A sign of the times: the invisible effects of not being aware of your own emotions

[About the author: Nicolás Ventosa is a psychologist working on health inequalities. He was a student on the City, University of London Writing for Business short course in Oct-Dec 2018, and wrote this blog as part of a homework/in-class exercise on that course.]

There were certain moments in my life that left me wanting to understand “what happened?”. Most of them related to someone ending a relationship with me suddenly and without explanation, or not being able to talk about their feelings. Some others involved people fencing poor arguments in favour of hate speeches, even against themselves.

These moments have occurred throughout my life in different ways, but they left me great insight. The more I worked on my own issues, the more I understood. These people were not aware how their personal experiences were affecting their decisions. I was not aware of how my past experiences created the lens I was using to see the world.

And these people… they are normal people. Buying at your supermarket, working with you, and even going to the same gym. They could be a family member or a friend. In fact, you might be one yourself. People who lack emotional intelligence are everywhere and you might feel like stumbling with the same stone once you become more conscious of your own story.

Starting to understand what the word “emotion” means is a good way to spark the discussion. Pressing fast-forward, the word emotion could be broken into two important parts: “e”, for energy, and “motion”, for movement. So, emotions are energy in motion. They move around our body and impulse us to act. Emotions seek release. The problem is, when they are badly managed, emotions will cause us a lot of problems.

Culture changes, behaviours change

There is a whole new spectrum of behaviours that are not related with severe mental health problems, but they can easily affect your everyday life and cause you a particular type of suffering. These behaviours are slowly influenced by our culture, that is, the total amount of all our individual behaviours over time, but also depend largely on our family and social environment.

Social institutions, such as family, education and work, are systems of behaviours and values that order societies. Thirty or fifteen years ago these used to play a very different role than the one they play now. I would even dare to say – they were more stable and stronger, but also static and inflexible. Every period in history will have different systems that will include different ways of perceiving life. These values, ideas, beliefs and practices we share with other members of society are called social representations. Their main aim is, in the words of social psychologist Serge Moscovici, to “make the unfamiliar familiar”.

In the last couple of decades, the effects of technology in mass communication changed drastically our cultural paradigm, and therefore, the representations that came along with it. The internet brought us endless possibilities. But being “connected” has never been such a blessing and a curse at the same time. Evidence is clear on technology having concrete effects on our chemical interactions and synapsis in our brain – hence, our perception on reality will likely change as well.

The idea we had about addiction being solely linked with disorders is no exception. Smartphones, video games and even dating apps can be addictive, though they might not seem as such since we have the capacity – even if limited – to get used to things. Our brain can only process a part of all the stimulus we receive daily, and this slowly affects the way our body responds to our normal demands. If this constant pressure keeps accumulating, it will choose particular places of our personal history to affect – because emotions, whether positive or negative, are just energy in movement. They will be attracted by places within ourselves built on strong past experiences.

But no one taught us how to be aware of your own emotions. This is not something we learn in schools – but we should. Most of the times we are not conscious of how much we have separated our mind and body. As human beings, we have progressed from physical to almost solely mental forms of interactions with our surrounding environment. From our first Instagram scroll in the morning, to our last Facebook post at night, our brain is the organ that we use the most. Almost all the energy we use every day accumulates on the top of our body. But when we have an emotion, we do not feel it with our head. The wide range of human emotions manifest themselves in different parts of our body. There is a disconnect in the way we interpret our emotions because our mind-body relationship is imbalanced.

The truth is, not being able to recognize our emotions makes it difficult to manage how we feel, and that causes us to “react”, instead of “act”. That provokes us into being commanded by anything that has not been healed within ourselves (traumas, negative beliefs, bad experiences, you name it). And, it ultimately causes us to be miserable neurotics.

Vulnerability is scary, but it’s what makes us human

Being on the dark side of the force is something we all have been through – it takes time and effort to stop repeating the same patterns. But I can guarantee that people who lack emotional intelligence find it harder to build healthy and long lasting relationships. They will be the ones disappearing once the idealization of the first dates fades away, because they cannot cope with dating real people. People who lack emotional intelligence often disengage instead of having an honest conversation when issues arise.

People with a lack of emotional intelligence are more likely to say things they regret afterwards – and they do not apologize. These people commonly put high expectations on their relationships but they have low levels of motivation to work them through. They spend their lives complaining they want to be with someone, but then will literally open their dating app as soon as their partner shows any sign of humanity.

You might be wondering by now, why people are so afraid of their own emotions? Well, dealing with our own emotions means dealing with the unknown in ourselves. That scary place where things “that-have-not-been-healed” live and trigger anxiety. Different psychological theories and therapeutic models label this differently. Psychologists know this well: most people avoid talking about their personal issues. They would rather stay in emotional homeostasis. Unfortunately for them, the universe is constantly moving. As long as you are alive, life will cause you to feel things.

The problem with emotions is they show us parts of ourselves that we do not know about, and this means also that our identity, as an idea of what we think we are, might change. Deconstructing beliefs that are well rooted, and that once helped us to define ourselves, can be painful and difficult, but there is nothing worse than living life in one colour.

We are afraid of vulnerability, which ultimately makes us who we are. This is even more difficult in our culture, given our widespread obsession with showing our best image. But remember an image is just an image. There is nothing behind it. Deep inside, we are afraid that if we show ourselves as we are, people are not going to love us.

Unblocking our emotions leads to growth

Interestingly, Freud explained more than 100 years ago how something traumatic could cause our psyche to trigger a defence mechanism in front of unpleasant feelings. When I say “traumatic” I am not referring to a human disaster or a catastrophe. Different events might be traumatic for different people based on their life history. For some, being left by their partner might be traumatic – they may have thought that their marriage was forever. For others, having to go through an exam or giving a public speech triggers different emotional responses – they might feel they have to achieve perfection to gain external approval.

Anything that is unpleasant to us – because it might be contrary to our values, morals, beliefs or attitudes – if we are not aware of it, will be set aside by our conscious to avoid feelings of anguish. But it is still there and will often be triggered by another similar situation.

As we said earlier, emotions are energy in movement. They cannot be contained and they seek to be released. When we do not process our emotions naturally, they will make their way to the surface in the form of thoughts, feelings and behaviours that might not be healthy for us. To illustrate this let’s look at a short example:

“X” has been raised in a caring family. “X” has been provided with home, food and education and we can say all his basic needs were covered. Still, it was not common in this family to talk about feelings or to be very affectionate when “X” needed that support. Even though “X” grew up as a healthy adult, he internalizes this behaviour from his parents as part of his own personality. This then triggers a response when someone tries to show affection or care in a special way. His core beliefs might say “I cannot provide love and affection as I never received it”, “I do not know how to love someone as I never learnt this before”, or “why I should bother, if no one did this for me”.

These beliefs cause “X” to find it hard building stable relationships, but he is not aware of this emotional response – in the end, he has always been this way. As soon as something breaks the communication, a thought links the belief of “not being loved” with the situation, and triggers an emotional response. “X” then refrains emotionally and re-opens the app again – looking for another person to chat. The effects of not being aware of his own emotions are invisible to “X”, but he keeps reacting to situations in the same way – repeating the same outcomes until he becomes conscious.

With this short story I am trying to explain how, on a daily basis, we are blocked from growing due to not being aware of our own emotions and where they come from. It takes time and commitment to yourself before you can commit to others. Some people prefer living their lives like this, but at the same time, nothing changes for them. There are many ways you can start getting more in contact with your emotions and expressing them in a positive way, but first you have to pause and start recognizing your own part in the problem.