Let’s face it, emotions can be daunting sometimes. That’s why we often try to dull our sensory experience to “protect” ourselves from certain emotions. These could be primary emotions that we instinctively perceive as aversive and negative. Or it could be more complex feelings that we judge as potentially threatening.
The instinct to repress such experiences is so overwhelming that we find it very challenging to stop it through sheer will. To fully tap into the information that emotions carry, it may be necessary to engage with a professional who helps to steady the process. This is one of the key roles that a life coach who embodies a holistic approach performs when working on the Emotional Aspect of Being.
So what does this process look like?
In a coaching context, a coach may start by inviting a client to slow down and truly feel the emotions. This is a challenging exercise when a particular emotion is regarded as undesirable or negative. The coach may ask the Client to “stay with her emotions”. The hope is that if clients feel the emotions actively, they may get to know them better and, gradually, become able to use them as an inner compass.
Note the sequence of the process. To learn something about emotions, we first have to feel them. The feeling comes first. Since we can only truly feel our own emotions, we can only learn about them through our own experiences and sensations. Deep empathy that allows us to “feel” other people’s pain or joy would not be possible if we didn’t first experience such states ourselves.
To transform emotional sensations into useful information, it is necessary to develop a vocabulary to describe them. Just like when we learn painting, music, or cooking, we acquire new observation tools that sharpen our senses and allow us to distinguish between stimuli with more granularity and detail. It’s no different with the emotional domain.
Indeed, this is part of our experience from the very beginning. Infants start by distinguishing between “good” and “bad” emotions, and only begin to discern among various ‘negative’ emotions (e.g., anger vs sadness) when they acquire relevant vocabulary. It’s the language that enriches our experience, both what we observe (and label) externally and what we feel (and describe) internally.
By contrast, if my emotional vocabulary remains limited, I will feel frustrated. While not able to spell out the emotions, I may feel that I am under their spell.
Language gives us our power back. Equipped with a richer vocabulary we attain a better understanding of our inner world. There is also an intellectual pleasure when we place a certain precision in our description of emotion.
This process could be facilitated by a professional coach. Should the sensations appear diffuse or too elusive to define, the coach can help the client identify more precise terms and provide a list of options to best match the client’s experience. Often, the ability to fine-tune the quality of the sensory description is experienced as invigorating.
THREE VARIABLES OF DESCRIPTION
Such precision does not merely function as a reference to any “abstract” object but may help trigger certain sensations in the body. And if so, they are not “abstract” at all. This natural connectivity between the emotional experience and its corporal reflection is of great value for further understanding. It is precisely thanks to the somatization of past emotional experiences that it is possible to describe emotions along three variables. These variables are:
- Location of the emotion in the body
- Intensity of the emotion
- Movement (or lack thereof) of the emotion
First, most emotions can be identified alongside physical sensations located within a particular part of the physical body. An entire geography of correlated sensations has been developed to facilitate the description of emotional states.
Secondly, emotional experiences differ in terms of their varying intensity – they are stronger or weaker, barely perceptible, or overwhelming. The observations will, by definition, be subjective since different people will have different sensitivity thresholds. This, in itself, does not represent a hurdle, since we are only interested in the subjective living of the emotion. For those particularly challenged by the task to describe the emotional intensity, certain types of meditation help increase the perceptivity of particular states.
Movement constitutes the third descriptive variable. The English term “emotion”, as used in most languages influenced by Latin, covers a broad semantic field. Ancient Romans used the term “motus” to describe emotions. Since this word was synonymous with all kinds of movement, the same meaning was later expressed with the term “Anima motus”, which denotes the movement of the soul. This etymology underlines the legitimacy of our postulate to add movement as one of the three key variables describing emotional states.
To recap, it is possible to describe each emotion with at least three variables:
- Where it is (location)
- How strong it is (intensity)
- Does it move? (movement)
Let us focus on each of these in detail.
THE GEOGRAPHY OF EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE
An entire atlas has been developed to identify the parts of the human body where specific emotions can be identified.
Here are a couple of examples of (mostly) primary emotions and the corresponding body parts.
- The experience of fear tends to be experienced in the chest, neck, and shoulders, secondarily in the head, the hands, and the abdomen.
- Anger is most easily observable in the head, the hands, and the chest, to a lesser extent in the neck and shoulders.
- Intense sadness is felt mostly in the chest, behind the eyes (the tea ducts), and sometimes through numbness in the legs.
- Shame shows in the cheeks (hence blushing), the neck and shoulders, the chest, and the belly.
- Envy tends to be concentrated at the crown of the head and the nape.
- Anomic anxiety is most felt in the thorax, the belly, neck, shoulders, and head.
- Disgust is experienced predominantly at the back of the mouth (the soft palate), in the abdomen, and to a lesser extent in the chest.
Emotions are experienced with a certain intensity. When emotions are intense, they may cloud other aspects of Being and even temporarily impair our cognitive functions. However, when properly incorporated into our awareness, they provide an impulse to Active Action, a fuel necessary for our survival and growth. In other words, they help us thrive.
Surprising as it may sound, even intense “negative” emotions can become the source of creative forces: sudden fear might alert us to a threat, deep sadness might slow us down to let go of the hurt, and strong anger might be transformed into a real strength. We know from history that great acts of bravery do not arise from relaxed listlessness. And think of those painful breakups or deep loss. Weren’t they the sources of countless, elated, genius works of art and memorable musical compositions?
There is a long list of adjectives that can be used to enrich the description of emotional intensity: sharp, dull, burning, nagging, piercing, tingling, tight, pinching, pressing, cool, hot, stinging, prickly, freezing, itchy, needles and pins, swollen, numb.
Some Clients may benefit from a two-dimensional map, which combines a positive/aversive axis and a hot/cold axis. At New York Life Coaching Institute, we introduce such mnemonic devices to aspiring coaches.
SENSATION OF MOVEMENT
The migration, or the frequency of oscillation are two types of movements. People may experience a given emotion as either motionless or mobile. Sometimes, repetitive, circular, cyclical, or periodic oscillations can be detected. Some of these impressions may relate to direct, physiological sensations. Other people, however, may exhibit higher sensitivity to experiencing the flow of Qi, or what can be broadly described as “the energy of life”. In other cases, it is experienced as a play of forces inside the body. We are free to determine the metaphorical universe and describe our inner states in a way that best resonates with our subjective experience.
Here’s a suggested list of terms describing emotions’ movement in the body:
Examples of Local oscillation – radiating, throbbing, pulsating, rubbing, squeezing, penetrating, stretching, expanding, shrinking, splitting, fading, opening, contracting, squirming, twitching, flapping, fidgeting, and surging.
Examples of Displacement – rising, sinking, dropping, shifting, circulating, moving, stirring, migrating, flowing, pendulating, roaming, waving, swinging, swaying, relocating, and jumping.
RESISTANCE TO EXPERIENCING EMOTIONS
It is quite common to encounter resistance to experiencing emotion. This is often reflected in the language. Some coaching clients use phraseology that objectifies them, thus bestowing on the emotion the role of “deciding” for them. For example:
“The fear blocks me from doing XYZ.”
This is an interesting case of projection over emotion. What is actually happening is that this client is blocking the emotion of fear from circulating through the body. But by blocking it, s/he will influence one of the three variables used to describe the emotion (in this case, oscillation frequency), potentially losing valuable information in the process.
How to help the client ‘get in touch’ with the emotional experience? Certainly, sharpening the vocabulary range is a step in the right direction.
Secondly, validation is always helpful, and ‘mirroring’ in particular can be used to underline the semantic content employed by the client. For example:
CLIENT: “It’s like a knot in my stomach.”
COACH: hmm… a knot in your stomach…
Clients should be encouraged to “stay” with the emotion and breathe slowly, especially if any tightness is experienced. Sometimes, the identification of bodily-emotional states benefits from self-soothing touch.
A WORD OF CAUTION
Working with the Emotional Aspect of Being requires a certain finesse. Development of these skills facilitates clients’ neutral reappraisal of emotional experiences, but certain clients may respond strongly to past trauma that surfaces during this exercise. The coach should know how to spot these signs and refrain from probing further unless they are also trained to work with trauma recovery. The priority is to ensure that the client feels safe during the process.
If the client begins to become emotional, the coach should open the space for emotional expression and breathe deeply and audibly, allowing the client to synchronize her breathing with the coach. The coach can guide the client to bring their attention to some pleasant objects in the room, noticing the colors and shapes, for the client to come back to the physical senses.
It’s also advisable to help the client identify a spot in the body that feels contracting, and another part that feels more open and relaxed, and then shift their attention between these opposite poles:open-tight-open.
At New York Life Coaching Institute, we teach many techniques that increase the Client’s emotional awareness and intelligence.
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