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Reconnecting with the Heart: Making sense of our feelings

Reconnecting with the Heart: Making sense of our feelings

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Reconnecting with the Heart: Making sense of our feelings

2/5 (1 valutazione)
257 pagine
3 ore
Feb 28, 2015


Reconnecting with the Heart offers a new theoretical and practical approach to understanding and managing feelings. We categorise feelings as either negative or positive, which means that we censor the expression of some while insisting on others. Learning to understand the whole range of emotions – what they are, where they come from, why we have them – helps us learn when and how to communicate them effectively. Feelings are not only mental events, but occur in our bodies as well. Reconnecting with the Heart helps the reader to become more conscious of the mind-body link, both in terms of how to recognise emotions and also in their connection to various physical symptoms. Although we are accustomed to blaming others for causing our feelings, the reality is that our responses have a lot to do with our perceptions. Once we stop blaming others, we can learn how to communicate clearly, even in the most difficult situations. Specific suggestions and exercises enable the reader to use this as a workbook for individual and personal exploration. The book also demonstrates how to be less uncomfortable or anxious when someone bursts into tears or is angry: we can learn to be less anxious and more comfortable when problems arise in our relationships even when strong emotions are present. This book is intended as an initial guide to our feelings, charting the currents and movements of the heart, and makes it clear that emotion is part of everyday life and need not be seen as a problem. The theoretical input is balanced by many illustrations from Anne’s working experience, which allow the reader to relate the theory to their own life experiences. Reconnecting with the Heart will help anyone who struggles to make sense of their feelings within the increasingly impersonal context of everyday life.
Feb 28, 2015

Informazioni sull'autore

Anne Dickson is a freelance psychologist, writer and trainer and is recognised as a leading authority on women’s development, assertiveness training and interactive communication. Her first book A Woman In Your Own Right (Quartet, 1982) was translated into twelve languages, becoming and continuing to be the core textbook for assertiveness trainers throughout the world. 

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Reconnecting with the Heart - Anne Dickson



Shaping the emotional landscape


Our cultural legacy: myths and assumptions about emotion

The different words we use to describe the life of the heart each convey a slightly different aspect. Emotion obviously contains a sense of motion: being moved by a gesture, image, sound or a realisation, so that our relation to our world is somehow changed. There is a kaleidoscopic shift. If the emotion is experienced as pleasurable we move towards the source; if the experience is hurtful or threatening we move away from it.

The word feeling conveys the dimension of sensation, literally keeping us in touch with our world. Even when we shut our eyes, we can use our fingers to differentiate between the texture, shape and temperature of different objects: similarly, our feelings give us immediate information about our environment. This medium of experience is as vital for survival and growth as our capacity for intellectual discrimination but is far less appreciated.

A less used word is affect. Affect describes the way in which we are ourselves changed by or change others through emotional experience. The word mood and the more old-fashioned word humour also belong here: they describe a temporary or permanent emotional ‘climate’ which we sense around ourselves or others.

Passion is a word which encompasses both power and suffering. Emotions are intense forces capable of urging us beyond rational endeavour. The arousal of passion, for example in response to unrequited or lost love, is also associated with immense pain.

Finally, a word that is often misunderstood is sentiment. Sentiment is one step removed from direct emotional experience: it literally means bringing the feeling to mind. A grandmother’s ring has sentimental value because it reminds us of an emotion felt towards her and of what she represented. A sentimental journey brings to mind feelings connected to past experiences. Sentiment corresponds to real emotion as a television soap does to actual experience: it’s a way of feeling by proxy, a method of stirring feelings, harmless enough unless confused with the real thing.

Emotional segregation

We inherit from the culture into which we are born a particular way of seeing the world around us. What concerns us here is the way we have been conditioned to look at most aspects of life as split into one of two categories (known as a dualistic approach): either/or, good/bad, black/white, right/wrong. The way we look at emotion is no exception.

We have learned to regard emotions as either positive or negative. The assumption is so automatic that, if asked to make a spontaneous list of positive and negative feelings, you would probably put love, joy, happiness, confidence and contentment on the positive side while sadness, frustration, anger and anxiety would end up on the negative side. If challenged about this division you would probably insist that the demarcation is obvious: happiness feels better than loneliness; irritation never feels enjoyable and who on earth ever looked forward to feeling rejected?

This is the first challenge in relation to learning about feelings: how to contradict this common assumption. The positive/negative categorisation is an imposition, deeply embedded in our culture over thousands of years and it is therefore impossible to escape its influence. Nevertheless it remains a way of seeing which has been imposed from outside. In truth, part of the reason why anxiety feels unpleasant is because we expect it to feel unpleasant and because we associate certain feelings with negativity, they become known as negative feelings.

We cannot overestimate the impact of growing up in an environment that teaches us feelings are either good or bad. The first major consequence is that good feelings have become desirable and bad feelings have become undesirable, according to a code of moral, cultural and even medical correctness. A positive feeling such as love is desirable because it has a good effect on others, shows you in a socially acceptable light, and is good for you physically. Anger, on the other hand, is believed to have a detrimental effect on others, to show you in an unpleasant light socially and to be bad for your health.

One consequence of this division is that the idea of valuing anger, as an emotion, has disappeared while the pursuit of happiness and love has become paramount. We suffer agonies of self-repression in order to deny feelings of anger because they imply a moral failing whereas the achievement of happiness is an extraordinarily seductive goal implying the proper and desirable state to which we are entitled. Feelings of frustration, uncertainty or grief are also assumed to be negative and hopefully only transient because we believe we should be having good, positive, happy feelings instead.

This notion of desirable and undesirable feelings generates a whole cultural momentum of its own. Enormous amounts of time, energy and money are directed towards making people feel happier, whether through money-making schemes, losing weight, finding the ideal partner, indulging themselves with chocolate or shopping or splashing out on the perfect holiday.

As a result, most of us are unable to recognise and acknowledge the whole gamut of feelings precisely because we have learned to censor ourselves. We have learned to ignore or hide or bury certain emotions because we believe them to be negative and therefore undesirable and unpleasant. The consequences are far-reaching: instead of accepting sorrow as a perfectly normal emotion under certain circumstances, psychiatrists increasingly regard deep sadness as symptomatic of depressive disorder requiring appropriate treatment to correct it (The Loss of Sadness, Horvitz and Wakefield).

The negative/positive division has a second spin-off: the assumption that emotions operate in mutually exclusive units. We believe, for example, that anger is contradictory to the feeling of love or that anxiety and confidence are at opposite ends of the spectrum.

This either/or division does not stand up in reality because actual experience tells us that emotions co-exist. It is possible to feel anger and love towards someone at the same moment. You can feel angry and loving towards a close friend or child; to feel simultaneous grief and relief, for example, after the death of someone whom you loved dearly but whose death also brings to an end a period of terrible physical suffering.

Addressing a large audience, anticipating a birth or abseiling for the first time might elicit parallel feelings of anxiety and excitement. A loving gesture can prompt an immediate feeling of sadness, as well as joy and delight. It is no accident that tears express both happiness and sadness, or that laboratory research indicates that physiological arousal is virtually identical whether the subject is feeling anxious or angry. The either/or distinction is imposed from the outside in an attempt to order the apparent chaos of emotional reality but it usually leads to more confusion.

A third consequence of categorising certain emotions as undesirable is the belief that a bad emotion acts like a virus. Cultural fear of contamination in many societies has led to the isolation and ‘quarantine’ of those labelled as mentally ill or psychiatrically disturbed. Although there are sometimes valid reasons why some individuals are better restrained ‘for their own good’, fear of contagion is seen in more ordinary situations.

After experiencing a death, divorce, redundancy or some personal trauma, people often describe their hurt and surprise when friends, neighbours, even relatives, avoid contact. Hospital patients approaching the end of their lives are not informed of their terminal condition – nor are their families – so that dealing with ‘negative’ feelings can be avoided by medical staff. Helplessness and fear of being drawn in and caught up in others’ ‘undesirable’ feelings prompt us to shield ourselves so we keep our distance. At the very time when individuals are most in need of a little care and space to talk, when they need their loss, anger or fears acknowledged so they can come to terms with a new reality, social constraints encourage them to hide their feelings like an unsightly affliction or stay silent and disguise them with a superficial and acceptable veneer.

Negativity runs deep. Even if there is a sympathetic listener on hand, we still find it incredibly difficult to admit that we are experiencing ‘unacceptable’ feelings. Anyone who has witnessed the struggle of an individual to acknowledge so-called ‘negative’ feelings of envy, hatred, despair or loneliness will recognise the agony involved, and if you have ever tried to do so yourself, you’ll know how hard it is to push through the guilt, embarrassment or even shame when we’re aware of having certain feelings but don’t want to admit to them.

The attempt to express and admit to ‘negative’ feelings often puts us in the front line of the battle between reason and emotion. In such a contest, it is easy to identify which one has come to be considered as the superior and preferable force. Preference for the rational runs along familiar lines:

•   ‘I’m talking about facts here, I’m not interested in your feelings’

•   ‘Can’t we just discuss this rationally?’

•   ‘Now do try to be reasonable!’

Yet the power of emotion is considerable and not easily subdued. Since we can’t seem to make emotion go away, we try to make sense of it in the hope that analysis will lead to comprehension; that comprehension will lead to control and that control will reduce the threat of potential chaos. We insist on contemplating and assessing emotion through rational eyes:

‘There is no reason at all to behave like that!’

‘I can’t understand what she’s got to be depressed about – she’s got a good husband, lovely children, nice house . . .’

‘Who’d have thought he’d do something like that – always seemed such a reasonable guy!’

‘It’s not as if you lost somebody important to you!’

Another way we rationalise emotion is by following unwritten rules for expression. There are clear demarcation lines: which emotion is permissible, when, where, by whom, and in what manner. A woman attending her husband’s funeral in our own culture may be allowed to express grief, which would be appropriate, with a few tears, but no loud sobbing, hysteria or excessive expression, which would probably be considered inappropriate. On the occasion of his father’s death, a man is allowed a few tears but would have no permission for rage at his dead father, who perhaps abused him as a child. First of all, rage would be out of place. Secondly, it would be considered more properly confined to the privacy of one’s own home, or preferably to the consulting room of a psychiatrist.

Even permissible grief has a time limit as unspoken rules emerge about how long it should last:

•   ‘Isn’t it time she got over that by now?’

•   ‘You are not still dwelling on it all, are you? Can’t you make more of an effort?’

•   ‘Why don’t you just try for another child/get another dog/join a dating agency?’

•   ‘It’s been over a year now . . . why am I still missing him so much?’

A final myth to challenge is that some nationalities are ‘emotional’ and others are not. Certainly there are obvious differences as each culture has its own rules of social acceptability. An Irish wake may be known for its latitude of expression and open to celebration as well as grief. Americans have a reputation for being much more extrovert at public gatherings; Italians for showing their feelings at the drop of a hat. The sounds of collective mourning at funerals in African or Arab nations contrast sharply with the more subdued occasions in most Western cultures.

But these are no more than differences in cultural tolerance of emotional display. There is no deeper implication that the individuals within these cultures are in any way more familiar or comfortable with the expression or communication of deep emotion than those of us brought up in a more reserved tradition. Alcohol and other drugs, for example, are used to deaden and suppress feelings in many countries, regardless of evident cultural differences. I have also learned repeatedly that women find anger a very difficult emotion to acknowledge whether they happen to be Irish, Japanese, English, African or Danish.

When I work with individuals, I find that this rational/emotional divide is a powerful influence on our imaginations even if we never voice these assumptions. Emotion has somehow drawn unto itself associations of being messy, childish, primitive, weak, ugly, dark and treacherous. Reason, on the other hand, has fastidiously divested itself of these qualities in favour of order, civility, stability, nobility, security and enlightenment. We have become accustomed to believing that reason can rescue us from emotion, like a rock of stability in the midst of swirling unknown waters.

We learn to be uncomfortable with the power of emotion: our subsequent fear and reluctance to open the can is evidence of the worms we anticipate within. We numb our fears with all sorts of substances, swallow emotion back down our throats with food, distract ourselves with obsessive activity or lash out with words or fists, in the hope that transferring emotional pain will lessen our own.

Counteracting the negativity of emotion from a position of fear entails an exhausting struggle. We listen, observe, advise, analyse or restrain unwanted feelings in strait-jackets. Whereas it was once more common to surgically remove those parts of the brain that appeared to cause negative (undesirable) feelings, we now knock them out with the help of strong medication. We lock up unwanted feelings, we punish and banish them. Ultimately, we bury them in the cold dead ground of denial.

And yet with information and understanding to stand alongside our fear, it is possible to trust and value our emotions; to become as familiar and comfortable with our emotional behaviour as we are with the rational side of ourselves. But until we can make more sense of emotion, we will continue to be mistrustful. Making sense of all our emotions is what this book is about.

*   *   *

Make a list of what you recognise as ‘positive’ and negative’ feelings.

With the ‘positive’ list, see if there are any feelings that you recognise pretending to feel, or wishing you could feel, instead of what you do feel. Make a note of them.

Looking at the ‘negative’ list, see if there are any feelings that induce shame/guilt/fear/embarrassment. Do you have difficulty acknowledging any feeling on this list, to yourself or to anybody else?


Where do our feelings come from?

What does it mean to be emotional? Are some of us born more emotional than others? Are women more emotional than men? I believe that all of us have the potential to be emotional in the same way that we have the capacity to be intellectual or spiritual but that we differ in basic disposition and temperament. Whether you would describe yourself (or someone else) as fairly unemotional in general or more emotional than average, all of us, as humans, will be subject to emotional responses although our emotional sensitivity and expression will vary enormously.

I find it useful to imagine the range of emotional disposition in relation to emotional ‘tides’ because this helps to convey the sense of continuous movement of emotion, through highs and lows, ebbs and flows. A literal tide describes a swell of water that sweeps around the coastlines that bound our oceans, powered by the gravitational pulls of the sun and moon. Those who live on or near the shore are therefore more acutely aware of the movements of the tides than those who live further inland. Similarly, some of us are much more conscious of emotional changes than others: those we might call ‘coastliners’ are highly sensitive to changes in mood and current within themselves, in others around them and their environment. ‘Inlanders’, on the other hand, are further removed from the immediacy of the ebbs and flows along the coast so their emotional rhythm is slower: they tend to be more comfortable with their feet on rational ground.

In a culture which prioritises a rational mode of being, a coastliner would be more readily identified as an ‘emotional’ person, possibly even ‘sick’ if her emotions are blamed for her problems in life. An inlander, in our culture, might regard himself as utterly stable and a model of rationality until his wife announces she wants to end their marriage after twenty years because she has grown tired of his ‘distance’ and lack of emotional warmth. Only then perhaps would he be shocked into considering his own emotional reality.

At times when the moon is at its fullest or darkest point, the normal swell and fall of a tide is intensified. Human emotions are also intensified and diminished by cyclical changes. Some people experience regular emotional tides influenced by inner hormonal cyclic changes: others are only aware of emotion in response to external disruption and change in their lives, expected and unexpected, directly or indirectly experienced.

Becoming more familiar with feelings helps to avoid the dangers inherent in both extremes. Coastliners risk being swept out to sea and losing sight of land completely, floundering and sometimes drowning in depression or addiction. Inlanders risk becoming totally landlocked, losing touch with the heart entirely, stranded in an arid and toneless rigidity, suppressing any emotional manifestation in themselves and others.

It’s not difficult to identify particular individuals who fit into either extreme but most of us find ourselves on a continuum, moving back and forth a little as circumstances change, but never very far. Although long-term medication or drug abuse can cause permanent change, it is unlikely that someone will stop being naturally more sensitive or less changeable. Our basic emotional disposition tends to remain fairly constant.

How and why do feelings arise?

What puzzles most of us is where feelings actually come from. We can be feeling reasonably calm one moment then suddenly we feel tearful without any apparent cause. We think we have long recovered from a deep loss in life when, without warning, it hits us again. Or someone makes a remark, insignificant in itself, which causes us to react with disproportionate fury: we know we are over-reacting but can’t seem to stop ourselves.

This sense of being ambushed by feelings contributes to our uneasiness. We often feel at the mercy of our emotions instead of being in charge of them. Instead of responding appropriately, we spend a lot of time regretting an excessive outburst or wishing instead that

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