to joy.

While written works don’t necessarily reflect actual behavior, how we tell stories to our children is a behavior with important outcomes. Listening to how we express emotions helps children develop emotional skills. A recent study published in the journal Sex Roles showed that mothers are better at this than fathers. The mothers in the study used more emotional words and elaborated more when reminiscing with their children about past emotional experiences, both good and bad. By doing so, they let the children know that their perspectives about a situation, and their feelings, were important.

Dads shouldn’t feel bad about these results, or leave the reminiscing to moms, though. Emotional awareness can be learned and enriched. The problem is that emotions, especially the negative ones like guilt or anger, sometimes make us uncomfortable, so we push them deep down inside us. In Japanese Morita therapy, people are taught to accept and co-exist with uncomfortable emotions; since the feelings can’t be controlled, opt to change your behavior instead. Go ahead and do what frightens you instead of letting fear hold you back.

Another way to become more aware of emotions is through writing. James Pennebaker, who developed the “writing to heal” program, had a group of people who were laid off write for 20 minutes a day, for 5 days, about their emotions and what they were feeling. After the study ended, 65% of the people who wrote about their emotions found new jobs, versus 26% in the group who didn’t write. The writing, a form of mindfulness practice, helped people clarify what they were looking for.

Putting yourself in another person’s shoes, imagining what they are feeling, is another way to build emotional awareness. Chade-Meng Tan, who developed Search Inside Yourself, has a practice called “Just Like Me” meditation. It serves as a reminder that most of us want the same basic things out of life, such as happiness, and that all of us suffer sometimes. It is a profound way to feel more connected to others.

Improving emotional intelligence isn’t a task with an end point though. Just as athletes and musicians continue to practice, even after reaching the big leagues, we shouldn’t stop refining our emotional abilities. Richard Davidson, who studies the neuroscience of emotions, says that “There are many sources of destructive emotions in our culture, and … constant barrage of stimuli…” We “need to keep practicing to effectively maintain the gains achieved.”

Cicada vs chain saw

Sounds I hear while meditating:


The hum of something – traffic? A lawnmower?

Yipping of a small dog

A hammer

A chain saw

My breath

There’s something incredibly comforting about the sounds I hear on an average day in my neighborhood: the insects, the birds, construction on a neighbor’s house, the sound of children playing. Like a baby who becomes accustomed to its mother’s voice while in her womb, these are the sounds that tell me everything is “normal”, life goes on.

But when I sit down to meditate, these sounds can also serve as a focal point. Following the breath in mindfulness meditation is very popular, but sometimes I find it difficult to stay focused on the breath. So what I like to do is to just sit and experience the sounds in my environment, especially in the spring and summer. If the windows are open, I can hear a lot of sounds from outdoors, both natural and manmade. Today, with the windows closed and the air conditioning on, most of the sounds were distant and muffled. My house was silent; I couldn’t hear appliances, air conditioning or computers from where I was sitting. So I became very aware of what was happening outside.

Most of the time, we don’t focus on the sounds around us, unless they are exceptionally pleasant or irritating. Sound just becomes a background for whatever we are thinking or doing at the moment. But when I stop and listen to each sound separately, it’s easier to find the quiet spaces between them. Deepak Chopra has said that, “Meditation is not a way of making your mind quiet. It’s a way of entering into the quiet that’s already there.” Although it seems counterintuitive, paying attention to sound helps me find silence.

While there aren’t many rules for meditating, having a passive attitude (nonjudging) is recommended. One way to achieve this is by becoming the observer rather than the thinker: I am not my thoughts, so I can note them and watch them pass with a sense of detachment. Observing the sounds around me helps with this, because they seem so remote and apart from me. The sound of the chain saw is no worse or better than the sound of the cicada; they both merely exist.

Heightening my awareness of sound, and observing it passively, can lead, I hope, to becoming a less judgmental observer of myself and others. Can I apply that kind of awareness to my own emotions and attitudes, learning to see and identify them before I act on them? The Dalai Lama says that “It is really a matter of habit…the more habituated you are to this awareness of the rising of emotion, the awareness in itself creates a separation between you and the emotion…”

So I listen to the sounds of my neighborhood, and hope to create a habit.