Unleashing the Power of Emotional Connection
Using Emotional Connection, author Raphael Cushnir rewires your brain.
Posted Jan 07, 2009
I'm delighted that the blog premieres on Psychology Today just as my book on the same subject, The One Thing Holding You Back: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Connection, hits the stores.
With that it mind, I'd like to begin by describing Emotional Connection, how it works, and why it's essential in getting ourselves unstuck and functioning at our optimal state of performance and well being.
Recently, in preparation for the book, I discussed all that in an interview. Here it is below. Thanks for taking a look. I'm excited to create a dialogue with you on this subject, and would therefore heartily welcome all your questions and comments.
Q: Why is learning about emotional connection so important?
RC: Most of us grow up without ever learning what an emotion is, how to honor it, or how to feel it successfully. In fact, we get harmful messages to the contrary about "counting to ten" and bottling up our powerful feelings.
The truth about emotions is pretty straightforward. They're messages from the brain that are delivered in the body. To receive these messages we need to feel them where they arise.
If we're lonely, for example, the message might show up as a stab in the heart, a tug in the stomach, a welling behind the eyes, or all three. Counterintuitive as it may seem, to feel a painful emotion fully, at the site of its delivery, is the best way to help it diminish. Not feeling the emotion, on the other hand, causes it to grow stronger, remain longer, and mess up our lives in many ways.
Q: Often the message an emotion sends is unhelpful or just plain wrong - like buy this! or be afraid of that! If I pause to feel such emotions fully, aren't I just encouraging them?
RC: No, the opposite is true. To feel an emotion you must become aware of it. With that awareness you're best able to assess its validity. Without it, you're only able to respond to the emotion unconsciously.
Let's say you're afraid of intimacy in romantic relationships. You can't make yourself unafraid by trying not to be. But letting yourself experience the fear will reveal its origins from the past. You'll then be able to address and heal those earlier events. In the process you'll literally recalibrate your emotional response. You'll become less fearful going forward, and only when appropriate.
Q: You say that the one thing holding us back from our greatest possible success and well being is resistance to emotion. How so?
RC: Whenever you're not willing to feel an emotion, your choices and behaviors stem from your avoidance of that emotion. Your resistance then runs your life, and is directly contrary to your overall best interest.
Take the case of a man who's unable to feel inferior. This resistance is likely to make him allergic to criticism. He'll go out of his way to avoid criticism, or to deflect it, and will therefore deny himself the chance to hear potentially crucial feedback.
Q: If avoiding emotions is so detrimental, why do we do it?
RC: Through a glitch in evolution, our brains are wired to perceive challenging emotions as life threatening. We respond the same way to loneliness, for example, as to footsteps in a dark alley.
But emotions are inside of us, so we can't actually run away from them. All we can do, therefore, is attempt to stuff them down or numb ourselves to their affects. In doing so we'll use anything at our disposal - alcohol, cigarettes, porn, gambling, TV, the Internet, shopping, Chunky Monkey. Emotional suppression is a trillion dollar industry with countless tentacles reaching deep into every corner of our culture.
In truth, however, it's not really the substances and activities to which we're addicted. What we're addicted to, at our core, is emotional resistance.
Q: Which emotions do people most commonly resist?
Resistance to jealousy, for example, leads to controlling behavior in relationships. We think that jealousy itself is the source of such behavior when in fact it's the resistance. A person who is able to experience jealousy directly, physically, loses all need to control.
Resistance to lack, likewise, leads to hasty and unwise spending. A person who can tolerate the visceral sensation of not having enough is able to remain patient, and discerning, when presented with possible purchases.
Q: So how do we fix this glitch in evolution, release our habitual resistance, and start connecting to our emotions directly?
RC: The antidote to emotional resistance is acceptance. This means learning to accept your emotions, in your body, as soon as they arise. This acceptance is not mental or theoretical - it's a practical skill.
I call this skill surfing. With internal surfing, your attention is the surfer, and the emotion is the wave. Here's how it works. Suppose someone rejects you. Your initial inclination is to drown your sorrows. Instead, you locate the raw sensation of rejection in your body. Then, you remain attentive to that sensation as it moves and shifts. In the process you ride it out. Soon, much sooner than you'd imagine, this leaves you cleansed, refreshed, and truly over it.
Q: Aren't you making this sound a lot simpler than it is?
RC: No, it really is that simple. But not easy. Often, temporarily, the wave is excruciating. It takes a lot of practice not to bail. After quickly getting to "shore" a few times, however, your motivation grows exponentially.
Another difficulty is that surfing often brings up all kinds of distracting thoughts. In the above example, while surfing, you might simultaneously notice thoughts like, "No wonder I got rejected - I'm a total loser." Or, "I'm better off by myself." Or, "What should I have for dinner?"
Dealing with such thoughts requires noticing them dispassionately, like clouds in the sky, while doing your best to remain on the wave or catching the very next one if you "wipe out."
To be clear, surfing an emotion doesn't mean you must give credence to the thoughts associated with it. In other words, feeling like a loser for a few minutes doesn't mean you ever have to believe that you truly are one.
Q: Besides feeling better as quickly as possible, are there additional benefits to the process of emotional connection?
RC: Whenever we successfully surf an emotion, we also begin to clear ourselves of its backlog.
Staying with the example of rejection, the degree of its sting is connected to how much previously unfelt rejection we currently have on board. With enough surfing it's eventually possible, believe it or not, to experience serious rejection with relatively little upset.
Q: Doesn't this also have something to do with negative patterns?
RC: Negative patterns are caused by stored-up, resisted emotions. They are the way resisted emotions try to get our attention, so that we'll finally feel them.
If you're carrying around a lot of bottled up rejection, to complete our example, you'll actually draw people into your life who are bound to reject you. The good news is that once you surf your way free of that rejection, the pattern loses its power.
Q: What are the greatest stumbling blocks people encounter when trying to release their emotional resistance and begin feeling successfully?
· Analyzing - an attempt to figure our way out of an emotion
"What's going on? Why am I feeling so anxious?"
· Judging - a decision that something's wrong with the emotion, or with us for having it
"This guilt is too much. I shouldn't let him get to me."
· Assessing - excessive focus on how well or poorly we're connecting
"I'm not feeling much of anything. Am I doing this right?"
· Bargaining - conditions placed on how long or how deeply we're willing to feel
"I'll feel this grief fully today, but it better not show up again tomorrow."
Whenever these stumbling blocks occur, the solution is simply to notice them with equanimity and resume surfing as soon as possible.
Q: When people are falling short of their dreams and goals and can't tell which emotions they're resisting, what are they supposed to do?
RC: A big portion of the book is devoted to answering this question. The basic steps are:
1) Find the Flinch - Identify the aspect of moving toward your vision that causes you to pull up short
2) Cut to the Chase - Examine the "worst-case scenario" in going forward and determine how that outcome would make you feel
3) Weather the Storm - Imagine that outcome as a reality, and then connect with the entire range of emotions that arise.
4) Repeat As Necessary - Apply the same course of action if and when you get stuck again in pursuit of your goal, regarding the same emotions from before or any new ones that may arise.
Let's see this in action. A client of mine always wanted to write but never got around to it. His flinch occurred every time he walked past his waiting computer. His worst-case scenario was writing something that his most loved and respected friends thought was pure drek. He realized this would make him feel like an abject failure.
Together, we imagined that he wrote a whole novel, was super excited about it, and gave it to his friends who were promptly horrified. They hated the book vehemently and ridiculed him for writing it.
His emotional response to this imaginary situation was a daunting wave of shame. I guided him to stay on the wave through many challenges and distractions, and after a few minutes it abated.
"Well," he told me, "that really wasn't so bad. I kind of feel like, "Oh, well, at least I tried. That's better than never writing anything."
This process revealed to my client that the one thing holding him back had been his resistance to shame. Repeated a few more times, it released his resistance almost completely. Now, with nothing holding him back, he writes at least thirty minutes a day.
Q: You maintain that emotional resistance is also a health hazard. In what way?
RC: Our emotions want and need to be felt. The harder and longer we keep them locked within, the more they struggle to get out. One result of this battle is stress, which is proven to be a leading cause of serious illness. Another result is the depletion of our life energy, which quickly turns into depression.
Q: You also tout emotional connection as an effective way to end addictions and compulsions. Can you describe how that works?
RC: All addictions and compulsions, as I mentioned earlier, are really about resisting emotions. Once we connect with those emotions, addictions and compulsions lose both their purpose and power.
If you're unwilling to feel disappointment, for instance, you might flop on the couch every week, eat popcorn, watch American Idol and snicker at all the contestants. But once you become willing to experience disappointment, both old and new, you might actually sign up for the Open Mike Night at your local pub.
Or if you're unwilling to feel distrust, you might check your spouse's email over and over. You might even be convinced that you're doing this precisely because you distrust. But once you become willing to feel your distrust directly, your need for hyper vigilance would cease. Instead, you could then choose to talk openly with your spouse about the feeling. Or, if your spouse truly is untrustworthy, you might finally be able to move onto a more healthy relationship.
Q: In Chapter Two, you say that men need emotional connection even more than women. But most men don't like anything remotely "touchy feely." So how do you get around that?
RC: Men in our society have been conditioned to believe that connecting to emotions is a sign of weakness. Yet this is a losing strategy, because wherever emotions are disparaged or denied, they run the show even more forcefully from behind the scenes.
Consider the world of corporate management. A manager who won't allow himself to feel stupid will often feign expertise and make deals that are indeed stupid. A manager who's resistant to boredom will often gloss over lengthy reports and remain ignorant of critical information.
Learning to spot such emotional resistance in others provides a unique competitive edge. Learning to spot and release it within oneself is even more powerful. Plus, one's own emotional connection requires no outward expression and therefore no one else needs to know about it. Men love that!
Q: You draw a big distinction between emotional connection and having an emotional orientation. What's the difference?
RC: Many people talk, write, and even obsess about their emotions without ever actually feeling them. On the surface these people seem emotion-friendly, but in truth they're as resistant as the greatest stoic.
Consider two friends who go over every detail of a recent slight they recently endured. Instead of surfing whatever anger and hurt is present, and resolving the annoyance in just a couple of minutes, they prolong it with lengthy conversation about the emotions. All the while, the emotions themselves are left unattended, unfelt, and festering.
It's also worth pointing out that many counselors and therapists enable such behavior. They might consistently ask variations of the famous question, "And how does that make you feel?" without ever providing the time, space, and instruction necessary for the clients to actually connect with those emotions.
Such therapists aren't trained to feel emotions directly themselves, and therefore can't offer the skill to their clients. Ask potential therapists to describe exactly what if means to feel emotions directly. The quality of their answer will be a great indicator of your future therapeutic success.
Q: Your suggestion to "Feel first, think later" seems like the exact opposite of what parents, bosses, and the world as a whole expect of us. How can we possibly function well if we're always stopping to pay attention to our emotions?
RC: To be specific, my advice is not to act out or somehow become victims to our emotions at any point. Let's use anger as an example. Acting out anger might mean yelling, which is rarely helpful. Becoming a victim to anger might mean fixating upon it, and stoking it, rather than just surfing it out of your system quickly.
What I'm suggesting is simply to recognize and connect with your emotions before addressing any important issue. Here's the reason: When you try to think your way out of a problem before feeling the emotions already arisen within you in regard to that problem, your thoughts can't be trusted.
You might, for example, resist the feeling of hatred for another person because you've been taught that it's wrong. But feelings are never right or wrong; they just are. So the first whiff of hate might kick up a thought like, "I shouldn't feel that way about him. He doesn't know any better."
Such a statement may be true, and even seem helpful, but coming prior to emotional connection it would really be a sophisticated attempt to shield you from the hate. If you left it at that and moved on, an unsurfed wave of hatred would remain to wreak havoc in your core.
Remember: feelings that arise in your body stay in your body unless and until you're willing to feel them.
Q: Doesn't your idea of feeling all emotions, even negative ones like jealously and resentment, contrast with the message of The Secret? Wasn't that idea to stay focused on the positive?
RC: The perspective put forth in "The Secret" and similar books is that we must uplift "negative" emotions into more positive states or else we'll attract more negativity. What I'm saying is that all emotions are valid and need to be felt, in order to receive their message and allow them to depart. The only way to shift from a negative emotional state to a more expansive one is to feel your way through it. No type of will power or self-talk will ever take the place of simple, straightforward feeling.
That said, focusing on the positive is a great practice, as long as doesn't mask simultaneous resistance or turn into a sanctioned way of maintaining it.
Q: What's the link between your approach and Freud's "repetition compulsion?"
RC: Freud theorized that as adults we recreate traumatic experiences from childhood as a way of mastering them once and for all. He wasn't so specific on how that mastery takes place, however, and most of us can attest that simply repeating traumatic experiences without ever learning from them doesn't get us anywhere.
My work with clients has shown me over and over that emotional connection is not just a fast and efficient way to master (or heal) previous trauma. In reality, it's the only way.
Q: How does emotional resistance pertain to our current economic crisis?
RC: Our current economic crisis, at root, is an emotional problem. Clearly, we have been seduced into living beyond our means for way too long. But what made us so susceptible? The answer is our resistance the feeling of lack that I described earlier. We've lost the ability to want things without being able to have them.
If we continue to resist the emotion of lack collectively, any economic fix will prove to be temporary and unsustainable. Learning to surf our lack, on the other hand, will enable us to see the future clearly and to act wisely.
Here's a small but broadly applicable example. I want a new car. My old one is dented and dirty and doesn't have any of the cool stuff like GPS. I see lots of commercials for new models with all the bells and whistles. I cringe inside at being left behind, and start wondering if I could find a way to afford the higher payments.
But then I catch myself - I've been thinking before feeling - and notice the tightness in my chest. I surf it for a few moments and it becomes a big wave of lack. I feel like stomping my feet, throwing a huge fit. "Gimme! Gimme!" I surf this tantrum for another few moments, watching many memories of similar deprivations and tantrums float by.
Gradually, the storm inside me begins to settle. The lack is gone. In its wake I can easily recognize many reasons why a new car, right now, isn't in my best interest. And better yet, I'm at peace with it.
Q: If a sustainable future means I won't get to have what I want, what'll be left?
In a sustainable future you'll still be able to have lots of things you want. But more important, you'll also be able to distinguish and let go of those wants that are part of the addictive cycle. Freed from that cycle, you'll have more time and energy for what really matters - relationships with loved ones, meaningful work, and the abiding joy that only comes from a life of passionate emotional connection.