What is a feeling anyway?
When I’m working with a fellow practitioner I get performance anxiety! I hear myself think, “Am I doing this well? Is my theoretical framework for helping them? I wonder what they think of my style?” In my most recent example, the fellow practitioner hadn’t mentioned they were in a similar industry until after I had said something fairly controversial. The conversation went exactly as follows:
Me: So where do you think emotions come from?
Lovely Client: From how I think?
Me: Rubbish! Who told you that?
At which point Lovely Client raised their eyebrows at me in amazement of my sweeping generalization, and revealed their background.
Cue Michelle’s immediate blush. Oh, the shame!!….
But you know, while my statement was, of course, broad, completely designed to promote paradoxical effect, and taken out of context sounded atheoretical – there is substantial research to back up how uncategorizable our emotions actually are. Emotions aren’t simply the result of how we think. Emotions aren’t simply sub-consciously triggered chemical reactions either. Confusingly, emotions are neither within our control nor completely outside of it.
Now here is the fascinating sciencey bit. The diagram you can see below is a representation of the structures in our brain which form the Limbic System. The limbic system has many important functions, but as a catch-all phrase, let’s call it our “Emotion Centre” (Tucker, Poulsen & Luu, 2015)
Without going into any detail at all about genetics and epigenetics (which just adds several more layers of “stuff”!), much of what our limbic system does in relation to emotions is learned through the different life experiences we are exposed to. If you do any reading in the area, there will be an ongoing reference to a human’s “learned behaviors”. We learn to act this way, and we ” to act that way. But learning isn’t restricted to only conscious experiences of neurological activation. Actually, when you think about it, very little of the way we process information is within our conscious reach. Much of our processing happens outside of our awareness. This is the area we could call our sub-conscious.
There has been a lot of research carried out to see whether we can access the information that we receive sub-consciously. One group of researchers trying to access this notion of the sub-conscious tested this by flashing images onto a screen (for example an image that would elicit disgust or fear) at a speed too fast for the conscious mind to grasp. They then asked the subject to describe their thoughts and feelings in relation to a neutral picture. What the research showed was that the sub-consciously registered images had a significant impact on the way the participants reported on the neutral event. This is fascinating because what it shows us is that a lot of information is captured by our brains, but in a way that does not raise itself into our awareness.
It is because of this that managing our feelings and our immediate emotional reactions is not a simple as changing our thoughts. Heavens, if only change were that simple! Next time you start beating yourself up because you noticed you were feeling sad, angry or anxious, just remember that working on our emotional reactions needs time, energy, support, and a social/work/family environment that is encouraging and supportive of change.