It is not uncommon for people to seek psychological counselling
because they find themselves confused and overwhelmed by their
emotions and thoughts. Our internal world can indeed be a messy and
complicated experience, with so it makes sense that it baffles us
sometimes! Many clients have said to me, “I don’t know what I’m feeling, I
just know that it’s awful!”.
Unfortunately, while we’re taught from a young age to learn and
improve our intelligence in other areas, limited focus is given to learning
about our feelings. This leaves us often under-equipped to navigate our
emotional world. Without realising it, we are always reacting to our
emotions as they arise, relying on basic tools such as escape/avoidance,
fighting, or becoming paralysed by it.
Emotional intelligence and curiosity are key in helping us
understand ourselves better and find more effective ways of responding
to our more difficult feelings. Research indicates that greater emotional
wellbeing is correlated with higher awareness of one’s emotional,
behaviours, and stressors. Such knowledge helps build resilience and
ability to cope with challenging situations. Therefore, being curious and
open to learning about our feelings is critical to improving wellbeing.
Often, people think that such curiosity means we need to always be
able to figure out why we are feeling a certain way. However, the key
actually lies in the what.
Humans are problem-solving machines, and when faced with a
difficult feeling/thought we want to quickly get to the bottom of it and
resolve it. But this is not always a useful approach, as it forces us to
quickly make judgements about what we are experiencing, such as
labelling some feelings as “good” and some “bad”, and to get away from
the feeling. This usually ends up just keeping the problem in place.
Instead, being curious about our emotions involves opening up to it and
paying closer attention to our experience. Emotional curiosity gives us the
opportunity to better understand our own emotional and behavioural
patterns, as well as increase our awareness to unconscious thoughts and
feelings that could underpin such experiences. Additionally, over time it
allows us to draw a clearer narrative about ourselves and integrate the
various elements of our past and present experiences, and better identify
and process our emotions.
So how can we be more curious about ourselves? Firstly, it is okay
to note that the notion of sitting with difficult feelings without trying to get
away from them can be scary and uncomfortable initially. Think of our
internal world as a play taking place on a stage, and we are the audience
that can both experience these feelings as well as sit back from them and
watch what is happening. There can be many elements in this play, some
physical sensations may come and go, some thoughts or mental images
may present themselves, as well as memories that can show up. The
objective is simply to be able to pay attention to these and notice them,
without necessarily judging them or resolving them.
The next time you find yourself overwhelmed by some feelings, take
a couple of minutes to ask yourself these questions:
What am I feeling? Where in my body?
Is there a word/image that describes this feeling?
What is running through my mind right now? Are certain thoughts,
images, memories coming up?
When have I felt this before?
What about my situation could be contributing to this feeling?
What am I finding myself doing in response to this feeling? What
behaviours am I noticing?
What is this feeling trying to communicate to me? Does it highlight
some value or need?
Curiosity is the very first step towards improving our mental health.
Understandingly the “what” can eventually help us understand the “why”
and the patterns that have led to our current difficulties. With this critical
insight, it is much easier to progress towards obtaining the necessary
tools to effectively respond to our feelings and eventually develop a healthier mind and body.
By Keera, provisional psychologist.