Emotional awareness is the capacity we have to be in touch with what we are feeling at any one moment and thus enable ourselves to express this, or simply notice it and discover what is evoking that response. Without awareness of our emotions we are dominated by them. Our responses are automatic. We may also be blind to the emotions of others and this renders us unable to adequately support family, friends and work colleagues.
As Erich Fromm says:
You can either have your emotions, or they can have you
In this article, I will look at the importance of emotional awareness for emotional and physical health, how it helps with living with your life in the way you want, and how to achieve this awareness.
What is Emotional Awareness
As a result of over forty years of teaching Emotional Education to people of all ages it became apparent to me that people are generally quite blind when it comes to emotions.
Human beings have developed many mechanisms to deal with their feelings, particularly unpleasant or frightening ones. We tend to suppress them or act them out to show people how we feel rather than expressing them in words. This leaves others to guess how we are feeling. Sulking, having tantrums, denying that we are feeling anything, or saying ‘I don’t want to talk or think about it’ are all fairly common ways of dealing with emotions that we may be afraid to express or are not aware of.
You can take a quick test to find out how you express your emotions here:
As an illustration of ‘acting out’: my husband and I were shopping in a large store in Coventry. Tim wanted to attract my attention so he shouted my name loudly from the other end of the store. I was immediately furious. I stormed over to him and said something like ‘ Don’t you ever dare to do that again’. He looked totally amazed and said , ‘Why, what did I do? Why are you so angry’? Well to me it was obvious. He had humiliated me in public, drawing attention to both of us and making an idiot of himself and me. Had he really done all that - or did he just try to get my attention in a department store??
His question made me stop and think. Why was I so angry? Was I really angry ;what was the anger covering up? Was I embarrassed or humiliated and if so why? I will address the latter question later.
How do I know what I am feeling?
When asked ‘where do you look to see how you are feeling? ‘ many people point to their heads. Well heads are ideal for thinking, but they are not the seat of our emotions. Emotions show up in the body.
Emotions really are feelings – not thoughts. It may be that you feel a churning in your stomach; tension in your face or jaw; tightness in your chest or other parts of your body; your fists may clench; your foot may tap; you may start to yawn or feel tightness in your chest. There could also be visible changes in the colour of your face. You may flush or go very pale. Your temperature may change. All of these experiences can be clues as to how or what we are feeling.
Not all emotions generate such obvious physiological responses. Pleasant feelings may show up as a smile, a sigh of contentment or feeling energised.
The feelings we experience are felt in various parts of the body as a result of hormonal secretions from the brain (See Gabor Mate's work). Oxytocin is the feel-good hormone, experienced in childhood when, for instance breastfeeding or feeling intimately connected with the mother figure. Adrenalin is the flight, fight or freeze hormone, released when we are threatened to put us on high alert. The hypothalamus, the pituitary gland and the amygdala are all components in this process.
I am sure this is ‘too much information’ and really all that is necessary to know is that the brain and the body work together to ensure that you are alerted to danger in order to ensure your survival. The two of them also respond to pleasure or comfort. The release of these hormones is experienced in the body and our culture trains us to ignore them. We do so at our peril.
The problem with being human is that danger can be perceived in the most familiar surroundings. We walk into a crowded room and feel ‘self-conscious’, flooded with uncomfortable feelings. But are we really in danger? We probably fear the judgement of others, wondering if we are looking ‘acceptable’ . We desperately want to fit in and at the same time we might want to stand out. What a dilemma! If we stand out we will be noticed and then we might warrant disapproval.
When I walked into a crowded bar or dance hall I used to feel like the tin man in the Wizard of Oz – that my joints had rusted up and I could not move easily. I felt conspicuous. Sadly, there was no oil-can available.
I was soon cured of this when I took a course which was designed to free you up emotionally (read more about that here). I began to look at other people rather than being pre-occupied with how I looked and realised that everyone else was probably feeling just the same. They were too busy worrying about their appearance to be interested in mine. This was a huge relief and I had to laugh at myself for being so self-centred.
I Invite you to look at the faces of people as you walk down the street or go shopping. Most of them are pre-occupied with their thoughts. I think you will find it interesting.
I constructed my courses on Emotional Education to enable others to become less self-centred and more self-aware. This all starts with emotional awareness.
So emotional awareness requires you to be in touch with what is happening in your body and put a name to it. You may need to practice this awareness process for a while. Most of us are quite emotionally illiterate since not only were we never taught much about feelings and emotions, but some of us were actively encouraged to suppress them (for an in-depth look at emotional education see this article).
Hopefully, having mastered this process you can then work out what the stimulus is that is causing the emotion. Simply naming how you are feeling helps though. It helps you and those you are in relationship with to understand what is happening with you. Unless you help them in this way they can only guess and they will probably guess wrongly.
When I am angry it feels as though there is an engine revving up in my diaphragm. If I can stay with this and observe it I will probably discover what the anger is designed to cover up (for a deeper look at anger see this article). It is usually hurt, fear or pain (for a deeper look at fear see this article). Owning up to being hurt by someone or feeling inadequate feels as though you are making yourself very vulnerable, exposing yourself to yet more pain, after all if someone is hurting you or thinking you are useless why would you let them know it? Then they know what to do to cause you more hurt! (for a detailed look at feeling hurt, read this article)
This is the good news – most people do not want to hurt others – unless of course they think you are hurting them! Many of us at this point get into ‘tit for tat’ routines; you did this – well you did that! That is a game in which nobody wins.
When we are small children we are vulnerable and so develop defence strategies to protect ourselves ‘You don’t get me’ is one of them. This is playing the ‘invulnerable /invincible game’. ‘Nothing you can do will penetrate my armour’, but it already has! And I carry that wound with me and perhaps look for vengeance or nurse it silently. Oh, there is so much to be ‘aware’ of and so many adverse consequences when we are unaware.
How Emotional Awareness helps
I have already indicated that becoming emotionally aware gives you a choice about how you respond to various situations. Most people tend to react emotionally rather than responding. Being able to choose our response requires that we have some control over the alternatives.
For instance, to go back to the Coventry store incident, had I been aware of my anger and taken an enquiring attitude towards it, I would have had the opportunity to explore the basis of it rather than exploding.
It might have gone like this – Tim is shouting my name across the store; I notice I am angry; I wonder why that is? I am feeling embarrassed and humiliated. I wonder why that is? When have I felt embarrassed and humiliated in public before now? Well I did feel embarrassed etc. when my stiletto heels got stuck in a grating in the middle of a busy Manchester square when I was 19 and I walked on without them. That was understandable. But that situation was nothing like this one. I certainly felt terrified as a child and teenager that my father, in one of his manic phases (My father was diagnosed as having bi-polar disorder) would be loud and inappropriate in public, or that my mother, because she did not know any better would do the same. I remember being with a friend at the cinema when she and my dad walked in. They were looking for seats and my mother said very loudly, ‘Over there daddy, there’s two over there!!’. I desperately hoped that no one would realise I was associated with them as I shrunk down under my seat. I wanted to die!
So, Tim was talking loudly and drawing attention to me in the store and ‘little me’ was back in the cinema cringing at my parent’s lack of sensitivity and feeling powerless to stop them. So what were the choices I had; one was to explode (which I did, but was that a choice or a knee jerk reaction – in which case it was not a choice).
Another would be to approach Tim and say calmly and quietly, “Tim when you shouted my name I felt really embarrassed. Please don’t do that again”. Or I could have simply walked up to him and said ‘Here I am. What do you want?’ I might have done that but that would not indicate to Tim that his actions had disturbed me.
In this case the emotional awareness came later, as it does when you are new to this. I was able to have a conversation with Tim and explain what had been going on with me. He was apologetic and assured me it would not happen again. Of course, it did because Tim has a tendency to get excited and enthusiastic about things and then he can get very loud. It does dawn on him now that I find this really uncomfortable and he usually tones it down.
This level of emotional awareness has a crucial role to play in the development of healthy relationships and communication. I remember telling someone I worked with at Warwick University, who was senior to me, that a comment he had made to me about my work with students had been very hurtful. ‘Oh, I didn’t mean to hurt you’, he replied. Since he had told me he thought everything I did was ‘rubbish’ I was somewhat amazed at his lack of sensitivity.
In the past I would have seethed about this, gossiped about it but done nothing about it with regards to him, apart from dislike him more than I already did. After I had told him how hurt I was and shed a tear or two he began to tell me about personal issues that he had that he had never told any of his colleagues or friends. He then said that if I told anyone else he would deny it. My relationship with him changed. He was less condescending towards me and quite friendly! I would never have thought this was possible.
Being emotionally aware enables you to open up with people and communicate how you feel. You don’t have to of course, but you have that option. Without awareness you do not have options – you have no choice; you are on autopilot.
When I have perhaps asked why people keep doing self-destructive acts, like smoking or drinking heavily, staying in destructive or unsupportive relationships some will tell me ‘I’m choosing to do it’. What they really mean is, I can’t stop doing it or I won’t stop doing it or I don’t know how to stop doing it. ‘I’m choosing’ seems to be one of those New Age phrases that convinces people that they know what they are doing. It is difficult to think that we humans rarely have a choice but are impelled by our emotions to do what does not contribute to our well-being. In other words we are not in charge of our actions a lot of the time – our feelings are. I refer you back to the quote at the beginning of this article. Feelings are definitely having you! Workaholics, relationship junkies, drug addicts , people pleasers, narcissists (and everyone who is not in touch with their feelings or cannot cope with them when they are) is governed by their feelings. Most of the behaviours I have outlined are an attempt to escape from feelings – to numb out and feel nothing.
Human beings do not like suffering and we all suffer from some of our emotions, at least we suffer from them if we try to ignore them, or become overwhelmed by them. Herman Hesse said:
You know quite well, deep within you, that there is only a single magic, a single power, a single salvation and that is called loving. Well then love your suffering. Do not resist it, do not flee from it. It is your aversion that hurts, nothing else.
People talk about negative and positive emotions. They really mean emotions that they like and those they do not like or those they can tolerate or those they cannot tolerate. There is no such thing as negative or positive emotions. There are just emotions. As Shakespeare said:
Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so.
Once we observe and embrace our emotions instead of resisting them etc. then they become useful signals to indicate to us that we need to take action or communicate – or both.
Without this capacity to notice emotions – become aware of them we are the victims of them and we become automatons who are at their mercy. We are not in control.
So how do I become aware of my emotions
This takes practice. It takes you to sit with your feelings / emotions and behave with curiosity and compassion towards them.
Exploring Your Past
Most of us have a part of us (a sub-personality) that is still a small child. It is how the child was treated by others around them that determined how they dealt with their feelings. For instance I was punished for getting excited and told, if I laughed that there would be ‘tears before morning’. My mother was very angry most of the time. (I learned later that it was because she was very unhappy) . I learned to be angry too, rather than feel anything else, like scared or hurt or sad. These emotions only evoked impatience from my mother. So that is my default position as an adult. My inner child protects itself from any perceived hurt or danger the way she learned to do many years ago. When I get angry I have to explore the other feelings that anger is covering up rather than directing it at someone else. (By the way sometimes it is OK to direct it at someone else if they need to see that they have overstepped the mark. It should not be violent though. That is a different expression altogether and is ‘acting out’ in a big way).
It requires you to get in touch with that small inner child who might be in pain, empathise with the pain and then encourage him/her to talk to someone about it. If talking to the person who is causing the pain is too frightening then they /you need to find someone else to talk to who can support them in communicating.
Exploring our physical sensations is a really excellent way of bringing awareness to your feelings. There are many meditation techniques that can help you to do this. Sitting quietly and exploring your body from top to toe is a good way of going about this. The more you practice this the more you will get into the habit in your daily life, so you will not need to sit for half an hour to do this.
I recommend that you take a meditation class to get into the habit of doing this and then practice every day.
I used to meditate for at least 20 minutes to half an hour every morning for a couple of years. I would check through my body from head to toe to see what was going on in there. There was always something.
Once you have identified a body sensation you can start to be curious about what it is trying to tell you . At this point some ‘flow writing’ is good. Just get a pen / pencil and paper and write down anything that comes into your head about that bodily feeling. Do not monitor yourself or attempt to edit what you are writing, just let yourself pour out your thoughts, feelings and memories though the pen or pencil and onto the paper. I have found this a really useful way to discover what is really stimulating my feelings. It is really good for anxiety or depression which are seriously debilitating emotions that can cause physical and emotional problems (See Gabor Mate’s book ‘When the body says No’).
Emotions can be our biggest asset or our worst enemy. They can either contribute to your relationships with yourself and others, or hinder or destroy them and you. They are extremely powerful determinants of our behaviour and the effectiveness of our communication.
Only on becoming aware of our emotions do we have any mastery or power over them. Without this they have power over us and we have no choice in our responses.
We need to give an authentic voice to our emotions so that we can truly understand ourselves and enable others to respond to us without being triggered by our ‘acting out’ of what we feel.
Only then can we have relationships that are long lasting and rewarding – relationships that we learn from and value.