Certain truths repeatedly forced themselves upon me. I've listed them here, in no particular order, and they may be of help to others. They may not be of help to others. You decide. It's your life and you've got to live it. Adopt them or junk them as your please.
(1) Emotions are biological processes much like sweating, farting and breathing.
Generally, they have little 'meaning'. They are not a statement about who we are, what we are worth, how society should deal with us, or where we are going to go after we are dead, however much we might like to think otherwise, however much others might tell us so. Think of them as semi-random noise much like freeway traffic and you'll save yourself a lot of needless worry. When you tell yourself they mean this, that or the other, you are almost certainly wrong. You are likely to be seriously wrong if your hold insistent views about the personal significance of those emotions, or that they are a definitive guide to you or the world.
(2) Ideas are important in managing emotions.
It's nice to feel good emotions (the ones we want) and distressing to feel bad ones (the other kind). That's ok. And it's good to seek to get happy ones and remove sad ones. But be careful how you pursue this. If your road map is wrong (your ideas) then you'll finish up in a wrong place no matter how passionately you work at happiness.
(3) The 'meaning' thing is entirely overrated and in some circumstances quite dangerous.
When we put certain ingredients into a person's life then particular emotions often result. The person attaches 'meaning' to those emotions, meaning that is constrained by their ideas, language, personal history, and values. They then give themselves a permission to deal with those emotions in a particular way. But if the ideas used for assessing emotions are faulty or deficient then bad outcomes will inevitably ensue. Garbage In - Garbage Out applies.
People with a psychopathic psychological makeup get worse if they get heavily involved in a diet of pornography, especially the violent kind. We all recall the cosseted narcissists with loving parents and marriage partners who were never challenged on their ideas about their entitlements and their expectations of others, and hence see no problem in shooting all their family members who have 'failed' them. Their isolation is the key to a bad outcome for themselves and those around them.
The critical generator of these bad outcomes is the attachment of wrong ideas to powerful emotions.
The critical generator of these bad outcomes is the attachment of wrong ideas to powerful emotions.
Strong emotions bind us by two sets of underlying ideas:
(1) The hope that we will achieve social recognition or acceptance from others by a narrative account about ourselves;
(2) The fear that if we abandon that narrative account then we will have failed our own life.
For example, I might have a deep hope to be a world class musician in a great orchestra. I invest heavily in that process but I always end up as a second stringer, filling in when the regulars can't make it. My hope is for public adulation and financial reward. The fear is that if I turn to some other line of work that I will be a failed human being, that I will have no 'life' as measured against this script. So I tread on, refusing to abandon or modify the astonishing narrative I have of my life, until events or age force reality upon me; that my narrative is unsustainable in its present form.
Suicide candidates are especially prone to being caught on these twin prongs of hope and fear about their lives. They are especially vulnerable if they have suffered injustices or hardship in the pursuit of their vision. The sweet siren song messages of hope and fear are always deeply addictive and mutually reinforcing. But they are not an accurate reflection of the world or the person.
Only in rare cases (war and certain death, for example) is suicide a good option. (Look, I have friends who have suicided or seriously considered it so nothing I'm saying here should be seen as a cheap shot. I know people can be distressed, troubled and see no way out. But the messages they play on an endless loop are usually not as compelling as they appear when they are examined closely, and certainly not in the person's best interest. People need to examine the dynamics of their thought processes very carefully. Just saying.)
People who have thoughts of suicide are especially vulnerable and should seek immediate professional counseling. They're not broken or failed human beings, just ordinary run-of-the-mill people suffering distressing emotions. The ideas that feed those underlying powerful emotions need to be put on the table and examined just as you would with skin rash or an allergic reaction.
(4) Emotions are transitory. They are not YOU.
Imagine a heated conversation. You have crossed swords with a friend. You feel deeply outraged over some issue. Your voice is raised and nothing is stopping you. You insist to their face that you will not change, that your views are fixed and unalterable, that your outrage is real and unshakeable -- "This is who I am," you fiercely proclaim, "And nothing can shake me."
And just then, exactly when you feel all powerful and vindicated and warm and sated, a Siberian tiger appears from around the corner of the living room.
Please be very clear about this. In a matter of half a second, all of this is gone as if it never existed. Your outrage, your certainty, your sense of power and fulfillment -- all vanished in a second! So what happened to "This is who I am"? What happened to you and your 'unshakeable' definition of yourself?
The world is real. By comparison, your emotions are not. Yes, they have a certain reality and we need them like we need clothes. Sometimes they grow on us like hair, to keep us warm. But they are not YOU. Remember all those psych studies? The photos of the monkeys strapped in with their brains on display? The scientist puts the electric probe at point X in the brain and the monkey feels powerful emotions of terror. He probes a millimeter away and the monkey is swamped by feelings of sexual arousal, orgasm, raging anger or peacefulness.
These emotions -- we need them and we enjoy them -- but they are NOT anything like what they are cracked up to be. And they are especially not what we want them or need them to be just because we have told ourselves so many times. And they especially are not YOU. You are just a monkey with the probes hitting where you don't want them to.
(5) Types of pain.
There are three types of pain, as any parent of a six year old with a toothache can tell you:
(P1) biological -- the actual toothache pain which might temporarily be solved with an aspirin or a gum salve, but ultimately needs a dentist specialist to fix.
(P2) emotional/psychological -- the youngster may feel distressed about going to the dentist. They work themselves into an hysterical and irrational state of fear over imagined pains to come that are never really going to eventuate. This can often be more painful to the child than the actual toothache itself even though it is purely imagined. The best the parent can do is to soothe the child down and waylay their fears by reassurance and sensible talk.
(P3) contrived -- the youngster tells mum they have a toothache as an excuse to stay home from school. An easy one to fix.
The point about this categorization is that a great deal of pain is induced emotional pain. It afflicts adults as well as children throughout life yet we rarely recognize it as such or make efforts to test for it. Yet it is essentially self-manufactured.
We feel a powerful painful (negative) emotion and we declare it to be a real state of the world, fixed forever in the universe and unshakably true and trustworthy.
As the example with the Siberian tiger shows that's not always a safe conclusion, and especially so the more powerful the emotion.
The ideas above provide the basis for managing intense, uncomfortable emotions. The critical step is to recognize that there needs to be mechanisms in place to distinguish between real pain (P1) and self-induced or hysterical pain of an emotional nature (P2). Then arises the task of examining the ideas that gave rise to the hysterical pain.
Once a pain is identified as self-induced it can be challenged or modified. (P2) pains are not fixed, immutable or necessary.And they are sustained by false ideas.
There are four components:
* TESTING -- separate oneself from the intense emotions and test whether or not the painful emotions are a P1 or P2 type.
* IDEAS -- modify the underlying belief systems and lifestyle practices that sustain any P2 (hyped) emotions.
* RESOURCES-- seek professional help where appropriate. People cannot always effectively challenge their own egos.
* LIFESTYLE -- install new belief systems and lifestyles that minimize false beliefs about oneself and the world.
All of this is consistent with the key principles of Buddhism. Pain exists. But the real enemy is secondary pain, a false attachment to ideas about oneself and the world. The noble 8-fold path provides a recipe for building a better emotional life.
* TESTING -- You don't have a Siberian tiger to shake you out of your false emotions, so do the next best thing -- overwhelm and distract your senses. Go to the zoo and stand around the animals for a day. Spend several hours or a whole day at a football game, crowded shopping mall or similar. The intention here is to be swamped by emotional noise from others that turns off the gushers of high intensity emotions that you may be struggling with. Go for a series of roller coaster rides. Go surfing for a day. You should come back feeling emotionally washed out. How real are your intense pain emotions now?
* IDEAS -- Modify the underlying belief system that people can or should care about you. If you died tomorrow some might cry but overall they will move on. The process is called 'taking out the garbage'. It.Has.No.Meaning. No-one cares. Belief in a higher power (in whatever form) is often beneficial. It provides an altruistic purpose and a mental balance to self-preoccupation. If you don't like religion then get involved in an environmental group or a homeless shelter -- anything, as long as it is basically decent or noble-minded, where you are not in charge, and where it stops you thinking about yourself all the time. If it is mentally stimulating then that's a plus.
* RESOURCES -- Seek professional help where appropriate. Review your personal and life goals to see if they are realistic, and your value systems. Make a list of other loves or enjoyments in your life other than the item causing you your current bug bear. Stop making yourself a target for needless worry by investing all of yourself in a small number of critical issues.
* LIFESTYLE -- Stay away from negative people. Stop wondering how to get them to recognize you (they never will so don't bother). Simply click the delete button and move on. Nothing is fixed except that hole in the ground waiting for each of us. In 10, 20 30 years no-one will care. Absolutely no-one. So stop caring about others and what they think. Care about yourself now.
Emotions are great when they are going well. But remember, they are products of the body, and in the first instance are just noise. We provide the meaning and significance. Challenge your assumptions about your emotions, confront them and see which of them is really you.