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Awareness is against our nature
Nature doesn’t make it easy for us to learn how to deal with our emotions. After nearly 50 years of research, I don’t believe that our emotions evolved in a way that help us to control our emotional reactions or facilitate impulse awareness; it is as if our “emotions system” doesn’t want our conscious mind to interfere in the matter.
Most people will rarely, if ever, become aware of the automatic appraisal processes that initiate our emotional episodes. This is why it takes hard work and consistent practice to learn and develop impulse awareness (i.e., becoming aware of an emotion-driven impulse before actions are taken).
Control starts with awareness
Impulse awareness is a high standard; I don’t believe that everyone can reach it, and it is unlikely that even those who meet this standard will be able to consistently. However, the work we go through in our attempts to develop impulse awareness will benefit what is achievable for nearly all of us—emotional behavior awareness, or recognizing our emotional state once we begin to express it in either words or actions. If you can become aware that an emotion has begun to drive your behavior, you can then consciously consider whether your emotional reaction is appropriate to the situation. If so, you then have the opportunity to see if your response aligns with the intensity of the emotion and that it’s manifesting itself in the most constructive way.
Steps for increasing emotional awareness
Because this is so important, I would like to summarize the ways in which we can increase our emotional behavior awareness and, for some of us (some of the time), impulse awareness — ultimately, helping us learn how to deal with emotions.
- Practice exercises to heighten awareness of the physical changes within your body when an emotion arises, so they will signal to you that you are becoming emotional (You can find exercises for this in my book, Emotions Revealed)
- Identify when you are likely to become emotional, especially in a way you will regret later, by keeping a log of regrettable emotional episodes. This will allow you to anticipate hot triggers before you encounter them, and, by considering whether you are importing any scripts from past emotional experiences, begin to cool down these triggers.
- Learn to correctly identify and respond to the facial expressions and nonverbal behaviors of those around you as a way to help tip you off to your own heightened emotions.
Increasing awareness through mindfulness
I’d like to also mention an approach that is complementary to these, mindfulness meditation. While at first I couldn’t understand why, for example, focusing our awareness on breathing would benefit emotional life, later it struck me. The very practice of learning to focus attention on an automatic process that requires no conscious monitoring creates the capacity to be attentive to other automatic processes. We breathe without thinking, without conscious direction of each inhalation and exhalation. Nature does not require that we divert our attention to breathing. When we try paying attention to each breath, people find it very hard to do so for more than a minute, if that, without being distracted by thoughts. Learning to focus our attention on breathing takes daily practice, in which we develop new neural pathways that allow us to do it. And here is the punch line: these skills transfer to other automatic processes– benefitting emotional behavior awareness and eventually, in some people, impulse awareness.
While it’s not for everyone, I recommend trying mindfulness meditation to see if it works for you. There are many wonderful books available on the topic if you are interested in learning more and trying it out. I also recommend the training program focused on developing emotional awareness and choice, developed by myself and other emotions experts, called Cultivating Emotional Balance.