Vibrant Experience

Feelings by themselves are generally benign. In some ways, they are not positive or negative, and very few are inherently bad. When combined with my thought patterns, they are transformed into emotions. These emotions can be good or bad, pleasant or horrific, stagnant or seemingly out of my control.

Feelings of fear, disgust, anger, sadness, anticipation, surprise, trust, and anxiety often occur to me unbidden. There is no reason to attempt to control these unbidden feeling, or even sometimes to explain or understand them. What I can control are my thoughts, the thoughts I infuse into feelings to create emotion, and other feelings that occur from my direct actions.

Neutral feelings are generally transformed into positive or negative emotions. For example, I might feel anxious about giving a talk in front of a group. The anxiety can push me to be on my best behavior and perform well. But it can also result in total shutdown and even failure to give the talk.

Negative emotions bring confusion, darkness, and feel heavy. They often compound the initial feeling and create negative feedback that brings more pain and emotional discomfort. They are unbalanced and overpowering. For instance, a feeling of surprise can lead to anger, aggression, and rage.

Negative emotions are brought on when initial feelings are rejected when I just want it to go away. This non-acceptance can happen in several ways. Initially, I might simply ignore or discount the feelings and try to pretend they don’t exist.

I might also fight against my feelings, be afraid of them and try to stop them. I often try to stop feelings because I fear them from past experiences and think that they can become dangerous. The very act of stopping or fighting the feeling gives it negative strength.

I can also over-identify with them and give them more value and thought process then they initially deserve. Over-identification means associating with the feeling too closely. It can lead to thinking about it too much, blowing it out of proportion, and allowing it to take me over. Rumination, or thinking about the feeling or problem for a long period of time, and over-analyzing feelings can be very damaging. I believe this is a form of rejection: I don’t accept the feeling for what it initially is, I try to change it.

Often, when I reject my feelings they come back stronger and with more intensity: and usually with less effectiveness toward the original purpose. I might feel angry at an injustice done to me: but if I try to disregard my anger and push it away, it will come back with more force and intensity: and sometimes the actual injustice is forgotten in the wave of overpowering emotion.

My feelings are normal, healthy reactions, and are only bad when imbalanced. Depression, anger, anxiety, and sadness are all normal and are only negative if they overpower me.

Positive emotions feel light, and bring me love and joy. Even sadness can bring love, as I experience compassion for another person. Anxiety can prepare me for a joyful experience if properly expressed. Sometimes it’s hard to see how my feelings that first bring feelings of pain can lead to joy, but it is possible. All feelings can lead to a calm, balanced life, it often just takes time.

The key is acceptance. Negative reactions often happen because I am trying to deal with the emotion and make it go away, but without really accepting what I am feeling. When I genuinely, radically, accept what I feel without too much judgment, that’s when feelings can become positive emotions.

When I accept my feelings, I validate myself. I tell myself that my feelings are real, they are okay, and I am capable of dealing with them. Validation can be powerful: simple recognition for what is happening with an understanding that it is natural, controllable and normal.

Acceptance and validation is the first step for self-compassion. Self-compassion is simply being kind to myself and will be discussed later.

It’s easier to accept feelings and deal with them than deal with heavy emotions that have gotten out of control.

Sometimes it is difficult to accept what I feel. Often, I have feelings that are contradictory in nature, or against what I think rationally. This is normal, and nothing is wrong when I feel that way. I don’t have to change myself if I feel feelings I don’t exactly want to feel. It is just a normal part of life. If they are contradictory, after acknowledging each feeling, I do have to decide which one to act on. Double-mindedness and fighting with myself is damaging. Pick one, move forward, and don’t live in regret.

Some feelings are painful and cause sorrow. Life isn’t always happy and fun, it can hurt in a very real way. How will accepting these feelings lead to positive emotion? I like to think about crying. Crying is expressing raw emotion, and I always feel better after I cry. The pain is turned to relief with an expression of the feeling.

Crying can happen with all sorts of emotions, even ones of joy. Often, when I get emotional in a positive manner, it isn’t because things are bright and perfect. The tears can actually be from suffering: from empathizing with pain, grief, for recognizing that life isn’t perfect, that I or someone else made a mistake. Then, what makes these tears of joy rather than sorrow?

It’s that the suffering was worth it. I overcame that mistake, that set back. It was worth it. I acknowledged the feeling and used it to become better: correct an injustice, strengthen my resolve or faith, and help another person.

Probably the most poignant example of this is Christ. I often cry when I think of his suffering, death, and resurrection. I cry because He did suffer because it was hard. And I rejoice because He overcame it, and He can help me overcome! That the suffering wasn’t what defined Him: but that He did it out of love, and He overcame it.

This feeling of positive emotion first comes from radical acceptance of all my feelings, even if they at first seem painful and unpleasant. Vibrant experience is not the lack of feeling, or only feeling positive feelings: it is feeling a range and variety of feelings. Those feelings enable me to grow, overcome, and connect with others.

Joy can be both sorrow and happiness. I don’t need to just get through what I might initially see as a negative feeling. I can live through it, embrace it and even enjoy it. For the majority of my life, I have had the goal to get stuff done, don’t make too many mistakes, and be happy. Lately, I’ve realized that instead of trying to be happy all the time, I can accept the wide range of feelings and moods I have. Instead of just a happy life, I can have a joyful life: a life full of a wide range of feelings and experiences.

The wide range of emotions I feel can help me connect with others. Connection and love is the ultimate internal need of each of us. This connection can only happen with feelings and emotions, expressed appropriately. I need to allow myself to be vulnerable and open to those that are close to me: it is how I can connect and truly feel loved and appreciated.

Once I understand how feeling a wide range of emotions is healthy, I can start to use visualization as a tool to create vibrant experience and joy. There is power in visualization. I can think about how I want my emotional self to be, and be able to see how to express feelings in an appropriate manner, to have better balance and love.

Visualization, study, and meditation can lead to a higher power and purpose in my life. With purpose, I have grounded through a wide range of experiences and feelings: they aren’t without value. Purpose often comes from religious beliefs and is useful to help understand and regulate potentially negative emotions. I can develop purpose in my life with God.

One technique I find useful is to imagine the whole landscape of my life instead of just one specific event or feeling. Individual feelings do not make up the sum of my existence: but I can easily become so distracted that I forget about more than a single feeling. Stepping back and looking at more than just the current state can help see even difficult emotions in a positive manner.

As I accept my emotions in a healthy manner, I start to develop a positive sense of self. My self is more than just feelings. When I deal with feelings in a negative manner, my sense of self becomes entwined in the emotions I develop. Dealing with them positively involves self-compassion: and self-compassion is a powerful step to take to find acceptance and joy.

My feelings, no matter what they are, can help me to become a joyful, vibrant individual. Acceptance and self-compassion can help any feeling, no matter how difficult, change into a positive emotion. From there, I can have a connection with others, overcome any challenge and create an emotional life that is full of joy.

For all the times I have felt sadness, frustration, or anger, there have been a whole lot more moments where I have felt intense happiness, joy, and contentment. But I forget to recognize what I’m feeling when I’m happy—I take happiness for granted often and I think it’s normal. And then I think that somehow feeling anger and frustration and sadness are wrong. But they aren’t.

I recently started to track my moods and I’ve been doing it for over three months. At the end of each day, I rank how the day felt. Awful days are days full of depression or despair; excellent days are generally full of joy and happiness.

I thought that how my day went—awful, good, bad, meh, whatever—would be more dependent on what happened during the day than it actually was. Some days I said were good even though they were hard and I felt something like sadness or anger. It mattered a whole lot more what I did with that feeling than whether I felt it or not.

And, much to my surprise, the great majority of days were simply good. I was generally happy, and I think I always have been, but I got so focused on negative moments that I failed to notice my own happiness.

I found a greater ability to discover those good days—not that everything went well, but that I could control my own responses. I could have a hard time and be okay with it. I could cry during the day and still mark it as a good day at the end of it. Not everything needed to be happy—but I could still recognize the happiness when it happened.

I once broke a computer at work—I was trying to fix it, and it ended up broken instead. There was an intense wave of guilt and confusion that came after I broke it—what was I going to do? I wanted to go back and change the past so I couldn’t feel what I was feeling, but that was impossible. I couldn’t fix it. I had to deal with it. So I sat there for a moment. I sat there and I felt awful. And then I got up, told someone what I had done, and we got help. The computer got fixed. I let the emotions happen and then I got up and went to work.

Exercise:
  • Identify one feeling that you tend to reject and fight.
  • Take a moment to recall an experience of this feeling, or wait until the feeling surfaces in daily living.
  • When it comes, instead of the initial rejection and fight, accept and experience the feeling.
  • Feel it, but do not act on it. Try to feel the feeling, without acting for a long period.
  • Calm any internal dialogue or judgment about the feeling, and have complete acceptance.
  • Notice how accepting and just feeling affects you.

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Understanding Emotion

Feelings are often difficult to explain. I can often identify them, but any attempt at explanation is usually inadequate to fully express what I feel. I say I feel, “love” or “sadness” but a simple word has little to do with the reality of the experience. Sadness can be a temporary warning as I stub my toe or a depth of sorrow that has me crumbled in on myself and past a point where life seems worth living. Words are not feelings.

Feelings are a physical, chemical event in my brain and body. My feelings form a half of my consciousness, a half that helps me interpret my internal environment, understand morality and empathize with others. Without feelings, good and bad would be nearly meaningless, and experience would be bland. Feelings help me stay motivated and validated. Feelings bring connection, engagement, and joy, enabling me to communicate with others.

The other half of my consciousness is my thoughts and rational mind. Thoughts interpret the external world, solve problems, and bring the coolness of logic. With thoughts, things make rational sense. My environment is put into order, and I have the tools needed to function, live and interact.

My thoughts and feelings work together to create my consciousness. Within this consciousness are my emotions. My emotions are my primary feelings combined with the interpretation of my thoughts. Emotion is the strongest experience, both mind and feeling working together. I am the sum of my feelings and thoughts, working together to create my emotions and then character.

What exactly makes up my self, my character? I created this diagram, not as absolute truth, just as a way of thinking about what makes me me, and how feelings, thoughts, and emotions work together to form my character.

At the bottom, I started with my genetics and environment that form my basic underlying state. From the time I was an infant, I had this sense of self, and from that came my feelings. Feelings turned into thoughts, and sometimes back into feelings. As I grew, I experienced a wide range of events, gained knowledge and perceptions and began to experience a wide range of emotions. These emotions over time formed my attitudes.

My thoughts lead to my decisions and my words and actions. From these, I created my habits and routines. My habits and routines create what my physical state was, what challenges I created for myself, the relationships I developed, and my spirituality. These, in turn, have a direct influence on my underlying state.

My habits and routines, combined with my attitude form my character. My character is who I am on an ongoing basis. My underlying state is how I get there. Ideally, I want my underlying state to be one of happiness, and joy. So how exactly do I change and mold my character and influence my underlying state?

Each box is a different gradient. The darker the color, the easier it is to control and change. My decisions and words and actions are quite easy to determine and change. From there, I can change my knowledge and perceptions, my habits and routines, and to continue to influence all aspects of my self.

Often, I try to directly influence my underlying state or feelings or emotions: “Be happy,” declared with the force of a drill sergeant, rarely actually brings happiness. My underlying state, feelings, and emotions are often difficult to directly control.

Instead, I can try to influence my decisions, my actions, and even my thoughts. For instance, I put a small smile on my face, I think of an event in my life that brought me happiness. Usually, I start to feel happy, creating a pleasant emotion even if I didn’t quite feel that way before.

My underlying state has a lot of influence on how I function as a person, and ideally, I want a healthy, vibrant state, one of primarily peace and happiness. But this doesn’t start by directly molding my character: it starts with simple decisions and actions that work together in a circular manner to lift my underlying state.

There is this thing called the paradox of hedonism that basically envelops a lot of different philosophies on how pursuing our own happiness seems impossible because a lot of time when you actively want to be happy and try to make yourself happy, you end of failing completely. I think part of this idea comes from this basic idea is that one of our greatest desires is to control our emotions—and we find ourselves simply failing at it.

I remember first reading that our thoughts control our emotions—that phrase is understated, but it offered a glimmer of hope that I had more control of my life than I thought I had.

I can at least direct my thoughts if I can’t control them completely. And I can control what I do.

Emotions can be terrifying because they seem so outside of our control—but they aren’t, not completely. Because we do have control over our decisions. I have to remind myself of that someday—often we give up that control in order to just go with the flow of life. But I can choose. I can choose something. Maybe I can’t choose happiness directly, but I can choose something that will get me there.

Emotions do not have to overwhelm me to a point where they control my life. I’m going to feel intensely—I’m going to feel emotions that I don’t want to. But my life is more than that.

I recently was trying to fix a toy—it was not a simple task, but at first, I was excited about the challenge. Except for I ended up fixating on getting this toy fixed, and then when I couldn’t do, I felt a very large amount of frustration. I knew I didn’t have to keep working on this toy. My baby was crying and wanted attention, but I was choosing to ignore her. My kids were wasting their time. I had other things to do. But I wanted to get the toy fixed. Frustration grew into intense anger—and the mixture of frustration and anger usually results in throwing things. I broke the toy even more. The irony of it? My two-year-old broke it originally because he was frustrated and threw it. It soured the day, and it is a moment I am not proud o. But there were so many steps in that moment where I could have chosen differently: I could have stopped working on it. I could have taken a break. I could have asked for help. I could avoid the damage to the toy—and more importantly, the damage to myself and my children. I’ve had similar experiences that have not been intense at all—because I chose to walk away. What I couldn’t choose to do is keep working on that toy and do it happily—that was impossible. A lot of times the deep intensity of frustration comes when I’m trying to do the impossible—but I can choose to stop trying, a choice that usually comes before the emotion.

Exercise:

Think of a time where you experienced a powerful emotion.

  • What was the event?
  • What were the initial feelings?
  • What were your interpretations and thoughts regarding the event and feelings?
  • What are your emotions after interpretation?
  • How did your body respond?
  • What were your actions or decisions?
  • How did it affect your character, what were the aftereffects?

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Healing my Heart and Finding Joy

By Liz Braithwaite, with Heather Hoyt (in italics)

Chapter 1: Understanding Emotion
Chapter 2: Vibrant Experience
Chapter 3: Be Wise
Chapter 4: Thinking Traps
Chapter 5: Enjoy Challenges
Chapter 6: Love Filled Lifestyle
Chapter 8: Mindfulness
Chapter 9: Manage Distress and Trapped Emotions
Final Notes and Resources

PDF Version

Summary

Introduction

I sat at the table with a range of thoughts and feelings racing through my mind. I knew that something was wrong: that I wasn’t thinking straight and that I probably needed help. I had been talking to my husband, my newborn baby asleep in the other room. Our discussion had started off normal enough, but by now my tone was agitated, loud, upset. I can best describe what I felt as pain: deep emotional pain that seemed devoid of any logical sense and solution. My whole being wanted to run from the pain, to fight it and make it go away. I was so upset and frustrated that pounded on the large table in front of me. The action didn’t make sense, but I felt like I had to do something, anything, to relieve the pain.

This wasn’t the first-time circumstance put me in a similar state, but at this certain point, it was the most overwhelming and tumultuous I had ever felt before. To me, this was the starting point of years of being unable to properly regulate my emotions. During this time, I added two more boys, raised my three sons, moved eight times, started a business, and watched my husband go through graduate school while often working part-time. It was a turbulent time in my life: but even after life finally settled down, when we had a permanent home, and stable job, I still found myself at times at odds with my emotions.

My heart was broken. Not because of lost love, but because my emotions betrayed me and led me down paths that I would never consciously choose for myself. My heart needed healing.

I don’t have a reason or a cause: I’ve read about mental disorders, gone to therapy and researched on my own. And ultimately the reason was unimportant. What was important was learning the skills and techniques that I need to go from being overwhelmed by emotion and experiencing pain, to experiencing a calm and happy life. And the hardest and most important step: to learn how to love myself and practice self-compassion. I learned truths and practices that help me heal.

This is a discussion of what I’ve found that worked for me, what I still continue to work on so I do not find myself in a place of overwhelming emotional pain. I’m not a psychologist: I haven’t thoroughly researched everything in this book and I don’t have tons of factual information to back it up. It’s just me and my experience as I worked through one of the largest and most terrifying problems I have faced.

I walked out of my house, out of my yard, and I collapsed onto a piece of sand far enough away that I couldn’t hear the cries of my children; I could only hear my own cries as I sobbed so hard that my face started to tingle, my thoughts racing in so many different directions, eventually spiraling downward until the only conclusion was despair, a feeling without hope completely.

That is my moment that I always remember when I think about the mental health issues I have dealt with: sitting in the sand and sobbing and feeling like the world was closing in around me in darkness.

Over the years, I have not really dealt with persistent sadness or depression, but a sometimes intense roller coaster of various emotions that has seemed unrelenting, confusing, and simply hard.

While the roller coaster hasn’t ever completely stopped, like my sister, I have found better ways to deal with my own thoughts and emotions, and most of all, to find a hope in the despair that never goes away. With that hope, I keep going and have been able to find an intense happiness in contrast to that intense despair. And the intense happiness is much more lasting.

I’m glad that my sister has let me add some of my own words; we are similar in a lot of ways (though not completely the same), and often our journeys have intersected in phone calls, emails, and supporting and understanding one another.