The subconscious messages I’ve been sending to myself about emotion

Initially, I had planned to share some notes from my vault this week.

But this morning at the gym, I was thinking about something else. So I’m going to write about that instead.

Last week, Alex and I watched Everything, Everywhere, All At Once. It’s an excellent, entertaining, thought-provoking movie, in my opinion. I will try to be very vague about it to avoid spoiling anything.

One of the big themes of the movie has to do with paradoxes and dualities juxtaposed with each other.

This brought me to a paradox in my life.

I’ve been working to become more comfortable with my emotions. But then, this morning, I started reflecting on all these ways I’m subconsciously pushing them away.

One thing that popped to mind was how I tend to find happy people attractive.

(I think I was initially reflecting on how this doesn’t make any sense sustainably. People experience a range of emotions, so if I’m only attracted to happy people, I will find them unattractive as I get to know them better.)

In any case, I don’t know why I find happy people attractive, but I have two hypotheses:

  1. I found comfort in kindness. Kids can be mean, and I suspect I developed my first crush because he was kind to me when others weren’t.
  2. I sought out a balance. When my depression was much worse years ago, I can see myself looking for a source of stability to balance out my own experience of things.

Looking at these now, I realize that they’re both attempts to experience one emotion to avoid feeling another. I still do this today when I eat a whole box of cookies to try and get rid of my anxiety.

In doing these things, I’m communicating to myself that “happy” is a good emotion; “sad” and “anxious” are bad emotions.

Another thought I had this morning was regarding my relationship.

Sometimes, my partner doesn’t say anything, but I feel he is experiencing something emotional.

And even though he’s not doing anything from my perspective except experiencing that emotion, it bothers me.

I’m not reacting to his behaviour. I’m responding to a thought I have about his experiencing non-happy emotions.

(Usually, I think I’ve done something to annoy him. Or that something terrible is going to happen because he’s angry.)

And again, I’m telling myself that emotions like “angry” or “annoyed” are bad.

I don’t think I’m the only one who subconsciously communicates these ideas.

I also thought about all the times I hear people say things like:

  • Don’t worry. Don’t feel anxiety. It’s bad.
  • Don’t be sad. Don’t feel sadness. It’s bad.
  • Calm down. Don’t feel anger. (Or excitement.) It’s bad.

When we communicate these types of things, they snowball.


I recently finished reading Mel Robbin’s The High 5 Habit.

In it, she talks about the Reticular Activating System (RAS). The RAS is a part of your brain that determines the data that your conscious mind gets to process. Because there’s so much data coming in from our external environment, it has to filter out a lot.

What does it allow to pass through?

Things that we think are important.

And for a species that has evolved to focus on surviving (especially as part of a group), it is imperative to avoid things that are wrong (and potentially dangerous).

So the RAS feeds us information that reminds us that we get in trouble when we’re angry; that relationships can be damaged when someone is sad; that we create more problems for ourselves when we feel anxious about things.

This strengthens our belief that emotions are bad. (As per confirmation bias, we tend to see the things that confirm our existing thoughts.)

Returning to Everything, Everywhere, All At Once, it’s apparent that emotions are bad in one universe. In another universe, it’s obvious that emotions are neutral.

Both seem to be true in my universe.

I get that emotion is neutral intellectually. But evidently, this isn’t understood by my entire brain. Part of me gets that emotion is bad.

So how am I trying to deal with this duality?

  • Exposure. I’m trying to increase my awareness of my emotions. Furthermore, I’m trying to avoid doing things to avoid them (e.g. eating boxes of cookies) when I can. I’m hoping that I don’t feel the same impulse to push them away automatically through this form of exposure therapy.
  • Distancing. I’m trying to notice the separation between my self and my experience. My therapist told me about an analogy that came from the Dalai Lama. When experiencing emotions, he would imagine himself sitting on the sand under the water. He could look up and see the waves crashing about, but where he was, the water was much calmer. I’m trying to notice this separation between my thoughts, feelings, etc., more often.
  • Perspective. Instead of just jumping to the label, I’m trying to pay attention to the body sensations underlying an emotion. And I’m trying to be more curious about what my body may be needing at the time to produce those body sensations.

This is a life.

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