Befriending Your Emotions
Michael Whelan SM
There are two assumptions we can - perhaps must - make about our emotions: They contain wisdom and they contain healing.
We can speak of emotion (feeling, affect) as a reaction that tends to move us in a certain way:
o Reaction – not response;
o The English word emotion comes from the Latin word movere meaning to move;
o The movement involves the whole person, though it may be more focused:
• In the body – eg as physical pain or satisfaction or
• In the psyche – eg as anxiety or anger or
• In the spirit – eg compunction or ecstasy;
o We always experience emotion
• In clusters (ie never just one emotion on its own) and
• The experience is always both universal and unique;
o Human emotion, in so far as it exists, must be considered as good;
o Human emotion, in and of itself, is not morally good or bad;
o The moral issues associated with human emotion are found in our free response;
o We have facilitative, not dictatorial, control of our emotions;
o The healthy life formation process listens to and endeavours to facilitate the integration of emotion into the whole of life:
• Emotion is "sacramental" – it always points beyond itself;
• Emotion can be a powerful source of energy, vitality, colour and creativity in our lives;
• Emotion can be healing when it is addressed well, toxic when it is not addressed well;
o Human emotion is critical in human relations – for good or ill;
o Human emotion is also critical in the spiritual life.
The ANS process
A for Acknowledge – name the emotion quietly to yourself (eg "I am feeling anxious"); this will help you to take some distance from the emotion without disowning it; this is a good first step to listening to the emotion and allowing it to yield the wisdom it inevitably holds for you.
N for Non-judgmental – remind yourself that it is okay to feel this way; many of us have negative reactions to emotions such as depression, anger and anxiety (eg we can get depressed that we are depressed, angry that we are angry and so on); emotions are friends, not enemies, angels of light bearing wisdom, not demons bent on our destruction; we need to instill a more hospitable atmosphere within to replace that hostile one – put another message on the answering machine!
S stands for Stay With It – listen to the emotion by asking open questions – don't answer the questions, just listen (eg "What is this feeling I am calling 'anxious'?" "What does it actually feel like?" "Is there some particular place in my body where it is manifesting itself?" "Does it remind me of anything?" "Are there any images associated with it?"); gently try on some different ways of naming and listen so that the emotion actually names itself.
NOTE: This is done internally, even as you are getting on with other things – like talking to somebody. If the emotion is overpowering or too intense, the "S" might stand for "Strategic Withdrawal" – acknowledge it, be non-judgmental but gently and firmly put it aside with the promise that you will listen to it later. Meantime focus your attention and energy on something else. Read Eugene Gendlin, Focusing, Bantam, 1982. Copies of this book are available at Aquinas Academy.