Emotions, language and who we choose to be

Hello and welcome to this month’s neuro blog! And I promise, no more about paying attention! I appreciate that four articles – fascinating though they were, weren’t they? – on that topic is enough. But before we move on, wasn’t it interesting to see how neuroscience – and notably understanding how our brains process stimuli, including social cues – can validate what we have empirically known for a while? That is to say 1) that our perception of reality is strictly individual, 2) that, as a result, disparity of view (and consequently disagreement and potentially conflict) is in fact the norm, 3) that cultivating self-awareness will make us less upsettable (a word invented by the renowned psychologist and caustic writer Albert Ellis), and 4) that we must therefore challenge our views and seek to broaden our horizons by a) asking open and linked questions, b) really listening and c) using active listening techniques like paraphrasing so that others may open their inner landscape to us.

That seems like a good basis for furthering my understanding of how our brains work with a view to use it for myself, friends and family, and in my coaching practice to support behaviour change.

What these last months’ blog posts were also about is the subjective nature of human experience. I’d like to explore this more today. If you are intrigued, please consider the two sentences below:
1.    I feel frustrated
2.    I am frustrated

Are they the same? Say them out loud please. Did you notice any difference in your body as you said one versus the other? Let’s go back, yet again, to the notion of brain-as-meaning-making-organ (read about what the brain is for). A stimulus triggers the emotion of frustration. When you tell yourself ‘I feel frustrated’, you are simply noticing the emotion. In contrast, the statement ‘I am frustrated’ is the result of the emotion being processed, not simply mentioned: ‘I am frustrated’ says something about your identity. With ‘I feel frustrated’, your language is connected to your limbic brain, that seat of all impermanent emotions. With ‘I am frustrated’, your language stems from a cortical process to deliver a much more meaningful statement. With ‘I feel frustrated’, the emotion will be allowed to do what emotions do – pass, as emotions are fleeting, transient (which we deplore when it comes to positive emotions). With ‘I am frustrated’, you install the emotion: it has taken over, it has become you. As a result, it will stick around.

The bottom line: tell yourself ‘I am happy’ and ‘I feel irritated’. Rely on the impermanence of emotions for negative feelings and process the positive ones so that they linger. Just like you can choose what you pay attention to, you can also choose to leverage language to influence your emotional reality. Do you recall that I mentioned that paying attention is good for motivation? Well, so is this little language trick: now please say out loud ‘I feel motivated’ and then ‘I am motivated’. Which sentence feels like the stronger pull…? What this also means is that we don’t need to wait to feel motivated (as many of us do when we delay a piece of work): we can just be motivated. Since our reality emerges from what we tell ourselves, then we can pick what we tell ourselves we are.

Being French-educated, I learnt early on about the French philosopher Descartes’s “cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am). I propose instead: ‘what I feel passes, what I say I am becomes me‘. I know, it’s less sharp!

If you’d like to tell me about your behaviour and/or your brain, you will find me at alexandra@coachingforinspiration.com. In the meantime, relax and let your brain look after you!

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