You are not your emotions
Have you ever experienced an emotion so strong it felt as if you were losing touch with your own self? Did you feel like these emotions took control over you, creating a sense of instability?
I am confident that most, if not all, of us have experienced this, but the crucial part is this: how did you react? Did you succumb to your own thoughts, or did you consciously take a moment to notice what exactly was going on?
Realizing that that decision is yours to make is both liberating and incredibly powerful.
As a PhD student researching the epigenetics of post-traumatic stress disorders, I have always been intrigued by the biological underpinnings of stress-related disorders and the central roles of associated thoughts and emotions. Looking back, I realize that that curiosity stems from my own personal experiences in struggling with emotions.
I used to get overwhelmed easily by emotions such as fear. To me, fear felt mentally paralyzing, and for years I was lacking the strength and coping mechanisms needed to deal with it, but deep down I knew there was more to me than fear.
So I started to wonder: if I am not fear, who am I and how can I empower my true self to conquer fear?
Little by little, I started to truly understand that what matters is not the sensation of my emotions, it is how I consciously decide to react to those feelings. Ever since, I like to visualize arising emotions.
Whenever I feel anxiety taking over, I imagine that emotion as being a large, round, dark structure stuck in my stomach or throat, depending on what feels more accurate at that time. Whenever this happens, I actively try not to judge whatever is arising, and I provide the space needed to reflect upon how it is making me feel.
I ask myself a variety of questions: what triggered this emotion? Is it related to any prior experience? If so, how was I impacted by that experience? Was this harmful cloud of negativity ever constructive or helpful?
You guessed it — the answer is always no.
Although emotions can guide us through external circumstances, discerning the origin and purpose of each emotion is crucial.
I visualize fear differently. Although I used to lose all sense of self-control when fear was arising, fear now resembles a small ghost that lives in a house inside my chest. Whenever fear is coming out of its house and is looking up at me, whenever it is gaining confidence and tries to claim ownership over me, I stop whatever I’m doing.
At this point, remember you have a choice to make; are you going to give it the space it needs to take control or are you going to put it aside?
Now that you’ve taken the time to notice how you feel, you can choose to gently guide fear back into its house and close the door behind it. I’m stressing “gently” here. The key in all this is to remain filled with compassion and love not only toward yourself but also toward these external emotions.
Be patient with yourself.
My visualization of fear ready to take over, accurately represented by Olivier Snijders.
The more you try to carefully reveal underlying patterns and experiences, the more, over time, the complex network of intertwined emotions will become more distinct from your true self. The more you develop a deeper understanding for it, the more you can start to deconstruct it. The house of fear then becomes smaller and calmer. That is exactly what you want; regain control over yourself and not let these external emotions take over and guide you through life.
Little by little, you will start to understand that these emotions are not you. You are the awareness that has the power to decide what to do with them at any point of time.
You are in charge.
And yes, that is scary. For those among us who have never had the opportunity to fully exist, who have always been shut down by others or who have been traumatized at some point in their lives, claiming control of their own self is far from straightforward. You are facing the unknown and that is terrifying. Don’t expect to figure it all out overnight, but slowly start to accept and understand that there is more to you than emotional instability and uncertainty.
Although I am nowhere close to claiming myself to be an expert on this matter and I am still learning daily, here is my piece of advice for anyone who can relate to the first few sentences I put down on this page.
From now on, make an active commitment to mindfully acknowledge and recognize emotions as the begin to arise. Let your feelings temporarily resonate and allow them to just be. Take a step back, be the observer of your own feelings and gently distance yourself from this stream of emotions.
Remind yourself to remain patient.
Then, try to understand their origin and start to deconstruct them. Where are these emotions coming from? How are they making you feel? Is it possible you are giving them too much credit? Do not be afraid of seeking professional help to guide you through this process if needed. However you decide to go through it, remember that this process is one to be continually practiced and requires patience. Remain loving toward yourself and step by step, you will build the strength needed to face whatever is coming up, acknowledge it, put it aside and allow your true self to fully exist.
You will then finally realize that you are not your emotions.
NOTE FROM THE EDITORS: We are so excited to have Clara Snijders writing for InSPIre the Mind. Clara is a PhD student in Neuroepigenetics at the University of Maastricht in The Netherlands. We are very pleased that she wanted to share her account on the importance of taking control of emotions with our readers.
header image source: Clara snijders