It’s another beautiful morning in Santa Barbara. It rained yesterday, but it was wonderful in between the brief downpours. Though it’s January, the rains had an almost tropical quality about them. They came and went and came and went. They were fast and hard. Then it was sunny and windy.
It was kind of like life can be some days. One hour you feel like it’s a great sunny day. You’re happy and things are going your way. Next minute psychological clouds gather, the mind darkens, and you’re not even sure what made your mood turn from sunny to cloudy.
Then something else happens. You may or may not really notice it. Your mood changes again and you’re feeling happy and alive.
Not everyone goes through this every day, but fluctuating moods are a challenge for many of us. We label and deal with the moods in different ways, of course. Not everyone gets noticeably depressed or unhappy when things don’t go right. Some of us get stressed or angry, or we move faster, or we eat, or we surf the net, or we distract ourselves in another way. Some of us go for a run, or we call a friend, or we meditate, rather than having a beer or a smoke.
Some of us deal with emotions by trying not to have them. This only works to a point. Trying not to have emotions is a little like trying not to sweat or go to the bathroom. It’s not a wise plan for the long run. Heart attacks, ulcers, hemorrhoids—you name it; a whole slew of health problems is related to one’s inability to handle difficult emotions.
Not having emotions also makes it a little tough to be a satisfying partner; and being emotion-free, like a robot, is probably a good way to have seriously messed-up kids. You hear this when troubled kids say things like, “My dad’s body might have been there, but he was somewhere else.”
To show up as a human being is to show up emotions and all. And we really wouldn’t want it any other way. Psychopaths and sociopaths seem to lack the ability to feel what is going on both inside themselves and in others. And look how wonderfully their lives turn out.
To show up as a human being is to feel and to be felt by those around us. Our emotions, our feelings, hold a great deal of intelligence. They help us to do the right thing. They guide our intuitions, which research is starting to show have a lot more going for them than we ever thought. Our emotions connect us and motivate us to do great things. Our emotions add color to life. They make us human.
They can also get us into trouble. That’s why we’re told that we have to control our emotions and not let them control us. Emotions like fear make us run when we should stand. Anger makes us lash out when we should listen. Sadness makes us collapse when we need to rise.
This makes it sound as if we’re all houses divided: It’s good emotions versus bad emotions; good cops versus bad cops. But emotional intelligence involves more than simply controlling our emotions.
Who’s being “emotional” and who’s doing the controlling, anyway? Are there two people in there? Two personalities? Can we bring about a bit of unity, which may lead to a bit of harmony and a bit more ease?
The more aware you can be of what’s going on inside you as you emotionally “react” to things, the better. React is the operative word here. Often our anger, our fear, our sadness, is triggered by events. Or, more precisely, it’s triggered by events and the thoughts we have about those events. This often happens quickly and automatically.
“Of course, I’m angry. The kids aren’t ready.” We say this as if we’ve stated a law of nature; that anger follows our kids’ lateness as necessarily as the planets follow Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation. So why does your wife get depressed rather than mad when the kids are late? Is there a different law of nature working in her case than in yours?
This example may seem trivial, but it’s not. If you look, you will see many places in your life where you are saying, “I feel this way because…” and then you fill in the blank. One of the most powerful things you can do to increase your happiness, success, and sexual prowess (do I still have your attention?) is to take more and more responsibility for your life, including your emotions.
Your emotions are yours. They are not simply caused by outside events. You are not a billiard ball that, when hit by another billiard ball, has no choice but to “react” in a certain way. You have many degrees of freedom. You can look at what is going on when something begins to upset you. You can begin to cultivate a space between the action and your reaction. You can, that is, if you want to—if you’re willing to accept the power, the possibility, and the responsibility.
Responsibility can be said to mean “the ability to respond in a number of different ways.” If you only have one way of responding, like the struck billiard ball, then you can’t be held responsible. Is that what you want? To be free of responsibility for your emotions and your actions, like the billiard ball? Or do you want to stand up and take the responsibility and the opportunity to live and act like a human being?
Being human is a wonderful opportunity, but it’s also hard work. Life is often not easy. Most of us do not come pre-programmed with everything we need to live full and happy lives, nor do outside circumstances always work to make our lives safe and fulfilling. Life can be red in tooth and claw. Many of us are hurt even before we crawl, and have to work hard to find our ways.
One of the most powerful moves we can make is to take more and more responsibility for our lives, beginning with our emotions and our reactions. Once we take responsibility, we
We can strengthen our abilities to feel and endure uncomfortable emotions without reacting. We can learn to see the thoughts and belief systems that keep us imprisoned and restrict our abilities to handle challenges. By challenging those patterns we can live less reactively.
But for all this to happen, we first have to accept responsibility for our lives. That’s the foundation, and it’s where most of us give our best excuses. First things first. Take as responsibility where and when you can. That way you give yourself power and dominion over more and more of your life.
Don’t misunderstand me. This is not contrary to a religious or spiritual position that says you need the help of a higher power to live your life fully. Maybe our very existence is only possible because of a sacred energy that creates and sustains all things. Maybe not. You get to choose which is true for you and how you will live.
Or you can live like a billiard ball. That’s your choice as well.
Reach John Luca at firstname.lastname@example.org or 805/680-5572.