By M.K. Styllinski
“The benefits of positive emotions don’t stop after a few minutes of good feelings subside. In fact, the biggest benefit that positive emotions provide is an enhanced ability to build skills and develop resources for use later in life.”
Reading time: 15 mins
Our emotions flow through everything we do and every personality type on show: from the “coldest” intellectual academic to the athlete striving to be the best. How we emote, whether we express negative or positive emotion depends how well we know ourselves and if we are prepared to find the balance between too much positivity (yes, it’s possible) and the more well-known excess of negativity.
There is no question that we can choose to have more constructive emotions whilst understanding that negative emotions are not “bad” just in need of balance so that the positive/negative polarities work as a team. It’s the distortion of our emotions which wreaks the havoc. There is nothing instrinsically wrong with us other than allowing our feelings to run wild, often to the point of pathology.
This is especially true of those suffering from trauma and/or the effects of childhood adversity as both tend to make emotions supercharged to threats via a hypersensitive parasympathetic nervous system. Pain, unconsciously expressed becomes the primary interface between reality and the self. We become a walking “pain body” geared to survival and the multitude of triggers from any real or perceived threat to our armour of “protection.” Regardless of whether we have unresolved pain and trauma to cultivate conscious awareness over our emotional mind is the key to regulating our life toward a happier and more constructive state of affairs.
I used “constructive” in the title instead of “positive” for this reason. The latter is frequently promoted whilst ignoring the benefits of regulated negative emotion. Like the word “spiritual,” positive thinking has become a loaded phrase for a number of reasons which we’ll get into later on. Suffice to say, understanding our own particular make-up of feelings and emotions and how they are channelled into every day life is crucial. Without a more harmonious interaction with situations and people with whom we interact (or more probably inter-react) imbalance can only get worse or we remain paralysed in an uncomfortable stasis.
Our emotions determine how we perceive the world, what biases and preferences are operating and what decisions and choices we make. Emotions are what make us human; they are an essential part of our nature without which we would be a robot or the iconic Vulcan Mr. Spock from the Star Trek series. But even he had cracks in his hyper-logic because he was half-human, half-Vulcan. As it stands, Mr. Spock did pretty well in navigating through the problems he and his crew encountered. He was efficient, incisive and highly adept at solving those obstacles. But he found human sensitivities beyond the rational perplexing, since overreaction and over-identification was literally alien to him. He wasn’t exactly the life and soul of a party as a result. Nonetheless, we need Mr.Spock’s laser-like logic to sit comfortably alongside a sense of humour, compassion and intuition if we are to achieve a steady balance in the face of the unknown.
So, what are emotions as opposed to feelings? Is there a difference? It would seem so.
“Emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature, they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself.”
— Martha Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (2001)
Emotions are largely physiological and feelings are a product of mental processes which influence the biochemical basis of those emotions. For example, our feelings arising from our beliefs, thoughts and memories will mix with emotions arising from our physical state all of which determines our behaviour. We might describe feelings as subjective representations of emotions, which are personal and private to the individual experiencing them.
The inspirational Debbie Hampton from The Best Brain Possible highlights these differences succinctly:
“Emotions originate in the subcortical regions of the brain, the amygdala and the ventromedial prefrontal cortices, and create biochemical reactions in the body altering your physical state which originally helped our species survive by producing quick reactions to threats and rewards. Emotional reactions are coded in our genes and are universally similar across all humans and even other species…
Feelings originate in the neocortical regions of the brain, are mental associations and reactions to emotions, and are subjectively influenced by personal experience, beliefs, and memories. A feeling is the mental portrayal of what’s going on in your body when you have an emotion, and is the byproduct of your brain perceiving and assigning meaning to the emotion. Feelings follow emotion, involve cognitive input, are usually below conscious awareness, and cannot be measured scientifically.”
There are a lot of studies on the role of emotions and the human brain. For instance, there is a wide range of positive and negative emotions as proposed by three academics whose study criteria have been the most referenced:
1. The emotion annotation and representation language (EARL) proposed by the Human-Machine Interaction Network on Emotion (HUMAINE) which classifies 48 emotions
2. Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions paired into four groups (Anticipation, Joy, Trust, Fear, Surprise, Sadness, Disgust, Anger) from the early 80s. Plutchik diagrammed a wheel of eight emotions: joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, disgust, anger and anticipation, inspired by his Ten Postulates and a further twenty-four “Primary”, “Secondary”, and “Tertiary” dyads (feelings composed of two emotions).
Machine Elf 1735 [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
3. Finally, neurologist David L. Robinson’s influential paper from the Netherlands Journal of Psychology, 64, 152-167 “Brain function, mental experience and personality”. which, for our purposes, is probably the best summary of positive and negative emotions:
(The type of emotion listed on the bottom left labelled “cathected” is a somewhat Freudian term meaning to invest emotion or feeling in an idea, object, or another person).
Overall, our emotions are generated by thoughts. Keep this in mind as we go forward.
So, why is it worthwhile cultivating positive, constructive emotions? Pretty obvious. Who doesn’t want to feel good and feel happy for most of our day? Although it’s more complex than some positive psychologists often suggest, there’s no doubt that decades of research and study show that positive emotions are the prerequisite for not only a more fulfilling life but greater physical health. As we should know by now, the body and mind tend to inform each other.
For instance, Robert Gramling, M.D., D.Sc. from University of Rochester Medical Center found that men who believed they were at lower-than-average risk for cardiovascular disease actually experienced a three times lower incidence of death from heart attacks and strokes.  Since the The heart has neurons and functions as a second brain and it’s possible to measure the electromagnetic field emitted from the human heart up to several feet away from the human body, it behooves us to pay attention to what nourishes this organ at the psychic level. When we learn to regulate our emotions in combination with healing modalities we change the coded information contained in these magnetic fields. This also takes us back to the placebo effect, brain neuroplasticity and epigenetics where belief has a pivotal role.
If we want to create a more positive mindset we have to place equal attention on our mind and body. If the act of laughing improves vascular health, or that the right amount of Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep increases receptiveness to positive emotion and sufficient exercise releases happy chemicals like endorphins and hormonal neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine – then it’s clear we have to take an holistic approach.   
Even our posture has an important bearing on our state of mind . The brain, heart, gut and nervous system both send and receive signals from how your emotions/feelings interpret reality. Our mind processes the joy and the hurt and leaves its conclusions in the cells of the body. Perhaps that’s why Jordan Peterson states to “stand up straight with your shoulders back.” It’s about more than creating confidence but establishing a constructive self-concept and belief in a positive outcome as a powerful director of reality.
In terms of how we perceive reality, our thoughts become ourselves.
And if you wish to regulate your feelings and have constructive emotions, it is essential that you create a process of objectives overseen by a clear aim. Find the best in our culture and then align it with your nature and temperament in order to produce your aim. Without an aim, you have no purpose, without purpose, you have no meaning and without meaning you create the conditions for negative thinking. (See no.4 Have an Aim / Objective (1) and Why Young Lives Are Losing Meaning and Purpose I).
This is the foundation from which all else follows.
“Just as we teach about physical hygiene in the interest of good health, we now need to teach about emotional hygiene.”
— Dalai Lama
Psychic Pollution and Vampirism
Besides making sure you have an aim and its objectives, one of the keys to kick-start a sunnier disposition is to recognise when the clouds are gathering or when you are habitually under an eclipse. Cultivating a positive state of mind allows us to think more creatively thus find solutions, enjoy the present moment; build better self-awareness; be less inclined to seek immediate rewards; build internal resources (thus resilience) and establish the potential for greater social connections.
That’s worth the effort I think!
A successful adoption of that process has been called emotional intelligence by many psychologists.   
(Yet, as we shall see in part 3, emotional intelligence is no different to regular intelligence, and isn’t naturally virtuous. It’s just a tool and can therefore be used for good or for ill).
How to arrive at that point has produced the self-help and positive psychology industries (the darker elements of which we’ll explore later). Some of us less emotionally intelligent and perhaps more intellectual/introspective tend not to bounce through life with perpetual grins on our faces. Depending on the sophistication of that emotional intelligence we are likely to stimulate the same in those we meet. So, how might we begin to address the imbalance?
The first thing to be aware of is that we are highly susceptible to emotional triggers which have the potential to change our mood on a dime. In fact, we don’t even need to be aware of the event that caused a change in mood in order to be affected by it.  It’s also true that emotions are highly contagious which can obviously manifest negatively or positively. When you experience strong emotions in a group be sure that this is constructive because you can be scooped up into a negative momentum which may deposit your state of mind in a place you have no wish to be.  We can pick up on an individual’s emotional state, especially if you are one of those particularly sensitive to other people’s energies. If you are habitually around people that drain your energy or something about them is “off” but you can’t put your finger on it – ease them out of your life. If you can’t do that, then limit contact as much as possible. We can extend that principle to our environment too.
Keep in mind there is a mutual territory that is symbolic of our intrapsychic, archetypal landscape. There is REAL power here. Literal and symbolic realms contained within this sociocultural territory aren’t just flaky new age postulates but emergent properties of the Dragon of Chaos; a quantum mass of congealed collective desires and instincts into which we submerge ourselves every single day. If we accumulate enough negative energy from within our own deregulated system AND absorb that which is not our own responsibility…Then you are in danger of drowning in a Dark Sea. Awareness that human energy is a tangible current containing negative and positive qualities is crucial to mastering the “input” and “output” of your open feedback system.
I used to commute and work in London’s Soho district for several years and found it an exhausting experience. I couldn’t wait to get out of the underground as a result. It was almost as they I had to wash not just the grime of the city out of my hair, but the psychic pollution that had settled on my heart. The only way I could eventually combat this was to prepare myself with creative visualisation techniques, proper breathing and to adopt some of the other suggestions from the 31, most of which were unknown to me at the time.
Urban life is exciting and stimulating – if you have money. If not, it can be relentlessly soul-destroying.
I also remember some relationships which were co-dependent and deeply unhealthy, although on the surface all was well. Sometimes, I would draw out the worst in the person and she would inflate the worst in me. If people are sensitised or attuned to feelings and the symptoms expressed in the body then it was a dramatic illustration of imbalance. Were we truly exchanging energy in a healthy way? Or were we merely inflating our issues and enabling each other’s blind spots?
One of these symptoms is powerfully expressed through the archetype of the vampire. My experience with one lady in particular caused me to feeI utterly drained in her company to the point of illness. And at one point, further down the road in our relationship the dynamic reversed and it was she who experienced my own unconscious desires and issues as a similar energy drain that caused her virtual exhaustion. What we are talking about here is the archetype of the vampire who sucks the blood of his/her victims. We can embody those archetypes as very real personifications of social dynamics as old as humanity. Becoming possessed by the negative half of the archetype offers a chance to learn a powerful lesson.
Your thoughts and emotions must be healed by understanding your shadow and defence mechanisms. Otherwise, they will turn into the ancient mythical monsters waiting in the wings. You will be act them out in the world through your unconscious. If you don’t take responsibility and build your own resources then you will take the energy that you lack from others and do so in the most insidiously subtle and covert ways. And when you take it from others, you align yourself with Chaos. Then you are on the road to the cosmic black hole.
And that’s about as objective as one can get as far as I’m concerned.
Seeing that you are a slathering predator with flowers in your hair is not a nice experience to say the least. Yet, waking up to that fact is part of the process of genuine self-growth. And those that are most shocked and resistant to such a proposition are usually the ones most in need of that mirror. The problem is that your limbic/reptilian predator self, working through the puppet desires of the ego, may be so in control that you wouldn’t even see that reflected image if the mirror was presented to you, which is in keeping with the nature of the vampire.
When positive emotions are used as a cloaking device to hide our parasitic feeding on others then, from a metaphysical perspective, you are a predator, plain and simple. And this is what all authentic ancient wisdom warns us about.
You may think you are the most caring human being with the best of intentions, but if you haven’t really cast an eye over the connections between your emotions, feelings and thoughts and the negative dynamics which mysteriously keep repeating in your life, then you are a liability not just to yourself but for those with whom you come into contact.
(See also: Unholy Hungers: Encountering the Psychic Vampire in Ourselves & Others by Barbara E. Hort and No.7 in this series: Strive For Simplicity, Economise on Energy (3))
Psychic energy can be shared even more potently when a sexual relationship ensues. If it is based on instinct, rationalisations and lies, then those psychic shadows are shared much like an sexually transmitted disease (STD). This has implications for the clear functioning of our mind and body. Pour toxic waste into a freshwater lake and you know the results – the ecosystem dies, yet the level of water remains the same.
If you are sufficiently “pure” and you have a reasonable regulation of your emotions then it’s possible to pull your partner up by the bootstraps and offer a positive entrainment. If you come together as friends or lovers based on a mutual attraction driven by your respective shadows then the outcome will be detrimental for you both until such time that one of you wakes up and breaks the feeding cycle.
If you are an empath and a giver, take steps to protect yourself and be sure that what you are feeling is really “yours.” If not, you need to be shot of it. That means looking within and at your environment to locate and limit the sources which are allowing incursions into your energy field. Don’t underestimate the latter. Adopt breathing exercises to ground and centre your system and purge yourself of that pollution.
The seat of our feelings and emotions appears to be the solar plexus area. When I was very anxious and stressed I noticed that this area was almost sore due to accumulated stress. I only had to slighty depress this area within my fingers and it was quite painful. As I breathed out the pain however, and at the same time, pressed into the solar plexus more deeply, though uncomfortable, the tension slowly dissipated. I breathed in through the nose and out through the mouth using my index and middle finger to press deeper until all the tension was released. This is an excellent way to disperse anxiety and stress as a physiological response.
So, once again, the better we know ourselves and what pushes our buttons the more control we have over the ebb an flow of mood, feeling and emotion in the present. Dissolving anxiety and too much stress (our own or from others); adopting breathing exercises and regular deployment of relaxation techniques are important steps.
Most of all, check your archetypes. Are you always on the prowl to suck blood from your next victim? Or taking steps to plunge a stake into the heart of that which prevents real exchange?
“Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.”
— Marcus Aurelius
Emotions must serve us, not rule us
Easy to write but not an easy prospect for most of us. Nevertheless, if we want to make some progress away from being a slave to instinct and unthinking reactions we have to make a start. As the stoic philosopher and one time Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius explains in the above quote: the projection of all manner of negative emotion is a megaphoning of the projector’s ignorance of how such polarities become widened in the outer and inner world. We must begin to understand how and when those gaps in awareness were widened and re-configure our being toward that which is constructive. It will make the difference between the continuing boom and bust misery – or a modicum of reliable happiness.
At the same time, it is foolish to think we can immediately will ourselves to feel better. Negative states are natural and they will come for us. The trick is: how we manage it. It seems to me one way to keep these emotions and feelings from overwhelming us is to employ a cunning manoeuvre so that we effectively rest our dark mood, or at least blunt the sharp edges. We do this often enough, in combination with other tools, it becomes habitual, then we are in a position to make our emotions serve us.
The following is a redesign of a psychologist’s advice from several years ago. I’ve bolstered the formula with a bit of creative visualisation and conscious breathing to prevent slipping back into that mood. It takes less than a few minutes, at the most. The idea is to anchor your focus and attention to a time where you did feel in control and prepared rather than paralyzed by frustration or pain.
In the present moment of thrashing yourself with circular thinking and replaying a conversation or an event over and over it can inflate those negative thought loops to much greater proportions. This can entail an indulgent state of self-pity that wallows in victmhood. It’s perverse, but letting the shadows loose without control often is.
A formula to rein them in might work as follows:
- Make an agreement with yourself that this isn’t constructive and you want to change the loop. That agreement has to be sincere.
- Visualise a positive memory where you experienced a peaceful and happy mood or a funny incident and make a decision to move your mind in that direction.
- A reinforcer: Picture a light switch with “negative thoughts” below it. Turn that switch off. Feel the electricity of negative currents in your body begin to subside.
- Breathe in through nose; breathe out through the mouth for 30 seconds
- Think about a positive focus that you can return to as a means to stop the loop of negative thoughts. Think about how you can make that focus real. Identify the problem and see it from a bird’s eye view i.e. more objectively. Try to step down your over-identification so that you can see it more clearly. When you feel a bit calmer…
- A reinforcer: Picture a light switch with “positive thoughts” below it. Flip that switch on. Feel the electricity of positive thoughts in your body begin to flow.
- Breathe in through nose; breathe out through the mouth for 30 seconds
- Smile I know it sounds contrived and fake but turn up the corners of your mouth and see how you feel. Look in a mirror if you have to. (That might give you laugh in itself). It may come out like a grimace and less than sincere at the outset, but force that smile into existence for a minute. As you do so, you’ll find that it ignites the small embers of humour that lie behind most situations. It takes you out of your self and allows you to view things from a higher perspective. As that smile arrives you might notice changes in your body as it becomes less rigid and begins to let go. It may take a few trial runs but in combination with breathing, your inner smile will start to form and produce an outer smile that is genuine – even during hard times.
- Initiate action from your agreement. Make a decision to alleviate negative thought loops for the future by making clear changes based around your focus. This may mean going for a walk in the park, working on your car; lifting weights; ringing a best friend; making love; buying a cup cake; reading a book; deep breathing in front of an open window. The most valuable thing you can do however, is to DO SOMETHING FOR SOMEONE ELSE. Sure, your grumpy self doesn’t much fancy that but when you move in that direction, I can guarantee it re-jigs your focus toward other people’s struggle and decentralises your own. It can be as simple as joining an internet forum to share your experiences; signing up at your local volunteer centre; baking a cake or giving your partner a back rub. The paralyzing effect of negative thought loops are diminished through constructive action which is then mirrored in your own body-mind system. And that’s nourishing for you and for those you assist. The trick is to create a window which you can eventually step through.
Getting yourself into a workable state of regulation might mean isolating a key feeling that gives rise to an array of emotions. It maybe anger, sadness, grief or cynical hostility. An overblown instinct of fear is usually the mother of many destructive emotions. Once you’ve pinpointed which one is dominating (there maybe a few) and looked at how your fear is operating, find out all you can about this shadow and work to understand it. Then discover tools to integrate. Quarantine, but don’t deny its existence. It’s there for a reason, asking to be be acknowledged and worked with.
* = And as we shall see in part 3, emotional intelligence is no different to regular intelligence, and isn’t naturally virtuous. It’s just a tool and can therefore be used for good or for ill.
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