Welcome to Joy Lab!: Welcome to the Joy Lab podcast, where we help you uncover and foster your most joyful self. Your hosts, Dr. Henry Emmons and Dr. Aimee Prasek, bring you the ideal mix of soulful and scientifically sound tools to spark your joy, even when it feels dark. When you're ready to experiment with more joy, combine this podcast with the full Joy Lab program over at JoyLab.coach
Henry: Hello! I'm Henry Emmons and welcome to Joy Lab.
Aimee: And I'm Aimee Prasek. Here at Joy Lab, we infuse science with soul to help you uncover joy. To do that, we focus on building the elements of joy, the positive emotions and inner states that become the building blocks for a joyful life. The element for this episode is hope and resilience because we're working through our Roots of Resilience series, uh, started in episode 53.
We're adding hope to the mix because it not only grows from resilience, but feeds it as well. These two elements mingle together really beautifully. So in this episode we're talking about turning toward the feeling. I want to start off with a quote from psychiatrist Edward Hallowell. He said, "If there is one single emotion at the core of the human experience, it is fear."
So I know that doesn't sound like a hopeful quote to get us started but I think when we sit with that truth, that fear is not the outlier, it's not a sign that we're screwed up or doing something wrong. Instead, it's a sign that we're living this human life.
And fear isn't the only emotion that we can feel really uncomfortable with. There are lots more. And what we're exploring today is the idea that we can be with all of these emotions and in most cases, to roughly quote Robert Frost here,
"The only way out is through."
Henry: That's a great reminder of how central fear can be to our lives. I think a lot of spiritual teachers will even say that fear really is the only negative emotion, and then the others are variations of it. But you know, humans are not alone in experiencing fear. If you've ever seen an animal being threatened or attacked by a predator, it's pretty hard to see that as other than fear. But the difference is that once the threat is gone, their fear subsides. And we humans are able to generate fear and keep it alive, purely with our thinking. I have come to see negative emotions as basically embodied thoughts. In other words, these kind of unpleasant, unconscious thoughts, become lodged in our body and and that's where we feel the emotions.
They're physical. They're in the body. So if it were to just stay a thought, you know, that can be unpleasant too. But it's, it's not gonna cause any real harm. And, you know, maybe it would even allow us to see that it's just a thought and, and then let it go. So, you know, the thought doesn't really take hold. But when it does take hold of our body and it becomes an emotion, a negative emotion, then it can cause some real discomfort, emotional pain, even distress.
Now, this does happen to all of us, of course. And actually I don't think we would want it to be any other way. Sometimes, for example, when I see someone who is on medication, you know, for depression, and if the dose is just a little too high or it's not the right medication, perhaps, they'll often complain of feeling kind of flat, emotionally or dull or just, you know, void of emotions.
And in the short term, that is sometimes a relief if their emotions had been super painful. But over the long term it just leaves you feeling less alive and that's just no good either. So unpleasant emotions are a normal, even a healthy part of life in my view. But they're meant to come, touch us briefly, and then move on. And it's when they are too strong or they just become stagnant, that they can really become troublesome.
So that's why we're, we're suggesting turning toward the feeling, facing it directly, which gives us a chance then to kind of coax the feeling to go on its way.
Aimee: I like that reminder. They're normal and healthy, and completely understand, from personal experience, that turning toward them isn't so easy.
So let's talk about that for a moment. You know, in light of that, I like to sort of shift my thinking around that first knee-jerk reaction of discomfort toward those feelings that arise, I like to think of them like alarm bells, those sensations. They're letting me know to take a beat and prepare myself rather than like an assault that I need to fight or reject. When we interpret those sensations in that way, I think they can then signal us to gather up our resources.
The discomfort can actually remind us that we are wired to move through this and we can train for this as we do here in Joy Lab. Uh, my husband is a firefighter and I think of that. He runs into what a lot of people run away from, and rightly so because they haven't trained for a fire-- he has. So he's prepared. And we can do the same for those inner fires. So that we can move toward them and through them without getting burned.
But before we talk strategy, I want to just pause, to acknowledge, that even though we're wired and made to move through all of these emotions, that obstacle, that difficulty, there's a lot of social cues and cultural messaging for many of us that either brings guilt or shame for having these emotions.
Or there's an instagrammy, sugarcoated image that tells us nothing bad is going to happen if you're doing life right. And we are given this messaging when we're really young. I can't tell you how mad it makes me when I come to the end of those old Disney books that my daughter likes and that I wish I had destroyed.
I don't even know where they came from. They showed up in our bookshelf. I get so mad when the helpless young maiden is saved by the brave prince and then they live happily ever after. No, I guarantee he picked up another Helpless Maiden a few years later. He has a stash of money in a bank across town to buy that new maiden all sorts of gifts. And finally had that first maiden sent away for rich witchcraft. Guaranteed.
So let's be real. Life is not just happily ever afters. Says my pessimistic temperament. And says my practiced optimism, as we talked about last episode, that doesn't mean it can't be joyful. There's a happy ending there. I guess, turned out.
Henry: Right. you know, there is a fine line, isn't there? Between being overprotective with our kids' emotions vs scaring the heck out of them!
Aimee: Oh yes, yes. I find myself teetering in that space very often.
Henry: Yeah. I remember when my sons were little, I would feel actual physical pain when they would, when they were hurting emotionally. And it took me an embarrassing long time to realize that, you know, these little day-to-day hurts that they were struggling with were necessary for when bigger hurts come along later in life.
You know, it's almost like we have an emotional immune system that needs to be developed. And if you live in a bubble, and you don't develop that immunity, you won't have any real protection when something really virulent comes along.
Aimee: Oh, I love that. Our emotional immune system. That makes a lot of sense in these times, I think. That's what we're bolstering up in this episode and every week in Joy Lab really. Um, I, I just wanna read a paragraph from your book, Chemistry of Calm, one of your books, Henry on this. It describes a process we can follow to bolster our emotional immune system and turn toward the feeling.
So here it is:
"You can't prevent feelings from arising any more than you can stop yourself from having thoughts. But you can develop a skillful way of responding to them. You can turn your awareness toward the emotion, not so as to figure out what is going on or what to do about it, but just to have a complete experience of the emotions themselves. This allows the feelings to have their moment of life, but to move through you without getting stuck. In this way, even negative emotions can flow naturally and effortlessly."
So we can break this process, just what we described there, or in your paragraph, Henry, of turning toward the feeling into three steps, I think: embody, observe, and yield.
But before you do those things, we have to have a feeling we're ready to turn to. And remember, we're practicing! So something that feels a bit uncomfortable AND that you can drum up some of that willpower and waypower we talked about two episodes ago,
Henry: Yeah, I like what you were saying, Aimee, about um, negative emotions as alarm bells. You know, these minor emotional upsets that most of us experience, frankly, several times a day. And they're kind of like signals that something is wrong. Something inside of us just feels off. And so we can use these cues to step back and watch what's happening.
Tapping into that observing self that we talked about just in the last episode. And when we do that, we'll usually find that there was a thought that preceded the emotion. Sometimes it happens so fast you can't, you can't make that connection. But usually it's there. And I think with some practice we can learn to change these thoughts or, or just to let them go.
But we actually don't even have to do that. If we can just stay with the feeling, it will have its brief time in the sun and then it'll move along. Now, so remember that we don't wanna start with the big stuff. Like you were saying, Aimee, if we can help it. We, we can start with these little, routine emotions that are happening all the time:
feeling annoyed, feeling a little, you know, stressed or pressured or frustrated. You know, just something to help get us some skills, so that then we'll have a fighting chance to be more skillful when something really difficult or even traumatic comes along. As it will. Eventually. So if you are hit with a really strong an emotion and it just sweeps you away, you can still go back to those grounding strategies that we talked about a a while back, episode 48. And remember that you can still go back over your emotional storm and kind of work with it and process it and learn from it so that the next time something like that comes along, you can really be more prepared for it.
Aimee: Yeah. Our equanimity series, you noted episodes 48 through 52, can be really helpful here. So head back there as well, folks. Also, I'm just thinking about when my husband talks about, when they have dumpster fires. I think about dumpster fire days, like when you're just having a dumpster fire day. But those are like the easy fires that they start with, you know, they're encased in metal.
Those are lots of little opportunities to, to practice those. So we can practice with those Dump dumpster fire days, you know, it's pretty safe, you're feeling those little alarm bells signal. It's like, oh, this is a dumpster fire. I'm gonna focus in on that. So maybe look for those, right? Yeah. When I ever ask him if it was an easy fire or something, he's like, eh, it was a dumpster fire.
You know, it's controlled. We can, um, send the, the newbies out to, to handle it. So I like the practicing with dumpster fires idea. Don't start with the commercial fire with a potato chip factory or something.
Aimee: Whew. Anyway, I'm getting distracted. All Um, Henry, let's describe those three steps as we might move through them in a real situation. So if you can do that going through embody, observe, and yield.
Henry: Yeah. Embody, observe, and yield. So, first I realize that this is not as neat and tidy as it sounds, not, not in real time. You know, emotions can be messy. But it is nice to have something straightforward and accessible that you can turn to just to help you work through that messiness.
So step one, uh, which we call embody, means to tune into your body. Just in a curious, observing sort of way. Where do I feel this emotion or this pain, right now? It can be your first way of just turning your attention to the body, and you will almost always notice that the feeling is experienced somewhere between your neck and your groin. So in the mid part of your body, usually it's in the chest or the belly. Now, you don't need to figure anything out here. You don't need to know where it came from, what it means, what you have to do about it. Just notice. And stay with the feeling. Once you have located it, then try to observe it with more precision.
So first embody, then observe, and again, try to do this as though you're just a casual spectator who's really interested in this whole thing.
So what does it feel like? you can ask yourself if you want, does this feel more like a sadness or fear of some sort, or an anger, or frustration? And does it get stronger or weaker as you keep observing it? What happens if you breathe into it just with curiosity? You don't have to see anything changed, but does it change when you breathe into it?
Or just simply observing it. So again, you can just ask yourself a super simple question to help guide this, "What is happening right now and can I just stay with it?"
So the third step, we call yield, and this is a paradox because it is both the easiest and the hardest of all of these stages. So yielding is hard because generally, we don't want to accept this.
We want to fight it. We wanna find some way to soothe ourselves, or we want to push it away, or you know, push it down somewhere deep inside so we don't have to deal with it. And yielding to it means that we just allow it to be there. We just let it be there. To have its brief life in our body, and then importantly, we allow it to leave, which it will do if we let it.
If we just don't hold on to it and don't fan the flames by thinking about it, it will leave and it usually doesn't even take very long if we just give it our attention.
Aimee: Yielding really is a paradox. I think that's a good way of describing it. And I think yielding can also look different for all of us in some ways. I think we often get too puritanical about what our emotions look like. Now, don't apologize when you cry. Cry like you mean it. We are animals. We have bodies.
We are certainly more than just our bodies, but these emotions really work themselves out in that space. I like to think that, um, the power of this process, when we embody and observe, we'll know what might help us to yield as well. So maybe it's really passive or restful. Or maybe we need to move.
I find myself in that space. Go for a walk, take a kickboxing class, go swimming. Kind of shake it out like a rabbit that just got chased by a coyote. Most animals do that after a really stressful episode. Like help that yielding, kind of shake it off. And you know, the invitation there is don't doubt that wisdom that you have, that super power of interception.
We talked about that in episode 38. Your body will guide you in safe and healthy ways to yield. We just, as you're saying, Henry, we just have to listen and then practice.
Henry: You know, I think of this as being a like trying to make friends, trying to befriend our emotions. You know, we're trying to just develop a normal, healthy relationship with them because again, they are normal and healthy.
Except that sometimes they get stuck or we get locked into these habitual patterns, you know, where we become emotionally reactive. And when that happens, we usually aren't aware of it, it's unconscious. So we're trying to become conscious. We're trying to see them to experience them, to become aware that they are there, those emotions are there. That is the first necessary step in making friends of any kind.
You have to see and acknowledge their presence and then you can take it from there.
Aimee: I like that invitation of befriending our emotions. They are frequent visitors. Uh, we can embody them, observe them, and even though they can be our friends, that yielding reminds us that they shouldn't overstay their welcome. As my grandma would say. Let the door hit 'em where the good Lord split 'em. I don't know if she's talking about emotions, but I'm gonna use it for that.
I think another big takeaway before we close is hopefully the message that we are not alone with these emotions. As Henri Nouwen, a writer, suggested maybe the most personal struggles we have are actually the most universal. I love that. We are not alone in our struggles.
So to close our time, I wanna share a bit more wisdom actually from Henri Nouwen, encouraging us to turn toward these emotions, toward our pain, so that we can transform it.
This is from his book, the Wounded Healer. He wrote:
"When we become aware that we do not have to escape our pains, but that we can mobilize them into a common search for life, those very pains are transformed from expressions of despair into signs of hope."
Thanks for joining us!: Thank you for listening to the Joy Lab podcast. If you enjoy today's show, visit JoyLab.coach to learn more about the full Joy Lab program. Be sure to rate and review us wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts.