Welcome to Focus On Emotions, an article series that will delve into our emotional depths, getting at one inalienable truth: emotions matter. Our culture generally teaches us that feelings are to be avoided, suppressed, and controlled; that feelings lead to irrationality. But I have learned, and affective neuroscience would suggest, that feelings are central to self-knowledge, self-management, and good decision-making. This series is designed to help us better understand our emotions, how to work with them, and, when needed, how to heal them.
A few years ago, I had the privilege of working with a very bright young woman who had come to learn, through personal experience and training, that emotions were largely uninteresting and irrelevant. She was training to be a mental health professional and her sentiments were not uncommon in our field. This always surprised me about psychology, psychiatry, and many areas of psychotherapy. Isn’t our focus, fundamentally, emotion? Many would say no.
For me, emotion is at the core of how I experience the world—is how, I think, infants and toddlers and all people experience the world—and is at the core of how I work.
What intrigued me about this young woman was her fundamental open-mindedness, her curiosity about the world, and her guiding principle of following where data led her. For a year, we talked. She read. She learned. I listened. I learned. And from a more objective place than I had inhabited, she concluded that the science of emotions was persuasive. That emotions were indeed central to change, and emotions always start in the body.
In my life, I have felt sadness, guilt, anger, resentment, and joy, to name a few. I have suffered from anxiety and depression. In my 20s, I was an astronomy student who was afraid of the dark, who was afraid to walk alone in the moonlight, who was distracted from the beauty of the sky by the ambiguity in the darkness underneath it.
Depression sticks. It is stuck. You are stuck. And the best you can ever hope for is to cope; to tolerate; to persevere (at least—that’s what my depression told me). When feeling trapped by depression and anxiety in my 20s, I knew that when others saw the real me, they too would hate me. So I hid. I was my high school valedictorian. I was my high school co-president. I earned a scholarship to the University of Toronto. And I made sure no one saw me. I lived in fear of being found out, of being seen for the imposter I knew myself to be. That’s what depression and anxiety told me.
At 43, I finally understand why these emotional patterns developed in my life. One story is that I have genetic predispositions to challenges with anxiety and depression and that genetics and/or epigenetics resulted in processes, passed down from one generation to the next, that predisposed me to these experiences. An overlapping narrative is that through some very painful life events, I learned things: fear; to expect that bad things will happen so I should prepare myself for them; to scare myself into hiding so that I wouldn’t be hurt again; to protect myself. These things burned themselves into my neural networks as ways to cope and survive.
The problem is that when my situation changed—when the circumstances that scared me evolved—my neural networks did not. When I no longer needed to hide and avoid risks, my brain still acted like I did. It was like I had a smart operating system that programmed itself optimally to survive in an environment where bad things could happen—then shut down; preventing any new code, optimal to new situations and environments, from getting in.
As I grew older, I met a lot of people who loved me. I experienced successes. I learned about the negative bias in my thoughts and about the incorrect assumptions I was making. And these things all helped to a degree. But still, at my core, that old operating system was functioning. When I faced a new challenge, even in an area where I knew I had been successful in the past, I froze. I sweated. I stopped sleeping. My thoughts spun. I was inefficient. A new challenge always meant, at some level, that failure and shame were possible again. And I feared those experiences—I feared those feelings.
Emotions are persuasive. They can trap us in falsehoods that feel so real. But, they are also the key to change. That very bright woman I had the pleasure of working with motivated me to learn about and to bring into focus for myself the science behind what my body already knew. Emotions are central to how we experience the world; to how we survive; to how we change, grow, and thrive.
I’m the head of the Centre for Student Development and Counselling (CSDC) at Ryerson University, a large urban postsecondary institution. For several years, I have mulled over the question of what it means that I, as a psychologist and counsellor, who leads other counsellors, am uncomfortable speaking out about challenges with personal mental well-being. What does this say about the power of stigma? About the power of fear? And what impact does that stigma, and that fear, have over me? Over others on my team? Over other faculty, staff, and students who also live with the increasingly common and understandable experiences of fluctuations in mental health?
Pause. Should you really be writing this in a blog? Won’t people lose faith in your capacities to make critical decisions? To lead effectively? Others may become uncomfortable with you. May lose their trust in you. May judge you, or doubt your competencies. You should remain silent, presenting only your competence to the world.
Coming out in this arena is complicated. You may be judged by some. Others may seek you out for positive reasons. You have worked hard to earn people’s trust, and to hone your competencies—and both are well developed, and well deserved. You may be respected and trusted by many on campus. Hmmmm. Are these questions vestiges of old, much resolved anxiety, or an accurate examination of the impact of mental health stigma? Check in with your body; choose to decide it’s the latter. Your body always knows.
I want to selfishly capture your attention. I want to talk about mental health in a way that is somehow, absurdly, still subdominant. I want to talk about emotions. I want to read, write, and talk about feelings, stories, and meaning in adulthood. I want to look at affective neuroscience and how human change happens. I want to talk about life.
That’s what this series, Focus on Emotions, is all about. Every month we’ll move a little closer to a better understanding of our emotions and those of the people around us, including how to work with these emotions, and when needed, how to heal them.
What if this is a terrible idea? What if no one reads these posts?
Or worse, what if they do read them… and you’ve just done a terrible job?
Some of these posts you’ll be proud of; some you won’t. Some will be well crafted, while others may be rushed. Hope each may inspire curiosity about emotion itself, greater understanding of an emotion-focused perspective on human change and development, and a desire for greater understanding of self and others. Checking in, you feel excited … and a little nervous. You’re ready to more fully enjoy what has lain in the dark.
Join me next month as we take a dive into what emotions really are. You may feel Joy, Fear, or even Surprise as you learn more about what your brain can do.
Right now, I feel excitement. My body always knows.
Focus On Emotions is a year long series, published monthly, written and researched by Sarah Thompson. Stay tuned in the coming months for more on what emotions actually are, how to identify emotions and manage triggers, and understand the impact emotions play on decision-making, within a student affairs context and beyond.