In her book, How to Do the Work, Dr. Nicole LePera, says that “the fundamental aspect of emotional maturity is the ability to be aware of and regulate our emotions in order to allow others to express themselves. Or simply the ability to tolerate all of our emotions without losing control….” And yet, when these emotions often are triggered by unseen forces within us like past negative experiences and traumas, how can we do this? Here is a four step process that has helped me.
First, you have to develop an awareness of what your emotions actually feel like in your body and what past experiences trigger them. Michael Brown’s, The Presence Process, provides one good framework. In it, Brown describes a process of developing a “felt-perception” of our triggered states and an awareness of the origins of these emotions. By becoming aware of them in our bodies, we can recognized that they are imprints from the past and we can refocus on the present. Brown calls this painful emotion “charged emotion” and teaches a process for integrating this charged emotion. By doing so, we learn to leave trauma in the past and not let it direct our thinking and actions.
Brown also makes the important point that the people or events (“the messengers”) that bring up these charged emotions are not the cause of the charged emotions and we cannot integrate and have peace simply by avoiding the triggers. Rather we have to learn that when we are “triggered” we project our past traumas onto the messenger, whoever or whatever it is. The solution, is to learn to integrate and resolve the charged emotion.
When we have a fight with someone over something small, this is what usually has happened: we have projected past traumas onto that person. The key is to learn to be aware of these feelings, put them in their proper place (“a ghost of the past”) and then through time heal them. In a previous post, I talk about resolving inter-relational conflict.
Peter Levine, in his book “Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma” also describes a process to develop a “felt sense” of trauma similar to that described by Brown and then to discharge the energy associated with the trauma. Developing the perception of when you are being “triggered” or “hijacked” is the most difficult part of the process of emotional maturity and will take some time. I suggest reading both of these books and following a process similar to what they outline. It is important to note that Waking the Tiger explicitly deals with shock trauma, the trauma caused by deeply disturbing events, as opposed to developmental trauma.
On a daily basis, meditation and journaling can help you identify how emotions feel in your body. When you are going through a tough time and feel your emotions whirring inside of you, sit quietly and meditate for fifteen minutes or twenty minutes and really try to feel how these emotions feel in your body. Does your stomach feel tight? Is it your chest? Do you feel a knot or a ball? Is your head humming? Try to identify how and where you feel these emotions and what their source is. For instance, a ball in the pit of your stomach might be a feeling that you are not safe. Where does this come from? Can you remember other times when you felt this? Look particularly at your childhood and other traumatic events in your life.
After meditating, journaling can help you further clarify your thinking. You will find that as you journal over several days, your thoughts may evolve and you may gain additional clarity. A difficult time may take days, weeks, or months of journaling. However, as you do it, express your thoughts about your feelings and their possible sources. Also, try to see them objectively, as if you were a third person. In this process, focus on what you were feeling not on blaming someone else. Your goal here is to work on you and what you can control.
Second, when you have a fight or conflict with another person, do a post mortem and try to understand what feelings were being triggered in you and why. As Krishnamurti says , your relationships are “the mirror in which you will see, not by closing your eyes, or going off into the woods and thinking up some dreams.”
Third, as you get better at understanding the relationship between the emotions, the traumas that lie underneath them, and triggers, you will be able to witness what is happening to you during a conflict.
Fourth, finally as you begin to understand yourself better you will be able to notice physical sensations in your body associated with your traumas, understand that they have the potential to allow the most harmless of situations to trigger them, and breath deeply, acknowledge them and prevent them from taking over. Substituting a positive narrative or image helps too.
Life presents all of us with challenges and some more than others. However, we have to learn to identify the ghosts of the past and how they affect us and then unchain ourselves from them. In doing so, we acknowledge that they happened but take full responsibility for our own healing and for not letting them dictate our present actions.
You will stumble, fail and backslide in this process. This is normal. The mechanisms that store trauma evolved to help protect us from predators by making traumatic events very vivid and powerful. As a result, they will often be set in motion before our conscious mind is aware of them. However, our gift as humans is the ability to develop consciousness. Through consciousness and awareness, we can move past these animal instincts.
Eventually, with practice, we can learn to be aware of our emotions, in control of our responses, attuned to the emotions of others, and able to effectively discharge the energy created by the emotions. This is emotional maturity.