Can You Learn From Your Emotions?

By Chris Chittenden

"Listen to sadness with special attention. It always speaks to matters of importance."

… Julio Olalla (b. 1945) Master Ontological Coach ("The Oracle of Coaching")

Human beings live a rich emotional life. Indeed it is hard to imagine life without emotions for it is our emotional states such as joy, sadness, frustration and pride that provide the colour of life and make it worth living.

When our emotions are serving us well, they help us quickly interpret situations and respond appropriately. Our emotional responses draw us to certain people and situations and push us away from others and, as such, they form the basis for our decision making.

Most people have some level of awareness of their emotional states and know when they are happy, sad and so on. Yet for the vast majority of people their emotions are just there. They live with them and they do not think there can be any other way. If they are angry, then they are right to be angry and the anger runs them. When they are happy, they have something about which to be happy and happiness runs them. These people are at the mercy of their emotional responses and our newspapers are littered with the sad tales this can bring.

Yet our emotional states can be far more helpful in life than simply pointing us in the best direction. They can be a deep source of learning about ourselves and others. We can do this by bringing our emotions into language. What we term a "linguistic reconstruction".

In the process of reconstructing an emotion, we start with an event. Something has happened to trigger the emotion. We can then identify how we have interpreted this and what action it is leading us towards. Such a process can be helpful in two ways. It can help us understand and unpack how we feel the way we do, leading us to an understanding of our basic beliefs, prejudices and preferences. It can also help us develop strategies to take actions that may serve us better in this and similar situations.

Take anger as an example. A reconstruction may go something like this:

"My friend Peter has once again broken a promise he has made to me."

"Friends should keep their promises to me."

"When Peter does not keep a promise to me, it means that he does not care about me nor respect me."

"This makes me angry and I want to punish him!"

Each of these statements offers up potential questions that could help me deal with Peter differently. I could explore why Peter keeps breaking promises made to me. Does he really make promises or do I just think he does? I could look at whether it is reasonable to expect that all friends must keep their promises to me. Do I actually keep all my promises to them? I could explore why I feel that not keeping a promise is a sign of disrespect and finally I could look at how I could respond differently. There are many possibilities that can be opened up with such an exploration.

So here is an invitation. Next time you are aware that your emotions are running you, take some time to reflect on what that means and what you can do differently.

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© 2014 Chris Chittenden