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Like many people, men especially, for most of my life I was mostly disconnected from my emotional experience. As an engineer I prided myself on how logical I was, and aside from being pissed off a lot of the time, I didn’t acknowledge having much emotion.
If you asked me what determined my actions I would have said ‘my thoughts’. However it turns out that I was and am a far more emotional creature than I realized, and I'm pretty sure this applies to you as well.
Think of something you do, that you don't want to do. Or think of something that you feel like you should be doing, but you aren't. I like to use the example of exercise. There are millions of people 'thinking positively’ about exercise - they want to do it, intend to do it, buy machines to do it on, etc. But the amount of exercise that actually happens relative to this thinking is pretty low.
The problem for the well-intentioned non-exerciser is that the emotion they experience when they think about it is not fueling the desired action.
Behind the surface level pro-exercise thought, there are other thoughts creating emotions of apathy, shame, or fear that block the desired action. Now if you’re oblivious to your emotions like most people are, you won’t explicitly realize this. The resistance caused by the emotion will appear in your brain as another thought, something like ‘I don’t have time today’. The decision to act or not is made subconsciously in reaction to the emotion, and then you find a way to rationalize it.
HOW EMOTION WORKS
Part of our brain, operating at a purely subconscious level, is constantly evaluating our situation with respect to our physical and social needs and safety. On the basis of it’s assessment and predictions, it’s adjusting our physiology - heart and breathing rate, blood flow, muscle tension, blood chemistry, etc. so that we’re prepared for action.
Imagine hiking in the woods and almost stepping on a rattlesnake. Even before your conscious brain ‘sees’ the snake, your physiology is going to go wild, in order to prepare you for evasive action. Your heart rate will go up, muscles will tense, blood flow will be diverted away from your digestive tract, etc.
Other parts of your brain whose job it is to monitor your bodily functions - performing what’s known as interoception - will sense these physiological changes, Based on your past experiences and social conditioning, you’ll experience the emotion of fear - a subconscious but cognitive assessment that ‘when my body feels like this type of situation, I’m experiencing fear.’
Humans are intensely social creatures (even us introverts) and most of our emotional experience comes from concerns about our social status. We’re constantly evaluating our position in the social hierarchy - are we being accepted by the group, are we in danger of being exiled, are we fitting in, who is top dog here and what’s my relationship to him/her, does this person like me, etc. This concern over our social ‘safety’ is why public speaking is so threatening for most of us.
Emotions are also created by our thoughts, not requiring actual real-time sensory input. In our modern lives, more of our emotional experience is created by our thoughts than by actual in-the-moment sensory input.
If you’re remembering an interaction from last week with a coworker, and your interpretation of his actions is that he disrespected you, you’ll experience physiological reactions in your body. That part of the brain responsible for interoception will notice that, and you will experience the emotion of resentment.
Of course most of us aren’t sitting around going ‘My breathing is shallow and fast, my neck muscles are tight, and I’m thinking about what a jerkoff I am - I must be experiencing shame’.
Instead our subconscious is registering these physiological changes, and shouting to our conscious brain ‘Houston we have a problem, we gotta do something.’ Your conscious brain complies and having a drink is often the solution.
EMOTIONS & DRINKING
When we talk about drinking, there are two types of emotions involved.
The first is simple desire, which shows up in the body as an urge. The desire can come from pro-drinking thoughts - liking the taste, the buzz, believing that it makes you more interesting - or from the habit cycle involving the neurotransmitter dopamine. The urge makes the decision to drink, and then you find a way to rationalize it, with statements like I deserve it. I was good yesterday. I’ll be better tomorrow. I just want it.
The second set of emotions that drive your drinking are so-called negative emotions such as anxiety, guilt or shame, irritation, and boredom. When we experience these in the typical oblivious way, our subconscious drives us to make them go away. They are perceived as a problem to be urgently solved, and it so happens that alcohol is a pretty good short term emotion-eraser.
We’re used to trying to control our actions by resisting this drive to normalize and ‘fix’ our physiological reactions, using willpower. The easier way to make lasting change is to bring this emotional processing cycle out of our subconscious and into our conscious awareness.
In the next lesson I'm going to teach you how to Allow Your Feelings - this is the process where you learn to embrace your emotions, to move toward them and process them in a fully aware and conscious way, so that they lose their power to make you do things you don't want to do.
In summary, the important point is to understand that your emotions are perceived through your body, as sensations or vibrations. Joy, love, resentment, guilt - these all affect your physiology - breathing, blood flow, muscle tension, etc. When your perception of this physiology is left to your subconscious, these feelings have enormous power to drive your actions. But when you bring these perceptions into your conscious awareness, they lose much of their power to control you.