Reflecting on the A-Z of Emotions
About the article
We all have feelings that we try to avoid experiencing or just ‘bottle up’. Being able to register and name all our emotions, reflect on them, and respond appropriately helps us to foster and sustain meaningful, mutually supportive relationships. First published on the Iniva website.
We know that becoming more psychologically minded and emotionally aware is necessary if we are to manage the complexities of everyday life more effectively and with greater compassion both individually and collectively. Simply put, emotional intelligence means that we do not rely too heavily on repressing, denying, minimising or distracting ourselves from our feelings. We need to be able to name them and to have developed our capacities to contain and reflect on them so that we are less inclined to act out on them. Emotional intelligence also depends on understanding our own processes, that is, how feelings can consciously and unconsciously influence our thinking and our perceptions of ourselves, of others and of the world around us. This, in turn, affects the core beliefs we all develop about who we are and what our possibilities for the future might be.
Being able to step back when an emotional ‘hot spot’ is activated gives us the space we need to gauge whether our feelings – or their intensity – are in keeping with the circumstances. At the same time, checking whether there is a more complex emotional response under the surface is important. For instance, most of us recognise when we’re angry but it’s useful to delve deeper and face up to what can be quite uncomfortable feelings that could lie underneath which we might be uneasy about acknowledging even in the privacy of our own thoughts.
Chila Burman’s image illustrating ‘A is for Anger’ presents a swirling, energised mashup of painted and collaged textures, patterns, torn fabric pieces and words including ‘angry’, ‘ripped’ and ‘battle’. Look more closely and you’ll see in tiny script ‘bad’ near to the bottom of the large letter ‘A’ on the right-hand side and on the furthest outer right edge of the image itself, midway down, in faint white text on yellow is the word ‘damage’. Chila Burman’s artwork creates a portrait of the intense churn of feelings that can overtake us when we’re in the throes of anger and hints at the damage unbridled expression can cause.
Chila Burman’s artwork creates a portrait of the intense churn of feelings that can overtake us when we’re in the throes of anger and hints at the damage unbridled expression can cause.
Guilt, fear, humiliation, or shame can be hidden by anger however these mental states are usually painful to admit to. It can be tempting to stay with the surface feeling of anger as it often comes with a secondary gain: we can, for example, experience a certain type of enjoyment in being ‘morally superior’ or ‘the wronged one’. Anger may also be accompanied by a surge of omnipotence – those ‘we know we’re right!’ moments. Having the strength of mind to forego this heady rush of triumph means that we give ourselves the chance to get in touch with more vulnerable-making feelings which we can then reflect on. Anger isn’t ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ although after the feelings subside, we can certainly feel ‘bad’ as Chila Burman’s artwork shows us. Anger is a communication which lets us know that there is something that needs to be addressed whether it be a sense that our personal space hasn’t been respected or we are misunderstood or being treated exploitatively or unfairly and so on. This brings us to the R’s of emotion (Adapted from Open University, Open Learn Works):
- being aware of and able to register that we are having feelings,
recognising and naming them, as well as having some understanding of
others’ feelings (empathy)
- being able to reflect upon and manage our feelings
- being able to respond appropriately and repair and re-build when a relationship breaks down or misunderstandings lead to conflict
Experiencing a strong, uncomfortable or unpleasant reaction to another should also give us pause for thought. In such instances, we may be seeing ‘writ large’ what we do not want to own in ourselves. Again, we can check in with ourselves by asking why is this person (or group) arousing such a strong reaction? Is there something of me in what I’m reacting to? Using our self-talk like this is not only useful in our quest for self-knowledge – it also helps us to stop projecting onto others what we dislike in ourselves and enables us to stay in a more reflective rather than reactive space.
As babies and young children, none of us possess the cognitive capacities to name feelings or give meaning to our experiences. Infancy and early childhood are marked by ‘felt experiences’ which cannot be communicated verbally but are instead acted out through facial expressions, bodily movements and sounds designed to draw adults’ attention. It takes time to develop the language to name feelings and the capacity to contain them instead of being ambushed or overwhelmed by them. Parents or carers and other adults perform these functions on behalf of the baby or young child until such time when they can take them over.
We all have feelings that are harder to own, perhaps because they still carry a painful emotional charge from infancy or because we grew up in an environment where we picked up the unspoken message that certain feelings were ‘not allowed’. This refers to how unconscious or unacknowledged and unprocessed feelings in a parent’s history can colour how that parent reacts to certain emotions. For example, a parent who has gone through a significant loss which they found too painful to mourn might find a child’s sadness or tears unbearable and may give out the signal that never giving way to tears is a strength to be admired. Building emotional intelligence is not a finite exercise but continues throughout life. Our strongest feelings are generally triggered within a relational context, one which is usually unavoidably complex because that’s just how life is! The relational field encompasses our conscious and unconscious relationships with others, with our own self (or, more accurately, our ‘selves’ or self-parts as they are also called) and with the world of politics, culture, ideologies and beliefs.
As well as providing a starting point for emotional learning, looking at art can further develop our capacity to think symbolically and helps us to become more aware of layers of meaning. For instance, Shiraz Bayjoo’s image illustrating Insecure from our set of cards entitled A-Z of Emotions, is a digitised collage combining acrylic ink on paper and an archival lithograph.
Read more symbolically, the manatee’s possible fate can be a representation of how a marginalised or ‘othered’ individual or community can feel.
Shiraz’s artwork features a lithographic print of a manatee on its own in deep waters. Manatees are more commonly known as sea cows and are large, gentle mammals that, as a result of conservation efforts, have been moved from the ‘endangered’ category of species at risk of extinction to ‘threatened’, meaning that their future still remains very insecure. Applying this theme more widely, we might ask, ’In what situations could difficult feelings threaten to overwhelm us, placing our sense of internal security at risk?’ Read more symbolically, the manatee’s possible fate can be a
representation of how a marginalised or ‘othered’ individual or community can feel as if their very emotional survival cannot be guaranteed.
The A to Z of Emotions explores the opposite feeling states as well. For example, ‘Insecure’ is paired with ‘Feeling Confident’. We feel confident when we are assured that we ‘count’ for others and we know that our place in the world is secure. However, confidence, like any of our experiential states, is not usually a constant. It can ebb and flow, depending on who we are with, the particular circumstances, how we imagine we are perceived by others, and our core beliefs about our self. It is usually easier to sustain our confidence when we are around people with whom we are comfortable and who accept us for who we are.
The artwork featured in the A to Z of Emotions spans drawing, collage, painting, and digital montage. These images can be used as inspiration for making your own ‘Dictionary of Emotions’ or introducing this as an activity in a therapy session, the classroom, or a workshop. Choose the emotions to feature and decorate letters of the alphabet or create illustrations and write examples of when these emotions are in play. This art task can support personal reflection or open discussion if you are working with therapy clients, students, or workshop participants. If approached with curiosity rather than judgement, understanding what triggers our feelings, how we manage them, and what they can tell us is always a fascinating process!
Lyn French, Director of A Space
Lyn French is the Director of A Space. She first trained in art (MA Goldsmiths) with a focus on conceptual art practice before completing an art therapy training and a psychoanalytic psychotherapy training. She was a staff member on the Birkbeck MSc in Counselling & Psychotherapy with Children + Adolescents for over 10 years and has co-edited two books in the field as well as contributing to the production of Iniva’s emotional learning cards.