Self-awareness is the cornerstone of emotional intelligence. Here’s why: if you are not aware of your own emotions, you will have trouble regulating them because you won’t notice the signs that tell you when a strong emotional surge is coming. You will also have trouble ‘reading’ and understanding emotions in other people because the neural circuits we use in expressing our own emotions are the same ones we use to recognise emotions in other people.
But self-awareness can be uncomfortable sometimes, if the emotion we are aware that we’re feeling is one that you think you shouldn’t be having. Maybe you’ve been brought up to think that ‘anger is not something that people like us do’, or that ‘fear is for pussies’, or that ‘it’s wrong to feel joy when so many people are suffering in the world’.
One possible way of dealing with offending emotions is to deny that you’re feeling it. The problem with this is that you’ll still feel it – and in fact you may start to run into it everywhere, in the same way that someone who tries to quit smoking by repeatedly telling themselves ‘I must not smoke’ will be more rather than less aware of nicotine cravings.
The way the mind copes with this is to ‘project’ the feelings on to other people. The person in denial about their own anger will see anger in everyone else, even when it’s not there. That way, the anger that they are still noticing does not belong to them – it’s showing up in the behaviour of others (or perhaps the anger that they do feel is justified, because it’s a ‘rational’ response to the behaviour of others, “it’s their fault for making me feel that way”).
This process of ‘projection’ is the root of the oft-repeated saying in personal development circles that “other people are mirrors”, and the more mainstream idea that “what you don’t like about yourself is what you can’t stand in other people”. Of course, other people have their own emotions too, so they’re not *just* mirrors to you, but to the extent that you might be denying your own ‘unacceptable’ emotions then you will see them in others.
You might even unconsciously be acting in such a way as to evoke those emotions in other people for real. So someone might believe that “I never get angry myself” but they do seem to meet a lot of angry people.
Aside from the distortions introduced by denying your own emotions and the injustice of projecting them on to other people who may well be innocent of them in reality, there’s another downside of denying some of your feelings. Emotions are messages. They carry information, about our own needs and wants, and about how other people around us are feeling or may be feeling. When you deny an emotion, you make it harder for yourself to find your way in the world.
So, it’s better to own your emotions, to accept them as yours no matter how uncomfortable they might feel. This is one way that we grow through the restrictions and limits we have acquired as we grow up.
Please note that accepting and owning your emotions is different from acting on them or wallowing in them. You won’t become a ‘bad person’ by acknowledging and owning your feelings when they come up. In fact, it will be easier to be a better person. When you acknowledge an emotion, you are free to move on from it. Here’s another commonplace saying from the personal development world with a core of truth in it: “what you resist, persists.”
Let me leave you with a question. What difference will recognising and owning your emotions make in your life?
Next time: OK, so you’re recognising your emotions and accepting them as yours. But what do you do if you don’t like what they are saying about you?