Ever wondered what most determines the quality of your life?
It’s your emotions.
Sure, they may not be the only factor shaping your reality, but consider this:
Imagine a life where every day is filled with everything you love—your favorite activities, people, food, and ideal weather. Sounds perfect, right? But what if, despite all this, you felt depressed all the time? Would you still want a life like that?
Now, consider the opposite scenario—a life devoid of things you particularly enjoy. Bland food, annoying people, and perpetual cloudy days. But here’s the twist: you feel blissful every single day.
Making this comparison illustrates the immense influence of emotions on our life satisfaction.
So why then, do we invest so little time in understanding how they work?
The Standard Narrative About Emotions
Most of the information we receive about emotions while growing up is rather simplistic.
In the first decades of my life, I learned more about dinosaurs or the roman empire than I ever did about emotions. Even though we deal with the latter every single day, and I have yet to fight my first velociraptor in the coliseum.
And the information we do receive, isn’t all that accurate.
Culturally, we tend to categorize emotions as either “bad” and “good”.
Sadness, fear, anger, shame,… These are bad emotions. If you feel them, something’s wrong. And you should take action towards not feeling them anymore.
Joy, love, excitement and pride all fall in the “good” category. If you’re not feeling them, figure out why. “And get your shit together!”
We learn these ideas at such a young age that they are deeply ingrained in our psyche.
But this binary view isn’t always accurate.
For example, fear can save your life by triggering the fight-or-flight response. Fear is what makes you instinctively jump aside instead of getting hit by a car (or killed by a velociraptor). Hardly a “bad” thing in that situation.
Conversely, excessive joy can lead to negative consequences.
Think of someone experiencing a state euphoria that is so intense, they lose empathy for other’s feelings and start unknowingly harrassing people.
Or have you ever laughed so hard it hurt and you could barely breathe? Imagine feeling like this forever. Suddenly “fun”, doesn’t seem like an exclusively good emotion anymore.
It’s clear that our current cultural perspective on this topic is still in its infancy.
And I personally believe, that whenever you deal with something a daily basis (breathing, walking, other people, your body, food, social media,…), it’s a good idea to develop a very deep understanding of it.
…which is one of the reasons why I’ve been delving deep into the topic of emotions for the last 2-3 years.
One recent perspective I’ve been getting great results playing around with, is… (you can probably guess it by now).
What if All Emotions Were Just Different Flavors of Love?
Looking at reality from this perspective transforms how we experience these emotions (for example: most of them now fall in the “good” category for me) Most importantly, it offers greater freedom, aliveness, and personal power. However, understanding each emotion in this light requires deep exploration.
When I say “most of them” now feel “good” for me, what I mean is: “The emotions I’ve spent enough time exploring so far.”
There are still plenty of emotions I have yet to get to the bottom of, simply because I don’t feel them often.
For each one that I did explore, I will soon write a separate article. But for now, let’s start with superficial look at how each emotion might be a flavor of love:
Sadness: We Feel sad when we lose something, or experience a lack. This includes physical losses (like a death, a breakup, or moving to another city). But also abstract or non-physical losses (loss of trust, loss of freedom, loss of youth.
Sadness is the love for what is not, or is no longer, here..
Anger: We get angry when we truly care about something. Anger gives us the power to set boundaries and protect what we love.
Sometimes, we may project our anger on a different thing (or person) than what we really care about. But it always originates from care. Even if it’s just caring for yourself.
Fear: Fear alerts us of potential threats to ourselves or something we love. It heightens our awareness and increases our possibilities for helping what we love survive. Instant fear makes you capable of running, or fighting, or playing dead. Creeping “anxiety” makes you capable of strategising, anticipating, and coming up with unusual solutions for potential worst-case scenarios. This too, is a form of love for yourself.
Shame: We feel shame when we think we harmed others, or did something that would cause others not to love us anymore. Shame, is a powerful force that can teach us how to get along with others. Shame makes you capable of changing your behavior without requiring willpower. It makes you want to do good, and be good. So that you may receive more love in the future.
Sure, high amounts of shame can be toxic. But low amounts of shame, can keep you from shitting in your neighbor’s front yard when you had too many beers.
Disgust: We feel disgust when our instincts tell us that something is no bueno. While fear guards us from (things perceived as) imminent threats, disgust gives us the wisdom to stay away from things which are contaminated or present a long-term danger. This includes non-physical contamination, like being disgusted with the behavior of a group of people, urging you to stay away from them.
In other words: disgust is a (slightly unpleasant) form of self-care.
Joy: Joy is the pleasure of existence, love for being alive. And we feel most alive, when we have all kinds of emotions running through our body (just think of a roller coaster). Because of that, joy is often the natural conclusion of allowing all the other emotions to move through you (more on that later)..
By now, you may be thinking: “Great thought exercise…but what am I gonna do with this?”
When you feel angry, how can you transition from feeling the “badness” of the anger, to feeling the “love” inside it?
Suppression Blocks the Love
All emotions are adaptive energies intended to move us towards a specific action in 3 stages:
- They give us information about our environment (e.g. identifying a threat, or a source of pleasure)
- They create a physiological response, preparing our body to handle this information (e.g. the surge of energy you feel when angry, or the way your genitals start to feel funny every time that one barista talks to you)
- They move you towards action (like knocking out that velociraptor, or telling that barista you don’t need that espresso any more because she already made your heart beat faster)
That means every time you feel an emotion move through you, it has some kind of action as a natural conclusion.
Sadness, may move you towards self-care and rest. Or towards connection (by sharing your feelings and needs with others).
Anger may move you towards taking a stand, making clear, decisions, or initiating radical changes.
These can all be seen acts of love. If you allow the emotions to move you towards that final act (provided of course, that the act doesn’t involve harming others), the natural result is that you get to experience the love behind it.
- Being depressed, cuddling up with a blanket and snacks, while watching your favorite childhood movie… and suddenly finding some joy in that.
- Being so angry that you break up with your partner or quit your job… and then feeling empowered that you finally chose what’s good for yourself.
But when we buy into the culturally prescribed idea that certain emotions are “bad”, what will happen is this: As soon as they come up (in stage 1 or 2), we’ll resist them and likely suppress them
The problem with that is not so much that the action from stage 3 didn’t happen (after all, sometimes those actions are not appropriate for a given situation). But that the emotion itself, wasn’t allowed to fully pass through.
On a surface level, this may feel like we successfully kept the emotion at bay. But what actually happens is this:
- The emotion perpetually continues to try to move you towards completing its final stages
- To suppress that, your body expends an equal amount of energy, stopping that action from happening.
This has 4 unwelcome consequences:
- Because of the necessary energy expense to stop feeling the emotion, “just living life” becomes exhausting
- The mechanism of suppression doesn’t discriminate: Either you numb yourself down and block all emotions, or you open up and allow them all. You can’t just “suppress sadness, fear and anger” while continuing to feel joy. Your joy will be suppressed as well. (Similar to how some antidepressants leave you feeling “stable” rather than “joyful”.)
- When your body doesn’t have enough energy to keep suppressing, it will need to receive additional energy from new emotions to help keep the suppressed emotions down. This is when we start feeling angry at everything (we’re really angry about being angry) or start banishing ALL fear from our life (now we’re ironically just scared of being afraid).
- The more we push down on the emotion, the more it pushes back. Eventually, it becomes too much pressure to contain, and the emotion will successfully complete its trajectory, which it may do at a very inopportune moment
That last point is especially important. Because it can have a huge impact on your relationships with others.
Let’s say one day you got angry and wanted to stand up for yourself (an act of love). But you didn’t, for whatever reason (let’s say it involved punching your boss in the face but you kinda liked your job and spotless criminal record).
At some point, you’ll still have to hit a punching bag, or verbally express your anger somehow. Because the emotion needs to pass. As long as you don’t do that, suppression is required.
If you successfully suppress it, you’ll no longer be aware of the emotion.
But in the background, it will be looking for opportunities to complete it’s 3-stage trajectory. And this can take many forms.
- Having a “short fuse” or “chip on your shoulder”
- Thinking others are mistreating you or being mistreated (giving you an excuse to be angry)
- Experiencing a constant mild annoyance about everything (allowing little bits and pieces of the anger to complete its stage, one at a time)
- Sarcasm and passive-aggressive communication (leaking little bits of anger into conversation)
- Joining a positive cause (climate, animal rights, gender equality) and protesting it as a subconscious outlet for rage
What’s interesting about all these examples is that none of them resemble love anymore.
Getting into fights with strangers when drunk is certainly not an act of love. But it’s still the result of a suppressed emotion which originally intended to move you into an act of self-love (standing up for yourself).
That original emotion is still there. But after all the suppression, it comes out in some twisted, perverted or toxic way. Why does this happen? I haven’t found an answer yet, but it does seem to be a pattern.
Just look at many catholic priests: Repressing all sexual emotions for a life time, then suddenly, …
Needless to say, perverted catholic priest behavior is not what we are aiming for in life.
So what’s the alternative?
How to Experience the Love In Your Emotions
Have you ever (perhaps as a teenager) loved someone who didn’t love you back?
While such an experience still has plenty of love in it, it’s mostly signified by isolation and pain. Perhaps even a sense that the other person never truly saw or “received” what you are giving them. A sense of that love being taken for granted instead of fully felt.
When love is mutual however, it’s almost as if that feeling expands every time you are together.
I’ve found this to be a powerful aspect in relating to emotions.
If an emotion comes to visit me, but I reject it… how will I be able to receive its love?
On the other hand, if I practice welcoming each emotion and actively loving it… Now I’m creating the beautiful experience of mutual love.
Instead of getting angry and wishing I wasn’t, I say: “Oh, there’s some anger coming up… It must be that it thinks me, or something I love could use some extra protection.”
So I welcome the anger and express my gratitude for its gifts.
When I notice the urge to suppress it, I relax my body and eliminate distractions. See what the anger is trying to tell me. What is it urging me to do (in a non-violent way)? Do I need to make some tough decisions? Set a boundary? Clean the house?
I still have a preference for the emotions I was taught to label as good. But I’m consciously practicing to let go of that.
And while I’d rather feel Joy all the time, I’ve come to recognize 2 things:
- Without emotions like anger, shame or fear, my Joy would be very dysfunctional. (I’d just be joyfully taken advantage of, joyfully pushed aside and joyfully give all my money and energy away to people who prey on the ignorant.)
- If I allow them to fully pass through my body, all emotions lead me back to joy anyway. But in the process, each of them has a lot of wisdom, power and love to offer.
- Sweet food is easy to enjoy. And complex flavors can be hard to palate for an untrained tongue. But over time, experienced eaters develop a taste for such nuanced delicacies as they are more sensory stimulating. Similarly, joy is only 1 flavor of love, and the more of these emotions I learn to fully feel, the greater my capacity to experience love becomes.
As I mentioned before, this post is merely an introduction of this perspective.
In the next few months, I’ll be posting more in depth explorations of the love I found inside each emotion, including deeply personal examples.
And I hope it may inspire many others to experiment with this perspective and report their findings.
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(This will also enable you to ask questions or share your own stories and findings in response).