In his book, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio provides evidence that what we experience as emotions is not the same as feelings. Damasio describes emotions as the physical reactions in our bodies to what we perceive. Chemicals and hormones are released to either protect us or lead us to pleasure. Once the cognitive brain senses the change in the body, it then labels the reaction as a feeling.
THE RESULT: We physically cannot suppress emotions. However, we can suppress feelings-the act of acknowledging the emotions that happen automatically. The emotional reactions are still occurring, causing stress and illness in the body and raging at inappropriate times, usually in our cars or at home with those we love.
In fact, we become so adept at suppression that over time, we condition our brains to disconnect from our emotional responses, which in turn, inactivates our ability to express our feelings and our capacity to understand the emotions of others. The neural pathways to the middle brain actually shrink in size, or never fully develop, limiting our abilities to feel and empathize.
In other words, the more we suppress our feelings in our younger years, the less we are able to socially interact with ease as we grow older and to emotionally connect with our loved ones. At the source of many failed marriages is the inability to feel by one or both partners. Golda Meir said, “Those who don’t know how to weep with their whole heart don’t know how to laugh either.” We biologically become joyless, heartless and insensitive. We literally “numb-out.”
Therefore, the more we teach self-control and the suppression of feelings, the more we impede the positive feelings, including happiness and passion, restricting instead of increasing our mental abilities.
BRAIN TIP #1: The good news is that you can reteach your brains to identify emotions and articulate feelings. We can train the brain to “fire-up” and widen the neurotransmitters in the emotional centers through practicing emotional awareness (recognize and admit to having feelings at least to yourself if not others), talking with others about what you both feel and spiritual pursuits.
First, take the time to acknowledge subtle emotional reactions in the body, such as muscle tenseness, changes in breathing, throat clogging, and surges in adrenalin.
Second, take the time in our busy days to stop and REALLY listen to those around us, listening for what they are feeling and what they are probably not saying. What is it that they really want and need from you?
Third, to create the space for listening, you have to have a healthy mind and body, so physical exercise and spiritual pursuits will help clear your mind and be present in the moment.
BRAIN TIP #2: I’m not saying you should be more emotional. I’m saying you should be able to identify the emotions that are occurring in your mind and body and when you can, rationally talk about why you think you are feeling the way you do.
Getting in touch with your emotions does not make you weak. The act actually strengthens your health, your mental outlook and your relationships. Don’t just be intellectually intelligent. Improving your emotional intelligence is just as important to your success and happiness.
Marcia Reynolds provides executive coaching and leadership training for the “best and brightest” employees in organizations around the world. Please feel free to contact her if you have any questions about the concepts in this article.