By Paul Johnson, LMFT, LPC, NCC
(Originally printed in 280 Living, Birmingham, AL, November 2011)
Do you recall that I wrote in the article entitled “Caution, Slippery When…” that I am not a big fan of holding a fresh fish, though eating a fresh fish I have no problem with? I would like to follow that up. Kind of.
My preferred way of dealing with fish is either eating them or observing them at an aquarium. My kids are not fans of eating fish yet, but are fans of the aquarium. Watching fish slowly swim by can be a rather soothing and fun venture. The kids and I will pick a spot and just stand there, and observe. Eventually, one of them will say, “Ooo, look at that one. What is that, Daddy?” The questions will follow, and the attempts at answering are made. We observe, and thankfully no touching (and thus no juggling) occurs. Nice, calm, tranquil.
Emotions are best when they are observed. I do not recommend emotion as a menu item; best if not stuffed and served with a side of broccoli. They do not serve us well either if they are shoved aside, ignored, or repressed. Our emotions serve us well, as I mentioned in the previous article, when they are considered as a piece of information. They are pieces of information that are rather like signals or flags, trying to get our attention about something that is occurring or potentially occurring within our vicinity, either internally or externally. They are saying, “Hey, I need you to notice something here.” The kicker is that emotion is not a neutral, objective piece of data or fact that just lies there (like a dead fish, with the bad smell, which is like repressed emotion). No, emotion is rather subjective and experiential; it lets you know that you care and are very much involved with what is going on. So emotion grabs your innards and shakes you around (kind of like a small child who really wants your attention about something) so that you cannot help but notice. Problem is that most of us, rather than investigating the emotion, treat it as the final destination:
“I don’t know, but I’m mad, and that’s all that matters. Hold still while I bite your head off.”
Feelings are not reality, but an indication of a reality. Remember Chicken Little? Who felt a knock on the head? It hurt, yet due to a lack of objectivity that leads to an understanding of what else was in the environment, made an assumption of reality based upon the worst fear — that doom was occurring and the sky was falling. Panic ensued and infected everyone else as Chicken Little careened around the barnyard emoting, declaring, and blaming, without investigating. If feelings and emotion are an indication of reality, it is important to discover the “actual-ness” of the reality, and not merely reacting to the assumption of the reality. Emotion points to an action to be taken, but the action taken depends on the actual reality at play. Perhaps the sky was falling; perhaps it was merely gravity working upon an acorn. Trouble is, Chicken Little did not take the time to find out, and the difference between the sky and an acorn falling is rather huge. If the sky is falling, yeah, we are all in trouble. If it is just an acorn, then move over a step or two.
So, the next time you feel an emotion (which for most of us will be within the next few seconds), take a breath, a good deep one. And then observe (think aquarium: “Ooo, look at that one”). And then get curious — ask yourself, “I wonder what that’s about?” It is a great question, one that will lead you to an actual internal reality.
To talk further about learning to observe your internal world, please consider LifePractical Counseling for your counseling or consultant needs. You may reach us at 205-807-6645, or contact us via our website at www.lifepractical.org. Paul Johnson is a professionally licensed marriage and family therapist and professionally licensed counselor in the state of Alabama.