This post is a semi-ordered spew that has been sparked partly by ongoing reading / discussion with another blogger, partly by ongoing parenting concerns, and partly by this article.
A. Emotions are without moral content, neither right, nor wrong. There is no “should” with feelings, there is only “is.”
Mindfulness, as I understand it, includes being willing and able to feel your feelings as they truly are. It’s not (negatively) interfering with the feelings by trying to push them away or rise above them or ignore them. It’s also not (positively) interfering with the feelings by stretching, twisting, or magnifying them.
The former seems to make more practical sense than the latter. I think I can usually tell when I am trying to push away, transcend, or ignore a feeling. It seems harder to tell the difference between fully entering the feeling and interfering with it.
That may be partly because there’s rarely a single pure emotion going on at any moment. There might be some initial feeling, but several thoughts and other feelings will enter in response.
It may also be because the will gets involved. Again, the will to avoid feelings seems fairly easy to identify, but the will to magnify / catastrophize / aggrandize / etc feelings seems somehow less identifiable. I think I’ve identified it most clearly in efforts to extend or recapture pleasurable feelings that have faded — and occasionally when my will wants to hold onto anger and is unwilling to let go a grudge.
B. There is etiquette and wisdom around the appropriate expression of emotion. It is not morally wrong to be angry, but it is morally wrong to express anger by killing people.
This bit seems to be at least partly culturally mediated. Some cultures really push keeping emotional expression rather reserved. Some not so much. Same with families and other groups.
I tend to think of appropriate emotional expression in terms of words. I suppose I’m really thinking about communication, not just expression, although those categories overlap. I mean, if I’m angry with someone, I generally think it is best to explain my anger and my reasons in a calm and respectful tone of voice. It seems okay to let positive feelings “show” more in tone of voice, volume, phrasing, and so on, but not so much with negative feelings. If I need to yell, hit things, throw things, and so on, it’s better to do so in private and be careful what objects I use. See — when I talk about appropriate expression, I don’t mean that there’s always only one appropriate expression for any given emotion, but that some expressions are appropriate in private, and others are appropriate around family or close friends, and others in public.
If it’s this sophisticated / subtle / complicated (hey, are sophisti-cated and compli-cated and dedi-cated and lo-cated related?) with adults, now consider how to teach a kid about appropriate expression of emotions. To what extent can a particular kid fully feel her feelings and choose an age-appropriate expression for them? Is any instruction at all about appropriate expression going to put hurdles in front of full feeling of feelings? But without any instruction, how will the kid learn about appropriate expression? And some instruction is needed just to protect everyone and everyone’s stuff. Then think about how different personalities work — one person’s hurdle might be another’s nothing at all and yet another’s devastation.
Amy quite clearly doesn’t understand the distinction between feelings and attitude. And who can blame her. But I still think it’s important to keep talking to her about it… to keep telling her that it’s okay to feel feelings, and that it’s important to learn how to express them appropriately.
C. To what extent is it morally right and / or personally desirable to influence feelings?
First of all, all kinds of things already influence our feelings. How we eat, how our health is, what the weather’s like, what happened five minutes ago, what happened fifteen years ago, what’s on schedule for tomorrow, who we’re with, what we just read or saw or heard, and on and on.
Some of these things we have some control over, like what we eat or read. Others not so much.
There are some tools for influencing / managing / regulating emotions. Some DBT tools include the half-smile and the prompting event worksheet.
The half-smile is a physiological thing. You already know that what your brain says, your body does. But what your body does, your brain notices, too. So if you can deliberately choose a half-smile (not a full grin that could speak fear or anger), or a less curled-up posture, or deliberately relax certain tensed muscles, you can reduce the power / intensity of the relevant emotion.
I think of this more as breaking a feedback loop, and less as trying to dictate or deny my feelings. Attitude matters so much — if I felt that any such method was about merely making me more palatable to other people, or about cutting off my voice and my truth, I wouldn’t be able to use the method. But if I can see the method as compassionate and respectful to my truest self, then by all means I’ll use it.
The prompting event worksheet I use the same way. It helps me slow down enough to see what my emotions are telling me, what old thought-patterns they’re automatically triggering, and consider how I might challenge whatever’s false or unhelpful in those old-thought patterns and learn from whatever’s true or helpful in what the emotion is trying to communicate.
It’s amazing how tricky it is to discern between covering, hiding, avoiding, pushing away, clinging to, exploring, noticing, challenging, reducing, and so on.
The point seems to be something like, “What do I feel? What are the possible roots of this feeling? What does this feeling make me want to do, think, or say? What’s true / false, helpful / unhelpful, good / bad in those urges? What possible roots can I change? Which can I accept (not necessarily condone)? Which do I need to work through more?”
D. What do we do when our feelings seem out of proportion or irrational?
I think we still need to feel them and accept them for what they are.
We can’t bring our emotions into (what we think is) proportion and rationality by will alone.
Emotions that seem out of line usually point to something other than what is currently going on. Following them there can lead to useful working through of whatever that something is, whether it’s the weather or the past.
Feelings have proportion and rationality all their own, if we are mindful enough to feel them fully and listen to what they have to say. I don’t think feelings are ever random or arbitrary or meaningless, even if they’re also not always profound or deep.