Learning from our emotions effectively

Photo credit: © 2007 anoldent from Flickr and used via CC-BY-SA licensing

One of the challenges of being an empath and a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) is that it is easy to absorb so much of the emotions and expectations surrounding me that I easily lose track of my own emotions, needs, and desires in the overwhelm.

This is particularly true in times when I have been in a state of overwhelm from too much outside input—in the form of people, emotional intensity, busyness, or other forms of mental, physical, or emotional overload—for too long.

When that happens, I quickly find myself cranky, over-reactive, off-center, and increasingly rigid and controlling as I struggle to maintain my balance while feeling more and more uncentered and out-of-touch with myself.

While my struggles with this are likely more extreme than most given the way I am made, overwhelm has become more and more common in our society, so I know that I am not alone in struggling with staying centered and self-aware.

Solitude, used effectively, is the only antidote I’ve ever found for regaining balance in times of overwhelm and the resulting loss of center. Over time I’ve learned that using solitude effectively involves several things.

Making space

The first thing solitude requires, of course, is making space for it. This is more than just being alone.

It means making space away from all of the other input in our lives: turning off the phone, shutting down the computer, turning off the TV, putting the book away, and turning off the radio or other music. It also means setting aside the to-do list, and all of the other things demanding our attention.

For me, this means finding time completely alone, apart from the emotions of others that leak in empathically. For others, it may just mean finding a quiet corner set apart from others who may still be present.

For some, this may mean sitting still, but others find simple, repetitive activities to be more helpful in this process. This could be walking outside, paddling a kayak, or meditatively scrubbing the floor.

The key is that it is a stepping away from all of the other input to reconnect with yourself for a moment.

Identifying the emotions

Once that space has been created, attention can be given to the emotions that arise.

If, like me, you tend to take on the emotions of others, the first question to ask of each emotion is whether it is truly your own or one that you have absorbed from someone else. If it is someone else’s, you can just let it go.

If it is your own, take time to feel it and get to know it. Where does it show up in your body? What does it feel like? Does it have a texture or a temperature or a color? Get to know it!

Only after you’ve really gotten to know how it is showing up in your body can you start to really identify it. Spend time with this considering the options.

Anxiety and excitement live on the same continuum, and it can be easy to mistake one for the other or miss out on the possibility that you are experiencing some mixture of the two when we rush too quickly to a label.

Likewise, fear may masquerade itself as anger, if we have beliefs that tell us that fear is not acceptable.

There is great power in simply facing, naming, and acknowledging our emotions for what they are, without feeling like we need to act them out in any way. Allowing ourselves to feel them—even when they are unpleasant—allows them to flow through us and move on.

Suppression only keeps them with us longer, holding them in our bodies as they grow and threaten to distort us with their threats of emergence.

Once they have been felt and identified, there is now space to dig deeper.

Uncovering the stories beneath

The truth is that emotions rarely tell us much about our actual reality. They tell us about our experience of that reality and the stories that are fueling our interpretations of our reality.

Often these stories have become so ingrained into the way we see the world that we cannot even see them for what they are. It can be tempting then to use these moments of solitude to just keep rehearsing our same old stories over and over.

The real power of this exercise comes when we can let go of our identification with our stories about our reality long enough to question them.

What do our emotions tell us about the stories we are believing? Are those stories true? Are they the whole truth? (Hint: The answer is almost always NO.)

What assumptions are fueling our stories about ourselves, others, or the larger situation?

What do our emotional reactions to our stories tell us about our deeper needs or longings that lie beneath the surface?

What other stories and interpretations are possible? Which ones offer the greatest amount of empowerment for actions that would improve the situation?

What does all of this information about your needs, longings, emotional responses, and stories tell you about which actions would be most helpful to you at this time?

Rediscovering our center

All of this work in uncovering the information our emotions have to give us allows us to clear away that which has separated us from the core of who we are.

Through this exploration of your emotions and your stories, you have the chance to rediscover your center that knows without doubt what you need, who you are, and how to move forward in the world.

From this center, it is possible to re-emerge into the usual busyness of life with a greater steadiness and purpose, informed by what we have learned.

This is the true gift of solitude that is used effectively.

How often do you make time for solitude? How effectively do you use your times of solitude to dig deep and reconnect to your center? How do you best learn from your emotions? What would you add to my list above?

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