As someone that grew up very introverted and reserved, there were many times where I did not express myself effectively. For example, I remember a Little League practice where my coach called me David the whole day and while it certainly bothered me, I never spoke up to tell him what my actual name was. A reasonable thought process could have been:
- David is not my name.
- I prefer when people call me by my name
- If I correct him, he will call me by my name
- I am going to correct him
Sounds stupid, I know. But, at that time I couldn’t put those pieces together. It ended up being more of a jumble of mixed thoughts in my head that didn’t give me any clear course of action. So, I just tried to ignore it and continued feeling a little off. I didn’t have any clear awareness of what was going on in my head, so I didn’t have a way to act that matched what my mind wanted.
As I grew up, I certainly grew more assertive and learned through external feedback what was good and bad. If I spoke up in class or stuck up for myself with a boss, there were tangible benefits: I would get a better grade or earn more money, which is great. And the reverse: If I didn’t practice basketball, my peers would get better than me, so I would act to avoid the negative outcome. These were obvious. From seeing enough times that doing A leads to B, you start to realize that you should keep doing A if B is good. And this works a lot of the time because a lot of people value the same B, which are often things like grades, good jobs, etc. So, you just got to keep finding ways to get B and you can be happier, right?
I don’t think so. I found that acting based on these external reinforcements is actually not enough. I used to often find myself in seemingly fun situations, but feeling like I was in a funk. I wanted to feel happy, but something was making me feel off, and I didn’t really know what to do. Or as I faced more complex emotional dilemmas, I struggled to make the right decisions or to open up and confront others in ways that actually matched with what I needed. It’s not that I was afraid or wasn’t willing to do the things that could make me feel happy. It was that I didn’t know how I really felt or what I wanted.
As I started to develop my own habit of meditating and journaling, trying different apps, formats, times of day etc… I started to find what worked for me and what benefits I was taking away from these practices, so I wanted to outline these ideas and lay them out in a digestible format. Take a look at this diagram of how we go through life in my opinion:
Basically, things happen, we instinctively have emotional reactions to these things, we process these reactions, and then we do things about what we conclude. I found that where I lacked the most, and where I think most of us do, is in the processing step. We don’t do a great job of analyzing our emotions to understand the roots in order to make the appropriate actions that can optimize our lives. We feel, we react, we see what happens, and repeat the cycle. As I said before, in a lot of ways this works. We do things that are externally positive because we receive reinforcement from the world when we do these things. The problem though is that without effective processing, we do not truly understand how what we do makes us feel. This is where the “bleh” feeling comes in: where you are in a bad mood but don’t know why; where you are ‘succeeding,’ but don’t feel happy; where you want something else but don’t know what. This is where meditation and journaling provide the most benefit.
Here is what I think the journey to better processing your emotions can look like:
- Learning to separate your ‘self’ from your mind and emotions through meditation
- Learning to mentally communicate between your ‘self’ and your mind through a habit of journaling
- Articulating your thoughts and feelings effectively to yourself and others in order to take appropriate action
I’ve written in another article about Solve for Happy by Mo Gawdat and the eye-opening observation Gawdat makes about who we truly are. I spoke about this idea in the context of fear; that when we are confronted with a challenging situation, our biological survival instincts tell us to be afraid, but in many situations that fear is unfounded. When you acknowledge the instinctual tendencies of our mind, you can start to conquer fear and act in a manner that ‘you’ are choosing. This is also very relevant when it comes to our feelings.
Let me get deep for a second. We have a body, we have a brain. But, what are we? The way I’ve learned to think about it is that we are the witness. If we can learn to observe our experience without identifying with our experience, we develop an awareness; a separation. You can learn to take a 3rd person point of view toward your emotions. When you establish a channel of communication between your ‘self’ and your thoughts, you can start to diagnose yourself when you are feeling a certain way. For example, rather than thinking you are angry, you can note that there is anger happening. Doing so will allow you to create space and realize that you are experiencing a temporary feeling that can be dealt with. This space is what will allow you to process these emotions: You won’t be overwhelmed by the symptoms as you try to prescribe a treatment.
As you start to get this down, you will start to find that you can better understand what your emotional reactions are to things and start to notice patterns, which are extremely valuable. Maybe you find that every time you do something or see someone that you feel a certain negative way. Instead of being passive and allowing these reactions to dictate your happiness, you will be able to figure out the decisions that are right for you more easily. Maybe you choose to stop giving energy to a certain idea or to confront someone. Whatever it is, the key is that it is intentional and dictated by your ‘self.’ Not your basic emotions. However, this does not imply that meditating and journaling are happiness pills that you take to fix sadness and all your problems. That is definitely not the case. Shit happens. The point is that as we start to engage in these practices and develop a habit, we can learn a lot about our own selves and find out how to think, act, and respond mindfully in a way that maximizes our enjoyment on a broader scale. While it sounds super meta and philosophical, I think it is so essential for everyone to try to work on because it can simply just make life better.
So, if you haven’t already, get started:
Call to Action:
There are a number of different ways to get started but the key is getting started now and creating a habit by doing it a little every day, preferably at the same time each day (The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg goes deeper into the psychology of this). Here is the 10-minute-or-less tutorial for the first 10 days:
- To get started meditating, get the Waking Up or Headspace app and start the free 5–10 day introduction that will make getting going simple through explanations and guided sessions (3–5 min/day).
- To get started journaling, get a journal and a pen and after you meditate each day, just start writing about what you are thinking and feeling. Don’t make it presentable or perfectly written. Just write down what your mind is focusing on (3–5 min/day).
- After the trial of your app is complete, you will have to pay for a subscription. At this point, I would recommend either paying for the Waking Up app or switching over to Calm, another app that offers daily guided meditations and is the app that I use.
- With journaling, you can increase the benefits by choosing to write more, in addition to adding other aspects to your daily writing. For example, you may wish to include things you are grateful for, things that would make today great, things you are proud of, and much more. The key is consistency and finding what works for you.