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January 14, 2022

3 Things we Need to Understand about our Emotions—& How it can Change our Lives.

 

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2022 is here.

Many of us started this year thinking about how we were going to make 2022 different. Thinking about the actions to take and the tangible things to do that we believe are what we need to make things different.

I’m going to propose something radically different. I don’t think you need to take action at all. I don’t think it’s what you’re physically doing that needs to change to make 2022 different. I believe it all needs to start with how you feel about what you’re doing.

You see, although this year has barely started, many of us may already feel like failures. We are looking at the calendar and thinking, I set these resolutions and I couldn’t even make it a few weeks with them. We’ve built up all these emotions around our perceived failures and those emotions can almost paralyze us from moving forward. We are desperate for change yet our feelings and emotions keep us stuck.

We tend to think of our emotions as just a singular thing. We feel hungry. We feel anxious. We feel happy! We’re frightened! And to us, that sums up the emotion.

What we fail to realize is that our emotions have layers to them. And these layers don’t exist independently of each other. They are interwoven and as complex as each and every one of us is.

Emotions have three layers to them. We have affect, meaning, and judgment. Alone, none of these layers holds incredible power. But when we put them together and combine them everything changes.

Affect is the actual physical feeling. It is the sensation we experience that we have named. We all know what hunger or tiredness feels like. Affect by itself is pretty benign. It isn’t what causes us to dread feelings like anxiety or discontent. In fact, in many cases, the affect is an enjoyable thing.

The second layer of emotion is meaning. Meaning is where things start to get messy. As you may expect, meaning is when we assign a meaning to the physical sensation. What happens is that when you become aware of your affect, you begin creating meaning around it.

Where do we derive that meaning from? It doesn’t appear from thin air. We determine the meaning of our affect from previous experiences. We decide what our affect means based upon what we have experienced before. It is what we assign to the affect we experience.

Let’s say you’re feeling anxious. The physical sensations of anxiety may be an upset stomach, your muscles tensing up, and feeling on edge or full of nervous energy. You feel off.

When the affect or the physical sensations hit, we want to immediately determine why we’re feeling this way. So we begin looking to our past to assign the meaning that fits this situation. Perhaps it is, “I’m anxious because something bad is going to happen.” or “I’m anxious because I have done something wrong.”

Yet, those same physical sensations can also be indicative of past positive experiences: “This roller coaster is going to be so much fun!” or “I can’t wait to take off on this flight and begin our vacation.”

We look to our past experiences for the meaning of why we’re feeling the way we feel. That meaning we create (either consciously or not) influences our affect, or what we’re physically feeling. The meaning we create around the affect makes the physical feelings in our body more or less intense.

It isn’t just our personal past experiences that influence the meaning around our affects. We also look to society and culture to determine how we should feel about our affect. The holiday season is a perfect example of this: if I get this gift for Christmas that would make me happy and content! Or if I could just have that someone special to kiss when the clock strikes 12 that will make next year so much better. They will fulfill me!

We’re told that we can find what we need to feel whole and complete outside of ourselves. That we need something beyond ourselves in order to find peace, contentment, and happiness.

That messaging and the fact that we use it to determine the meaning of our affect is so dangerous to our mental well-being. Research shows that our external circumstances only predict about one-third of our happiness; the rest of our ability to be happy is internal.

What is more important than how happy you are in the present moment is your belief that you can be happier in the future. After all, that will be key in the meaning you assign to a future affect. So, if you start with a current affect and color it with the idea that this sensation either will bring happiness in the future or that it won’t prevent future happiness, you’ve already done something to change how you feel about your emotions.

In fact, this ability to be proactive, to feel empowered about what you are capable of doing to create a better life, changes the meaning you assign to your affects and ultimately it changes your emotions altogether.

Being present in your emotions and mindful of the meanings you assign to them allows you to change that meaning and the emotion. You change your emotional setpoint and create a better, more positive place to begin from.

Now, for the hardest part of the three layers of emotion. This is the one we struggle with and the one that can really throw us off course.

Judgment.

It seems like in everything we feel, every choice we make, basically in every aspect of life, there is judgment. Our brains love to create judgments about ourselves, others, and the world around us.

Judgment is part of our emotions as well. It is what happens on the other side of meaning. When we give an affect meaning, our next move is to determine whether that meaning is good or bad, positive or negative, and the list goes on. We’re not content to simply determine how we feel about an emotion, we also want to analyze what we think about what we think!

Judgment is powerful. It can make the meanings we create feel better or worse. It can empower us to keep going or it can stop us dead in our tracks and make us feel completely powerless. Judgment has been known to derail marriages, New Year’s resolutions, and career changes. It has also been what creates social movements, love stories, and so much more.

Judgment colors how we think about ourselves and can change both the meaning and affect. These layers are linked and cannot happen independently of each other, they function together and in order to change how we feel about an affect or change the meaning we assign to it, we must also change how we judge that meaning and affect.

The thoughts you think influence how you feel.

The good news is that judgment is the easiest part of this cycle to recognize and change. We can quickly improve almost any situation by recognizing our judgments and working to change them.

Our emotions aren’t simply what we physically feel—they are also what we think and how we think. Our emotions can be what motivate us to take on momentous changes in life—like going dry for January, going back to school, or changing careers—or they can be what keep us stuck and unhappy in the current circumstances of life.

By understanding these three layers and knowing we can raise our awareness of them and work with each of them to change their meaning, their physicality, and what we think about them can make not just next year different but every year from here on out.

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If you’d like to make 2022 different by changing your relationship with alcohol, The Alcohol Experiment can help you not just change your drinking but change how you feel about it as well. Join the over 300,000 others who have taken this free 30-day break from alcohol!

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