– By Eric Falcon
We spend a great deal of our lives in pursuit of desirable circumstances, possessions, and achievements, yet what we really seek at the deepest level are the emotional states, such as fulfillment or happiness, that we believe these things will bring us.
Something we probably all know, but usually forget to acknowledge however, is that we have the power to consciously evoke any emotional state within ourselves, whenever we choose to. This is what’s known as the ‘proactive’ context for experiencing emotions.
In contrast to this is the far more common ‘passive’ context for experiencing emotions – we’re more used to emotions arising within us as primarily passive reactions to stimuli. When stimuli occur, such as external circumstances or internal thoughts, various kinds of emotions passively and spontaneously arise in us in response, depending on the severity or impact of the events or thoughts.
However, it’s possible to experience emotions in a proactive manner – it’s as simple as making the choice to do so. We can affect a change in how we feel as quickly as we’re able to consciously change the object of our mental focus.
Here’s a quick demonstration of this: Wherever you are right now, take five seconds to stop and invoke an emotion of gratitude within yourself…Actively feel inside yourself a deep-seated feeling of thankfulness to God or to the universe, for some happy experience that you can remember from your past, or for a desirable circumstance in your life now…
Okay, now come back. If you participated in this demo, notice how quickly and easily that you were able to create an emotional state – assisted by choosing a particular object of focus. You can just as easily invoke in yourself any other empowering emotion, such as fulfillment, determination, confidence, joy, freedom, etc, merely by bringing to mind a strong enough memory from your past, or a thought from your imagination, which corresponds to the emotional state you wish to experience. happiness, freedom, fun, joy, etc.
The good news is that we don’t have to wait until we’ve acquired or attained any particular possession or circumstance in order to experience empowering emotional states. We can experience these emotions anytime we desire, simply by invoking them within ourselves.
The practice of proactively invoking positive emotions in ourselves is a special and unique human capability; the reward of proactively feeling good is in the act itself. It is simultaneously both a means and an end. It is superior to any pill and has no negative side effects.
I believe I’ve identified four of the most common psychological barriers that inhibit people from proactively cultivating empowering emotions within themselves. As I briefly examine these factors, I’ll dispel the misperceptions that are inherent in each of them. The four factors are:
a. Lack of ‘deservedness’
b. Lack of ‘permission’
c. The “It seems awkward” factor
d. The “It seems inauthentic and contrived” factor
a. Lack of ‘deservedness’ The basic unconscious belief most of us have regarding ‘deservedness’ goes something like this: “When people do good things, only then do they deserve to feel good. And when people do bad things, they not only don’t deserve to feel good, but they should feel bad…or they should be made to feel bad.” For the most part, this is a useful belief that helps us conceive of how social groups and societies in general can remain civil and avoid degenerating into lawlessness.
As we were growing up and learning to fit in socially, we often unconsciously used good and bad feelings as rewards and punishments for ourselves – psychologists say we internalize the values of our parents, teachers, and peers in this manner. As adults we often still continue to do this. Embarrassment, humiliation, regret, self-condemnation, etc. – these emotions all arise from, at least in part, our internal beliefs about acceptable and unacceptable societal behavior.
We run into a conflict with this internal belief if we attempt to proactively invoke good feelings in ourselves when we lack something that makes us feel like we deserve to experience those good feelings – such as something special that we’ve received or something deserving that we know we’ve done. Furthermore, when the slightest memory enters our minds of something undeserving that we’ve done in the past, there’s a part of us that quickly summons up a sour feeling within us – remember, it’s that internal reward and punishment thing, which most of us have deeply ingrained inside of us.
But given the many great benefits of the practice of invoking positive emotions in ourselves, it is worth the effort to break out of the limits of our beliefs about deservedness, which needlessly inhibit us emotionally.
First of all, realize that the world will not fall apart if people start letting themselves feel good without a reason, or without having done something special to deserve it. It might even help the world to be a better place, actually – don’t people tend to behave a little better and treat others a little nicer when they’re feeling good, compared to when they’re not…? Sometimes unconscious beliefs can become tangled up in our minds and result in a distorted conclusion about reality, like this one.
Secondly, simply decide to no longer let the issue of ‘deservedness vs undeservedness’ be a major factor that dictates when you’re allowed to feel good. We must develop the flexibility to let go of self-made psychological limitations, in situations where they fail to serve our best interests, or the best interests of anyone else for that matter.
Lastly, determine to completely forgive yourself for all of your past mistakes. Also, acknowledge and then release all feelings of regret and self-condemnation, whenever you sense these arising within you. Additionally, make a commitment to apply forgiveness to yourself liberally for any future mistakes. Resolve to learn whatever insights or life lessons you can, throughout your life, from all of your mistakes and setbacks. Focus on learning, rather than on self-condemning, always.
b. Lack of ‘permission’ We unconsciously seek out subtle cues from others around us that let us know what things are socially permissible and what things aren’t. We’re all familiar with the concept of peer pressure – while it’s usually most evident among teenagers in high school, the phenomenon extends far into adulthood for most people. The social groups we choose to identify with can influence everything from our clothing styles, behaviors, mannerisms, and language, to our attitudes and beliefs.
An internal conflict can arise in us when we wish to adopt a new empowering habit or behavior, which is not commonly practiced, or favorably acknowledged, by our peers, our social group, or our society. It can feel somehow as if we lack permission, when we attempt to implement a new and unconventional attitude or behavior.
The way to overcome this mental reservation is to, first of all, recognize it. Simply identifying and exposing a limiting or disempowering belief begins to lessen its control over us. Then, decide to acknowledge and stay focused primarily on the positive benefits of the new habit or behavior you’d like to acquire – e.g., proactively invoking empowering emotions.
Secondly, make a commitment to begin to take more responsibility for, and active control over, your attitudes, beliefs, and actions. Realize that you no longer need to unconsciously seek for permission from external sources, to believe and act in ways you know are healthy and self-empowering – instead, give it to yourself.
Finally, if hearing it stated directly from someone can be of help, then here it is from me: “I give you permission to proactively invoke positive emotions in yourself, whenever you’d like to.”
c. The “It seems awkward” factor Awkwardness and discomfort typically arise whenever we attempt something that’s completely new or different than what we’re used to. So also, the practice of proactively invoking positive emotions can generate discomfort and internal resistance if this isn’t something that we’re accustomed to yet.
The way to overcome this initial awkwardness and discomfort is through good old-fashioned perseverance, patience, and repeated practice. With time and conditioning, what seemed awkward and uncomfortable at first can begin to feel normal and natural.
Our greatest opportunities for personal and spiritual development usually exist outside of our comfort zones. We have to be willing to venture into uncomfortable areas on occasion, and try new things which might feel uncomfortable at first, if we wish to grow and mature as persons and become all that we’re capable of being.
Learning to create more joy and happiness in our lives, in ways that are sustainable, and not always dependent on external circumstances, is an important step of growth and maturity for any human being. Teaching others whom we love how to do this is another significant step, as well.
d. The “It seems inauthentic and contrived” factor Another major psychological barrier that many of us have regarding proactively invoking positive emotions is that “it sometimes feels inauthentic and contrived.”
If proactively creating positive emotions in yourself like joy or gratitude initially feels ‘artificial’ or ‘contrived’ to you, realize that this is likely just another part of the general discomfort that typically can accompany something new and unfamiliar that you’re trying out for the first time.
For most of your life you have probably only been accustomed to experiencing emotions in a passive context – as spontaneous reactions to external circumstances or internal thoughts. As a result, ‘spontaneous’ is likely equated with normal and natural to you; anything else, therefore, feels ‘artificial’ and ‘contrived.’
This is due simply to an unconscious belief that many of us have adopted over time, however; we can just as easily adopt a different attitude towards the concept of proactively invoking emotions, if we choose to.
Regardless of how different or uncomfortable it can initially seem to invoke empowering emotions in ourselves, we can decide to focus on the many benefits that this practice has to offer, and determine that it is worth the effort to move beyond any initial feelings of hesitation that arise.
Here’s something else to consider: most of us think that we know ourselves far better than we actually do. Nearly every one of us however acquires certain social masks, emotional armor, and defensive attitudes and behaviors over the years, which can obscure who we really are – beneath all those layers of protection. Distinguishing between what is really part of our authentic selves and what isn’t, is not as straightforward as it might seem to be.
Feelings can serve as psychological barriers of protection, as well – and some of us can become so accustomed to feelings of chronic boredom, anxiety, or frustration that we may begin to “own” these emotional states and associate them with our identities. Any significant departure from the baseline emotional states that we’ve become accustomed to can potentially seem to be ‘inauthentic,’ ‘artificial,’ and ‘contrived’ in our minds.
I’m not advocating years of psychotherapy to unmask and shed all the superficial layers of your personality which might exist, but at least realize that humans are complex creatures and very few of us know ourselves as well as we assume we do.
In matters like this where we realize our discernment and judgment may be obscured or unreliable, it becomes important for us to turn to life principles to help guide our choices and actions. In addition, looking to our trusted role models and mentors, who can serve as examples, can be helpful as well.
When pilots fly through clouds or stormy weather, they know to trust their instruments for accurate guidance and information, rather than to rely on information coming from their senses and perceptions, which can be distorted and misleading. Likewise, we can learn to trust in the principles that we’ve committed to in advance, as well turn to the examples of our role models and mentors, for guidance in situations when our perceptions and judgments may potentially be compromised and in doubt.
An important guiding principle, taught by great spiritual teachers and sages for centuries, is that the kind of happiness and fulfillment which comes from within ourselves, independent of external circumstances, is the kind that is the most enduring, most ‘authentic,’ and most worthy of seeking in life.
Reliance on this ancient principle can serve to reassure and empower us in our practice of creating good feelings in ourselves, and it can also help us move past our discomfort and hesitation, as well as any sense of ‘inauthenticity,’ which may arise in our initial attempts at this.
I don’t recommend that we ever ignore or suppress our ‘reactive,’ or disempowering, feelings that arise spontaneously in us. Rather, when a disempowering reactive feeling arises in us we can choose to merely stay aware of it; as well as choose to not indulge in, ‘stay stuck in,’ or amplify it.
Throughout life there are occasions when we find ourselves experiencing reactive feelings such as anger, discouragement, or anxiousness, in response to events, circumstances, and thoughts. Whenever such reactive feelings may appear, our initial approach can be to simply notice them, accept them fully, and allow them to occur. Also, as we remain present, it can help to remember to breathe deeply and fully.
After these reactive feelings have run their natural course, we can then let them simply fall away, naturally and easily on their own. Our role is to learn to avoid indulging in, or amplifying, these kinds of feelings when they arise and as they run their course. Afterwards, we can then gradually and steadily begin to allow feelings of joy and gratitude into our lives again.
You may have heard the aphorism, “Happiness is everyone’s birthright.” I like to believe this is true; but whether it’s true or not, the fact of the matter is that you alone are the one who determines, or allows, the feelings that you experience in your life; just as you alone are the one who determines your attitude in life. Furthermore, no one and nothing can ever make us feel a certain way, nor ever take any feeling away from us…unless we permit it, of course.
You can choose to continue going through life allowing your attitudes and emotions to be solely determined by the circumstances of the moment. Or you can learn to invoke in yourself feelings of happiness, strength, and empowerment periodically, regardless of the external circumstances. Like in many areas of life, you can choose the role of the victim or you can chose to take responsibility and ownership wherever possible. Life will accommodate either choice.
Victor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist who spent three years in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. After his release, Frankl proclaimed to the world that our ability to determine our own attitude, regardless of the external circumstances, is unique among human qualities, since it is the sole thing we possess that can never be taken from us. We can have everything else stripped from us, except this.
Frankl found this out first-hand, since during his imprisonment he was stripped of his social position, wealth, home, possessions, family, and freedom; as well as even basic necessities like access to proper food, water, and shelter. Despite this all, he was able to observe, “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances…”
We each have the keys to our own heaven and our own hell – the keys are the choices we make regarding our attitudes and the choices we make regarding our feelings. The knowledge that we can choose our feelings as well as our attitudes, independent of our external circumstances, is the greatest and most important key of all.
Happiness…is the choice I wish to make despite
the obstacles that might sometimes be strewn in my path…
© Eric Falcon 2010