Survival emotions tend to get our attention easily and demand quick response, so our most powerful emotions tend to act like talented screenwriters and directors in shaping our interpretation of our perceptions of our situation. Fear, anger, shame, hunger, and sex are all related to survival, so they figure prominently in our dreams. But they alsofigure prominently in our interpretation of our everyday experience.
When we are awake, we are pretty good at throwing out the most outrageous scripts and theories and not diving for cover at every loud noise (unless we have PTSD). I don't break out in a cold sweat every time a garbage truck passes me. But the influence of the emotions is persistent and can be subtle, so if I am not paying attention to my emotions, they may be whispering in my ear with evocative suggestions about the circumstances I find myself in. In fact, a great deal of what I assume, or take for granted about other people and about the situation I find myself in may be dictated by the emotional state I am in.
Why is this important?
Our emotions work so seamlessly and so automatically in our brain that they influence our thinking and behavior without us noticing them most of the time. We refer to this as unconscious, but just because it may be unconscious doesn't mean it is inaccessible.
By learning to pay attention to the signs of our emotional state, we can become more aware of the emotional influence on our thinking and behavior and better able to avoid distortions and mistakes that may be generated by survival emotions operating below our awareness.
For example: I may be tired and irritable after a long day or a series of frustrations, but I don't usually announce my state of mind to everyone I meet. I may not even be aware that I am particularly tired and irritable. Along comes my friend and asks me to make a decision, or to discuss something a little bit complicated. I feel some resistance or resentment at having to deal with this, but it doesn't seem worth expressing. The idea of saying to myself or to my friend, "I am tired and cranky and would rather talk about this some other time," doesn't occur to me. As the conversation goes on, and my friend presses for a decision or debates the issue, I get more frustrated until I impulsively say something rude or argumentative. There is the risk that my friend will interpret my emotional comment as part of the discussion or a personal criticism. I have allowed my emotion to affect my friendship without taking the trouble to notice it.
Jack and Jill no longer remember how the fight started. They both remember being enraged, and they remember some of the nasty things they each said and now regret. And they vividly remember the hurtful things the other one said. They were acting impulsively in a whirlwind of fear, shame, and anger that was dictating their interpretations of what they were hearing and dictating their immediate responses. Awareness of the danger of debating while furious could have allowed them to call a time out before they had dug deeply into their stockpile of weapons of mutual destruction.
Emotional self awareness is a skill that can help you avoid having your life and dreams directed by your most powerful emotions, with disastrously dramatic outcomes.