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The basics of emotional work

Updated: Feb 8, 2023

While this is a huge topic that I won’t be able to cover in this small post, I do want to talk about what emotions are, the important ones to be mindful of, and the importance of exploring your beliefs about emotions.

We may have all sorts of ideas about what emotional repression work will entail. All of these ideas come from our conditioning or programming, what we learned growing up. We actually learn a lot during the first years of our life based on those around us, how they interact with us and each other, how our parents respond to stress or loss, how we are treated when we have an emotional reaction, etc. Children are very open, perceptive, and intuitive. Some may remember this while others may not, but as a child you could tell that something was off about emotions but couldn’t tell why. It mainly had to do with adults and mirroring how they approached their emotions.

Everyone acts a certain way, and as a child you copy how everyone else acts because that’s how we are wired as humans. We literally have mirror neurons that have evolved for this purpose. But this downloading of habitual patterns or programs ends up leading us to feel very ‘off’ and uncomfortable. That’s because what we downloaded are patterns of avoidance and repression, essentially survival patterns passed down from generation to generation. But this may seem so normal and ordinary that it’s not seen to be what it is, until you go within and start to name the patterns and see directly that indeed there are resistance patterns to emotions and have been for a long time. We are not born this way, rather are conditioned or programmed to be.

Shadow work, emotional repression work, etc. is really just about exploring this programming, and by letting it come up to be conscious, the programming dissolves. It’s really as simple as that. Remember, it is not the emotion that’s the problem. It’s the programming leading to repression, the resistance pattern, that is keeping the emotion stuck. Emotions want to release, but the programming pushes them down.

So what are emotions? Essentially they are just felt responses in the body to the environment. In order to simplify this, let’s look at how some emotions are natural or pure and others are more complex.

There are pure or primary emotions that all mammals have and serve some adaptive purpose: happiness, fear, anger, sadness, surprise, and disgust. Each of these emotions has a unique flavor, and they are simply just felt as sensations in the body. They arise and dissolve rather quickly if they are left in their pure form.

Secondary or complex emotions are more complicated because there are thoughts mixed in with a primary emotion, such as guilt, shame, frustration, anticipation, boredom, resentment, disappointment, contempt, anxiety, envy, embarrassment, etc. We tend to get stuck in complex emotions and try to think our way out, which only leads to more complication and suffering.

While all emotions are valuable to feel into and explore, the important ones to become mindful of are: fear, anger, sadness, guilt, and shame. Shame and guilt being the more complex emotions because there is a lot of thinking involved. Shame in particular is an emotion that will come up a lot because it’s always on the surface hiding deeper pure emotions like anger, sadness, and fear. Shame is what deficiency feels like in the body, and you may notice that there is internalized anger directed inwards towards yourself due to judgment thoughts like “i’m so stupid” or “i’m a failure” etc. Much of the unwinding process in shadow work is going to involve releasing shame as we all carry an unfortunately substantial amount of repressed shame in our bodies without realizing it. The world runs on shame, and it can be quite sobering to start to see this more and more.

Write down these five emotions (anger, sadness, shame, guilt, and fear) and start to notice them throughout the day. Each emotion has its own flavor or charge that you will start to notice, and they may be felt in different areas of the body. Whenever you are really triggered or upset, it’s probably one of these emotions. Being able to notice it and name it is a big step towards integrating it.

Also, it is very important to start to notice beliefs about emotions. Let’s say anger is coming up for you a lot. First, check in with your body and see if the word ‘anger’ connects. Is this anger? Your body will tell you by tightening up. Then ask yourself, what do I believe about anger? If say the words “it’s hurtful” or “it’s bad” pop in, let those come and give them space. Then ask, where does that come from? What experiences lead to this? Stay curious and let the memories come.

Your mind will show you the evidence for that particular program or belief. Maybe images of people getting hurt, or a parent yelling and losing control. We do not need to change anything here, but just see the evidence and how it makes sense why there would be a belief about anger being bad or hurtful. All of our resistance patterns actually have a lot of evidence, and they are trying to help protect us.

We do not need to get rid of them, but try instead once you receive the evidence to say ‘thank you’ to that part of you for protecting you. I know it may be a bit strange, but really allowing the parts of you that are trying to protect you will actually integrate and release them. They are innocently trying to help but are misguided. They are trying to protect you by pushing down anger, for example, but this only leads to more anger and potentially violence. Like a self fulfilling prophecy, what we push down ends up hurting us and leading to the very situation that we are hoping to avoid. I will say more on this in the post on repression.

You can also notice that when such evidence comes up, whether it's connected with being hurtful, bad, or whatever it is, there is also going to be a sense of "I don't want to be like that." This sense of resistance or pushing is trying to prevent that from happening, and we can just notice that and allow it which will really ease the suffering with the particular emotion. You can see the connection to needing to push down the emotion and how it relates to trying to prevent something (like hurt) or to get something (protection, love, safety).

I want to end this with a very important point. In emotional work we directly see that it is not the emotion that is the problem, rather the repression. We believe for instance that anger is the reason why we suffer so much and if only we can somehow change and get rid of all the anger, we’d finally be free and feel better. We believe the emotion is the problem. But this is the conditioning talking, the programming, which says you should resist this, change it, figure it out, push it down, hide it, do something about it, etc. The pattern in words may just be “I shouldn’t be angry so I need to push it down” This resistance pattern is what’s actually repressing the emotion, so anger does not release and just stays stuck in the body, whether in the jaw, chest, belly, etc. (which is obvious right? because where else is it going to go?)

Anger like any other emotion wants to move through the body and release, but the resistance is pushing down the anger so it never releases, stays stuck, and keeps trying to come up until it explodes (and this reinforces more repression because I clearly need to try harder to push it down).

It may seem counterintuitive until you start to really get it experientially, but see if you can notice whenever there is a strong emotion and suffering, is this emotion or feeling in the body actually the problem? What do I believe about this emotion? Why do I need to resist this? Let those beliefs come up, observe them, allow them, and notice how the experience of the emotion is changing and suffering is diminishing.

Our experience comes from our beliefs, so with this approach we are gently looking at our programming and seeing how it was actually the beliefs causing us suffering, not the feelings in the body. This should give you hope! Nothing actually has to change about you. Just the willingness to look, explore, and connect to the programming and make it conscious is all that’s required. By seeing the programming consciously, we are becoming free from it. This is what allows you to fully and authentically express yourself, which is really what we all deeply want.

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