Curiosity can serve as an incredibly powerful tool in helping us learn to regulate our emotions, and in helping us access greater compassion for ourselves and others. At times, we all experience feelings of overwhelm related to intense emotions. It can feel as though our emotions have hijacked our system, and we no longer feel we have control of our actions in the ways we normally would. Many people, understandably, have the inclination to try and turn off or suppress intense emotions, imagining that doing so might calm the feelings of overwhelm. However, often this approach backfires, and as the strong emotions feel dismissed or constrained, they find other detrimental ways to manifest, and lash out even more -- sometimes in obvious ways, but often in more subtle or indirect ways.
Emotions are Adaptive and Serve as Important Messengers
Emotions, even intense ones, are not a bad thing. Evolutionary psychologists suggest that emotions are there for a reason, they are adaptive, and help us realize and act on our needs. So at their core, even emotions that seem to cause us harm have some underlying good or self-protective intentions. That is not to say that we cannot, or should not, work to express and understand our emotions in a more productive or effective way, only to say that if we look hard enough, our emotions are trying to give us important information about our needs and the world around us. More often, it is how we react to the feeling of intense emotions that causes the problem, and not the emotion itself.
This is where curiosity can be such a powerful tool. Let’s imagine intense anger has shown up. The more we try to turn it off or push it down, the more intense it becomes. If we are somehow able to suppress it, it may show up in other more passive, but still unhelpful ways. The anger wants to be heard, it is trying to communicate something important, and does not want to be ignored or silenced. How might our relationship with the anger shift if we got curious about what it was trying to tell us? If we turned toward the anger and said something along the lines of, “I know you’re here for a good reason, that you have something important to tell me, and that at your core you’re trying to help or protect me. What has happened that has so upset you? What are you worried or concerned about?” For some, this kind of internal dialogue can seem silly at first. But, simple as it is, this acknowledgement and validation can go a long way in calming the anger, and in making it feel seen, heard, and appreciated. This makes it easier to hear the important message the anger is trying to convey, while creating enough distance from the anger (the anger is not me, it is only a part of me) so as not to feel hijacked by it.
Curiosity Builds a Bridge to a more Mindful Space
If when we have intense emotions we can move into this curious stance, know and appreciate these intense emotions have core good intentions, and look for what those good intentions are -- this approach often automatically positions us in a more mindful place. Mindfulness is all about being able to be present in the here and now, to fully observe and acknowledge what is going on, while occupying a non-judgmental stance. Mindfulness requires us to occupy more of an observer’s role, to step far enough outside of the situation to see it in a more holistic way, but to still remain connected, aware, and present. In the case of witnessing our emotions, the analogy of watching clouds pass through the sky or twigs down a stream, noticing them, but not holding too tightly to them or thinking they are the whole picture, is often used. But telling people to be more mindful doesn’t always translate easily. However, curiosity builds a bridge to a more mindful awareness. Whether it is searching for the good intentions underneath your own intense emotions, or asking yourself the same thing about a partner’s emotions or other people in your life, curiosity can help you be more present, more aware, and help emotions or other people feel valued, seen, and heard in the ways we all desire to feel valued, seen, and heard.
How to Begin Approaching Emotions with more Curiosity
While many find this conceptually easy to grasp, it is often more difficult to integrate into daily life. Especially when intense emotions come up, it can be challenging to remember to try and get curious and to turn toward the emotions with warmth, compassion, and curiosity. This is where it is useful to remember that connections in the brain strengthen over time, and so practice, as unglamorous as it can be, is imperative in creating change. We make connections in our brain, and the more certain connections are used or repeated, the stronger and more automatic they become. Thus, if whenever we have experienced intense anger in the past, we automatically moved fully into the emotion and lashed out at ourselves or those around us, instead of getting curious about what the anger was trying to communicate to us, this becomes a very ingrained, almost automatic response that is difficult to change.
A good way to start changing this connection and building up a new way of responding is to start getting curious about less intense emotional responses. If you wait until you are feeling overwhelmed to try and implement this new approach, it will likely be very challenging. If instead, you start to be more aware of less intense emotions throughout your day, and search for the important information they convey about your needs, and work on getting those needs met, you will slowly build up a new way of responding that with enough practice will be easier to access even in the face of very intense emotional reactions.
Written by: Kevin McLaughlin, MCS
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