Teddy Roosevelt said, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”
Emotion is our body attempting to do exactly that.
It is easy to think of emotions as liabilities or as things that need to be controlled…
The truth is that emotions are indicators.
They indicate to us whether our needs are being met.
In the case of emotions like joy, excitement, peace, or contentment, we know our needs have been or are being met. In the case of emotions like anger, fear, or sadness. we know our needs are not being met. Those needs, met or unmet, can be in any of Maslow’s hierarchy. The emotions don’t necessarily let us know what the need is, merely whether it is being met.
Emotions are a physiological response to various stimuli. These stimuli inform us concerning our need and we have an emotional response. Feelings are how we experience emotions.
Therefore, one important implication is emotions and feelings are never the fault of another person.
I alone am responsible for my emotions and feelings. You may act in a way that stimulates a reaction in me, but that reaction is always tied to my need. You may say something that, two days ago, prompted laughter but today makes me angry. What changed? Often it is nothing more than my need in the moment…
Feelings provide important clues when attempting to identify the needs that are alive in us in any given moment. Problems arise when we aren’t cognizant of this truth. I say something to you and you respond expressing anger. I don’t understand the response is generated by unmet need and perceive it as an attack on me. This compromises my need for safety or understanding or respect and I then experience emotions consistent with the unmet need. This is how conflicts arise. We may continue to respond emotionally to one another without ever considering the cause of the emotions, or we may blame the other for the emotions we feel. It may also be that we oversimplify the need that generates the emotion. In any of these circumstances, great and unnecessary damage can be done.
What if I understood that your attack wasn’t about me? What if I understood that your need for trust (or whatever) suddenly and unexpectedly seemed compromised? Could that understanding allow me to respond in a different way? A more compassionate way? Could I identify with your feelings if I understood the source; your perception that very real needs are not being met? Might I be able to diffuse impending conflict?
With emotions, we either have need that is met and we get to reflect on the beauty of life when things are really good, or we have need that are un-met and we get to go about fulfilling them. What doesn’t seem healthy is expressing emotions and feelings without ever addressing the need that prompts them. I believe most of us are really in the dark concerning how to identify our needs and even worse at figuring out how to meet them. In our culture, we think the right way is to express our feelings and let someone else figure out our need and how to meet it. Ultimately this is a subtle and insidious form of entitlement thinking.
However, if we take responsibility for our emotions and the needs they represent, we get to go about discovering the cause of our emotions and endeavoring to meet the need or needs they reveal. Occasionally we need help from others to meet these needs; in that circumstance we get to make a clear request concerning the meeting of that need. This is a subtle but profound form of personal empowerment.
“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”