When are our emotions "normal"? and when is it useful to do something about them?

29 April, 2010

I had a couple of interesting experiences year that got me thinking about this.

I joined a creative group which I am still a part of. In the beginning group process we were each given a task to do. This involved asking at least three people I respected to answer the following questions about me:

What do you see as unique about me?
What talents or qualities do you think I have?
What do you think may be possible for me?

I asked 5 people and got 5 responses back - and the feedback was interesting! People had different perceptions of me as a result of knowing me in different contexts, and it was an interesting exercise. One thing that surprised me was a common thread in the feedback, that, even though I think I "knew" it about myself, I didn't really "know" - if you know what I mean?!

Apparently, I am a very emotional person and that my emotions are often the drivers for my actions and behaviours. Sometimes to my advantage it seemed, and sometimes, however, not.

It was a little surprising to see it written there, from about 3 out of the 5 people that completed the task for me. I think I knew I was an emotional person, I didn't think other people perceived me that way.

It got me thinking.

My Grandmother on my mother's side, Molvina, was a very emotional person. She passed away when I was only 14 years old, and I remember lots of amazing things about her. She was beautiful and she was fluent in about 7 different languages. She was loving and caring and warm and a wonderful cook. She was Armenian and a refugee to Cyprus, where she married my Greek Grandfather Dimitri, and then a refugee again from Cyrpus to London, England, with their two children, my mother and my Uncle George. She was a devout Catholic and my Grandfather was also highly religious of the Greek Orthodox faith.

Grandma Molvina always wanted her grandchildren to be religious. It was however, in conflict with how we were being brought up by our parents - our 2nd generation Greek refugee mother and Welsh policeman father - as non-religious. Grandma had pictures of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary all over the house, and her experience of religion was so that she would love Jesus so much that every time she thought of him it brought her to tears (often).

My mum, also, is a very emotional person. She doesn't think so much as feel, and her feelings are everything - her complete guidance for all her thoughts and behaviours. Unfortunately, this isn't always positive. Over the years she has become very good at some very negative emotions.

So, I can understand my family line, and how much emotion and trauma seems to be there, and how that history may have influenced me as the person I am now, emotional.

Except - in my head, I am thinking "I am an NLP practitioner! Is it OK to be an emotional person?" - a conflict of "I am a human being" and "I am also a professional helper and a model to others". Something perhaps other therapists and coaches have also experienced at some point in their lives and careers.

In this article I think I have answered something important for myself, and my hope in sharing it here with you, is that it can help you answer your question of:

When are emotions useful and/or a normal part of being human and when do they begin to become a problem, warranting attention to bring you back into balance?



I can answer it by telling you one personal story.

Last year, my big brother got married in England, and I went home for the wedding. I was back in the UK for about 5 weeks, more than enough time to get totally connected to everyone again. It was quite weird, because when I was there I was actually feeling totally fine. I knew I had to leave and come back to my home in NZ and it didn't seem to be a problem at all. I didn't even cry at the airport, something I have always have done in the past (and there have been many tearful airport departures in my life).

I got back to NZ after the long flight, and within an hour or so of landing, the emotion hit me like a Japanese bullet-train. It was unexpected and painful. The best way of describing it was pure grief from loss. I had had no warning signals, one minute I was fine, and then there it was! It reconfirms every belief I have ever had about the difference between your conscious mind and your unconscious mind's processing! Where we consciously think or feel something and what is going on beneath the surface unconsciously are two very different things. I did already know that of course, and this was really "knowing" it.

As I was experiencing my grief, I had to decide, as a skilled NLP practitioner, what to do with it: Do I feel it and ride it out? Do I talk to someone about it? Do I try and change it? Partly, these questions came from a vantage point of knowing I had some kind of choice. Something which not everyone considers when they are in the throes of an emotion. I also had a time factor to consider. I had about three days before I was due to start work again and start consulting with and helping my own clients - plus I was running a retreat the following weekend. I had work to do and I didn't feel in any kind of state to do it.

So, I decided at the time, that considering what I had left at home, that it was appropriate to feel this grief for now. It didn't feel right to rush in their with my NLP techniques and go changing it, it just felt necessary to let it come, and (I was hoping) go again. I left it to do what it needed to do, and used all my willpower, skills and tools to work my way up to my usual resourcefulness to complete my work commitments.

And it did do what it needed to do, it came, and then it petered out again, and allowed me to get back to a normal state. I decided to keep an eye on how I was feeling though, and make sure things were balancing themselves out.

About two weeks later, I was aware that I was still waking up in the mornings and feeling sad. It didn't linger all day, in fact, it was gone once I was out of bed and looking forward to the day. It wasn't too bothersome, however, after a few more days I decided it was time to do something about it. It affected my well-being to be feeling sad in the mornings, and I had tools in my toolbox and, if I couldn't do it alone, people that can help me change it.

I had got to an appropriate point in time when another choice became much more appropriate. It was kind of like that my emotion had served it's purpose, it had given me the message it needed to, that I loved and missed my family and friends and that they were important to me (at least, this is what I took as the message from it) and now it was just hanging around, not because I needed it, but because my neurology was confused about how much of this chemical I needed to have in my brain. It was beginning to over produce it, unnecessarily, and it was my job to teach it that the message has been received and understood and that I no longer needed it and it could safely let it go now.

Once again I find myself booking a session with myself. I did everything with myself just as when I am working with a client. I got an outcome, I checked with my brain that it was OK to achieve that outcome, and I used an NLP process to clear the unnecessary emotional chemical (Time Line Therapy).

I woke up the next morning feeling absolutely fine again. I had that "wow" feeling that I used to so often get during NLP trainings when you practise the processes in pairs to learn them. Even though I live and breathe NLP and see the living example of what is possible with it every day with my clients, I still get surprised sometimes about what a powerful change vehicle it is, especially when it is your own experience. I am sometimes still left with the thoughts of "wow, can it really be that easy to change something?!" - and I have to accept that yes, it can be, and that that is OK and wonderful.

When are your emotions useful and a normal part of being human?

Virgina Satir was an amazing influence in the therapy world - the mother of family therapy and who a lot of NLP was originally modelled from. She described human emotions like the lights on a car dashboard: when you are out of oil, your car flashes a light on your dashboard to let you know, so you can do something about it and therefore keep your car safe and functional. She said that what we get good at doing, is seeing the oil light flash up, and think "I can't deal with that now.." or "I don't have time to deal with it..." or "I don't know how to deal with that..." and therefore ignore it, and the oil light keeps flashing. Then, we get tired of seeing the oil light flashing, and we might place something over the dashboard so we don't have to be reminded anymore. Then, when that stops working, we cut the electrical wires so we can't see the flashing light any more. And then we can pretend that it's no longer there.

The car still needs oil though, whether we pay attention to it or not.

And without it, the car will either encounter other problems - other lights will start to flash - or it may just break down all together.

Emotions can also be described metaphorically like a flower: they grow - and then, when they have grown all they need to, they die a natural death.

Theories of a spiritual nature consider all human emotions to have a "purpose" e.g. for the less than positive emotions:

Fear = protection and survival
Guilt = to correct something wrong
Sadness = reminding you how important someone/something is to you
Anger = to right an injustice (this has got to change)

In this sense therefore, an emotion is never right or wrong, negative or positive, it simply has a purpose to be there or a message for you that needs to be paid attention to.

The way that Virginia Satir thought of them is similar, and that we get very used to ignoring the "message" because we don't know how to deal with it, causing break down later on, which shows up in the struggling family and relationship dynamics that she helped people change.

In this sense, I have come to believe that all emotions are useful and therefore a normal part of being a human being. All we have to do, is, instead of cutting the electrical wires on the dashboard because we believe we can't deal with them or the message, is simply acknowledge them and what they are trying to tell us.

When you are experience a significant emotion ask yourself quite seriously:
If I were to know or guess, what is this emotion trying to tell me? What is the important message? What action, if any, needs to be taken for this emotion to know that the message has been understood and it can safely leave again?This will help your brain know that you've paid attention to the light on the dashboard and that you are dealing with it. Then it will stop flashing the light once the problem is solved.

When do emotions begin to become a problem, warranting attention to bring you back into balance?

There are three useful ways of measuring this:
The Trigger: Is this obvious, specific and understandable? Does it make sense, that given the circumstances that you would feel this way?Relativity: Is the emotion you feel relative to the situation - does it seem in-proportion?Time: Does the emotion flower, and then die a natural death in a relative period of time after the trigger? This could be a couple of days, weeks, months or in extreme loss a year or two years.If the answer is NO to any of these measures, then you are experiencing emotional imbalance. You could have excess emotion stored up in your system which wasn't dealt with at the time, and is now sitting under the surface waiting to bubble over at any given opportunity and linger around, in order to get its message heard and understood. Or, you could have become so good at ignoring the lights on your dashboard that you are feeling significanly less than you'd like to feel.

These are signs of emotional imbalance that can be adjusted in your neurology to feel more comfortable. Sometimes your brain gets neurologically "good" at a certain emotion, not because it is necessary, but by accident. it is our job to teach it different so that it serves you better.

This will allow you to feel more balanced and in control of your emotions, and be able experience them in an appropriate and relative way, where they come, leave their message and then go, leaving you feeling balanced and happy again.

My parting thought is that I am a human being and I am an emotional person and this is OK with me. I am pleased I have a sense of choice about how I feel and it is this sense of choice I would like others to be aware of too.

With positive thoughts, Charlotte.

www.charlottehinksman.com for NLP services in Wellington.

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