A Seaman's Quest

One man's search for truth

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Emotional Health

Understanding my humanity

My entire life I have struggled to understand the power that my emotions have over me. We would like to believe that we are rational beings with emotions, but we are actually emotional beings who rationalize. The big decisions in our lives are all emotional ones. We use our intellect to try and justify what we have decided, to others and ourselves.

I find this reality to be deeply disturbing but it is based in the design of the human brain. Our brains are a true work of art. The entire system is meant to be robust and function in a wide variety of environments.

But there are some profound weaknesses in the system that lead to common failures. The study of psychology is intended to understand how humans think. But until the 1980s was focus almost exclusively on the dysfunctions (pathology) of the brain. Positive psychology focuses the attention on the potential that humans have rather than the failures we experience.

I have read many books on the subject and spent countless hours trying to apply these principles in my life. In this article I would like to share the best of what I know about how to be happy and content. The journey begins with a true desire embrace reality as it exists rather than as we wish it to be. Without an objective viewpoint we cannot really hope to make meaningful progress toward emotional health.

Moving toward emotional maturity is a lifelong journey. A daily investment is required to learn and grow. There will be victories and defeats along the way. We never reach the ultimate destination, but we will observe measurable results based on the effort we expend.

Positive and Negative Emotions

I believe that emotional maturity is measured by our ability to manage pleasure and pain in our lives. In fact, the definition of maturity for me is the ability to have a appropriate response of pleasure and pain to match the current circumstances.

Note that this is different that optimize pleasure while minimizing pain. Both of these are necessary responses depending on the situation. It is unhealthy to have an inappropriate response to the world that we live in.

Our brains are wired physiologically to produce neurochemicals for both pleasure and pain. This is a fully automatic response that we cannot prevent. Different chemicals signal different emotional responses: anger, fear, shame, sadness, joy, love. Both the positive and negative emotions release a chemical response within our bodies.

One difficulty we face is that the system is tuned toward the negative emotions. The pleasure response is about 1/4 of the total impact of the negative response. Our brains want us to be angry, fearful, sad and ashamed, while allowing us to be joyful on occasion.

Four Faces of Pain

There are many different types of pain that we experience, but as I've thought about this, they can all be grouped into four main clusters. The many nuances of pain can be represented by the larger emotion. I believe, based on what I've read, that these four emotions are represented by specific chemical response patterns in the brain.

Many painful circumstances trigger all four of the faces of pain. When thinking about pain, it is helpful to examine each of type independently. Understanding my response to the situation can give clues into possible actions I can take to find a remedy.

Pain Antidotes

By looking at each type of painful emotion we can often see a remedy for what we are feeling. Each of these feelings has the answering response that can mitigate our experience of pain. Learning how to invoke these healthy responses in the key to unlocking emotional health.

A process of transformation can start with me realizing that I am responsible for my emotional state. While the initial reaction is hard-wired in the brain and involuntary, I have the ability to decide long-term what feelings I feed.

Awareness of the emotions gives me the ability to use the rational part of my brain as a regulator for the amygdala which is responsible for the neurochemicals flooding my system. Scientific measurement show that with practice I can learn to control my emotional response. The converse is also true I can choose to spin out of control and excite the amygdala to a greater level.

Path of Healing

The journey toward health begins with a simple realization that I am responsible for my emotional health. In the same way that I am responsible for my physical health, I need to nurture and build healthy habits in my life.

This does not mean that my health is entirely within my control. It is possible to do everything correctly and have tragedy strike. But it does mean that any misfortune will come from the outside and not be the result of my own neglect. Most tragedies are self-induced and a direct result of not paying attention or taking responsibility for what can be controlled.

The choice to pursue redemption and healing must be followed up with a commitment to become more aware of the feelings that drive my behavior. Awareness is the key to transformation. Without it there will be little progress made. Time does not produce growth, but awareness can.

Deep transformation results from a serious investment over time. It is necessary to explore and experiment with differing ways to respond to common situations so that the best alternatives can be found.

The ultimate goal of transformation is to experience real connection with others and ourselves and to find peace. This can't happen overnight, but it will happen as I continue to lean into the things that matter.

A key aspect of emotional transformation is learning to forgive. The act of forgiving releases me from the bondage of past experiences and allows me to fully embrace the future. It is impossible to be connected to others that we are unwilling to forgive. The unforgiveness will act an anchor taking down our relationships and sense of well-being with it.

Embracing Truth

I have found that in my life there are four touchstones of health. I hold these up regularly to see how I am doing. I regularly set aside time to do an honest evaluation of my state of mind. This involves restating truths that I believe and listening for the emotional resonance.

Medieval monks had a practice that they called "The Examine" where they would reflect deeply on a single experience to try and gain insight. They would select a recent experience that was either very positive or negative from examination. They would ask three questions.

I've been doing this regularly for the last few years and find it extremely helpful for amplifying the joy and understanding the pain. I have learned to recognize patterns of thought and behavior that repeat frequently. This is a great aid in fostering personal transformation.