Recently on Facebook (doesn’t everything begin on FB?) I got into a discussion with a friend about subtle racism and re-framing. Her last word on the subject (it was, after all, her post, not mine) was that she believed that denying one’s emotions was unhealthy, a statement with which I have no argument whatsoever. I do however make a distinction between denying one’s emotions and controlling or redirecting them.
Pretending that one is not angry when one most emphatically is (insert tooth grinding here), or going on after the death of a loved one as if nothing had changed, is a recipe for immune system disruption and cognitive dissonance. Emotions are what keeps us alive. Lacking emotion, we have no desire, no motivation. Survival? Who cares? Why bother? Some spiritual paths would have us remove desire so that we can transcend this painful corporeal world and move on. They can go ahead and do that. It leaves more room for those of us that like it here.
But when emotions become consistently unpleasant, we have it within our power to change that. My own experience speaks to this. As much as I am annoyed by the sunshiny, unicorns and rainbows goodness of New Age philosophy, twenty years ago, it was all I had. The promise of feeling something other than sadness, anger and anxiety was one of the things that kept me going. Admittedly, positive affirmations are sort of like using a small rock hammer to break out of prison (and thank you Steven King for that very uplifting metaphor). But the bottom line was that fighting my negative emotions with a little rock hammer was better than letting them run away with me. At the very least I had some sense of control. The only reason I never attempted suicide was that I was very clear that leaving was a form of cheating, and I would just have to come back and do it all over again.
But eventually that little rock hammer started to make an actual dent. Supporting that, being Pagan meant that the things that made me feel good were actually not just ok, but sacred. Over the years, I have become quite good at recognizing both emotions, and the negative brain states that can either accompany or drive them. And I’ve added other, more sophisticated tools to that rock hammer. For years I have been learning about how what I eat affects how I think and feel. But recently, I have been looking again at how I manage my thought processes, and have discovered that positive thinking is supported by science. The new understanding of how the brain functions can give us choices about who we want to be.
Chronically disorganized? There’s an app for that. Think you are unlucky? Yup, there’s one for that too. There is a wide array of studies on both brain function and human behavior that show that what you pay attention to is like digging a canal. The more you focus on it, the easier it becomes. Since the rest of the body works this way, why not the brain? Lifting weights is hard at first, but as the muscles grow stronger, you can lift more. Bones get more dense when they experience compression. So The Secret is supported on the physical side by science. The down side of this type of functionality is that if one focuses on the negative, then that too gets dug into one’s consciousness.
It seems the brain can only do one thing at a time well. Apparently, multitasking drops you down to the level of an eight-year-old. (Nothing against kids here, but they can’t pay the rent.) Taking time each day to focus on, and think about what makes us feel good improves our well-being and our overall performance in life. People who do this are not only happier, they are more successful, and the people that they manage are also more productive and successful.
So when someone does something that raises my ire I have a choice. I can be angry or I can focus my attention on something else. It may even be that whatever that person did needs to be corrected or addressed, but I don’t need to be angry in order to do that. Corrections that come from a place of anger make messes that I don’t like cleaning up. We control our emotions every time we have to take a deep breath before we talk, and whenever we choose to put off a decision until our heads are clear. There is nothing unhealthy about that.
For more on the current science on brain function, productivity, and human happiness:
The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor
Your Brain at Work by David Rock