SEE Learning: Understanding Our Emotions

Social, Emotional and Ethical Learning, Emory University, Abridged Framework

Social, Emotional and Ethical (SEE) Learning is a program developed by the Center for Contemplative Science and Compassion-Based Ethics at Emory University. Its aim it to nurture emotionally healthy and ethically responsible individuals, social groups and wider communities. In this first part, SEE Learning: Understanding Our Emotions, we learn how to navigate and deal with our emotions.
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Introduction

SEE Learning is designed to help us in three areas of our life: personal, social and global. These three domains can be approached independently or in any order; however, if we are to learn to attend to the needs of others and of wider communities – even the entire world – we first need to attend to our own needs and inner life.

We do this by developing “emotional literacy.” This consists of the ability to recognize and identify emotions and their effects on ourselves and others. This recognition allows us to navigate our emotions successfully. Ultimately, emotional literacy allows us to refrain from impulsive behavior that could harm ourselves and others, while having the calmness of mind necessary to make sound decisions that are in our own best long-term interests. Thus, emotional literacy is a crucial skill that enables us to thrive.

Awareness, Compassion and Engagement in the Personal Domain

SEE Learning seeks to foster the three competencies of awareness, compassion and engagement, known as “dimensions.” These dimensions come together to provide the knowledge, skills and motivation to deal with our own personal issues, to face our increasingly complex world, and to become a responsible global citizen. In the personal domain, the three dimensions are looked at from three different perspectives:

  • Attention and Self-Awareness
  • Self-Compassion
  • Self-Regulation

Attention and self-awareness refer to directing our attention so that we become increasingly aware of our mental and physical states. They involve learning about our emotions with the guidance of a “map of the mind.” Then, with self-compassion, we learn to examine our feelings and emotions, and try to make sense of them in their larger context. This involves investigating how our emotions arise from various causes and conditions, which can then lead to greater self-acceptance. Finally, with the insights gained from the first two perspectives, we engage in self-regulation to cultivate impulse control, improving our ability to respond constructively to the daily challenges of life.

Considered as a whole, these topics in the personal domain can all be seen as cultivating emotional literacy. Without an ability to negotiate the complex inner terrain of our mind and emotions, it can be almost impossible to overcome deep-seated, self-destructive habitual patterns. This limits our capacity for self-control and even our freedom. Far from being selfish, the specific tools and skills we develop during self-cultivation can be used to avoid emotional hijacking and instead to enable us act in ways that help us flourish and succeed. Let us look at the three perspectives more deeply.

Attention and Self-Awareness

The goal of the personal domain is to be able to combine a first-person awareness of what is happening in our bodies and minds with given information about the body and mind. For instance, we learn to recognize anger in our own experience by paying attention to our feelings and emotions, while having an intellectual understanding of what anger is, why it arises, and how it can be calmed down. This combination of direct experience and learned knowledge is the first step toward emotional literacy.
Attention and self-awareness entails three capabilities:

  • Attending to our body and its sensations
  • Attending to our emotions and feelings
  • Following a map of the mind

Attending to Our Body and Its Sensations

We begin by paying attention to what is happening inside our bodies on the level of sensations. The body is a constant source of information about the state of our nervous system, as emotional states are typically accompanied by changes throughout the body: heart rate, tightness or relaxation of muscles, feelings of heat or coolness, and so on. Noticing what is happening in the body can often inform us of our emotional state faster than attuning solely to the mental aspects of an experience.

By paying attention to our nervous system through awareness of the sensations in our bodies, we gradually learn to detect signs of stress and well-being. We will start to notice more quickly whether we are in a state of hyper-arousal (anxiety, excessive anger, agitation) or hypo-arousal (lethargy, feeling depressed). This awareness is the first step in learning to balance the body and return to a state of physiological well-being, which are preconditions for acting in our own and others’ best interests.

Attending to Our Emotions and Feelings

Learning to attend to and regulate the body provides the foundation for attending to emotions and feelings. The calmer and more settled the body is, the easier it is to focus on the mind.

While emotions can develop very quickly, they typically start off as a spark before they become a raging forest fire. If we can catch our negative emotions at the early stage of being just a spark, we can deal with them quite easily. But to do this, we need to develop the ability to see emotions and feeling as they arise in the present moment. This ability can be learned and improved over time with practices such as mindfulness.

Following a Map of the Mind

Noticing our emotions and feelings is greatly aided by having a map of the mind, a resource that helps us navigate our emotional landscape. A map of the mind provides information that enables us to identify the different families of emotions, their common features, and what gives rise to and promotes these emotions. We learn that not all emotions are inherently destructive, but become destructive when they are inappropriate to the context and situation. For instance, fear can be constructive when it warns us not to approach a poisonous snake, but it can become counterproductive when it reaches the point of constant anxiety.

Through cultivating emotional awareness with the guidance of a map of the mind, we’ll see that irritation is a milder emotional state that can lead to anger, and that unchecked anger can result in full-blown rage. Being able to recognize the subtler forms of emotions before they turn into unmanageable emotional states is a crucial skill for balanced mental health.

Self-Compassion

Self-compassion is not self-pity, indulgent self-gratification or merely high self-esteem. Self-compassion is genuine self-care, particularly in regard to our inner life. It is important to come to an understanding of how our emotions relate to our needs. This layer of emotional literacy allows for greater self-acceptance, because when we understand why and how emotions arise, we can relate to them with less self-judgment. Then, when we see that emotions are transient, arise within contexts, and are not an unchangeable part of our minds, this also provides us with self-confidence and motivation to continue working on ourselves.

These two characteristics – self-acceptance and self-confidence – create the foundation for accepting criticism and dealing with set-backs constructively and with resilience. This prevents disappointment from leading to excessive self-criticism or a loss of self-worth. Self-compassion has two aspects:

  • Understanding emotions in context
  • Self-acceptance

Self-compassion is based on a realistic assessment of our capabilities. If we aren’t kind to ourselves, we might feel that we should be able to do more when we cannot, leading to disappointment and disempowerment. Rather than evaluating ourselves according to worldly success, we acknowledge our shortcomings with honesty, understanding and patience.

Understanding Emotions within Contexts

Understanding our emotions within contexts – how they relate to our values, needs and expectations – requires critical thinking. Previously having learned to attend to our inner world, here we explore how our emotional reaction to a situation is prompted not only by an external trigger, but also by our own perspectives and attitudes. These perspectives and attitudes are rooted in the subjective perception of our own needs. For instance, anxiety may result from the desire for more certainty in a situation where it might not be possible. Anger can come about from a need to be respected. Hopelessness might result from the desire for an immediate change to a situation that requires time and patience. In all of these cases, the emotions are triggered mainly by our own attitudes and expectations.

As we gain these insights, we are in a better position to recognize and appreciate our own value and cultivate an abiding sense of self-worth and inner confidence, while learning to identify unrealistic expectations that could lead to unhealthy self-judgment. By recognizing how emotional reactions often stem from needs, we can also begin to critically assess those needs, not all of which may be equal. This can involve differentiating needs from wants by coming to a deeper appreciation of our own values and what will lead us to a life that exhibits those values. This contrasts with pursuing short-term wants that may not lead to long-term well-being.

Self-Acceptance

Self-acceptance is of great importance, as anger in our societies is increasingly being turned inwards. Excessive self-criticism, self-hate and self-loathing are extremely damaging to individual health and happiness, and can subsequently cause tremendous harm to others. Reinforcing self-esteem is not the best solution, since self-esteem is based on comparisons with others, and aggression often manifests when a person’s high self-esteem is threatened. A better method is to cultivate inner fortitude, resilience, humility and courage by coming to a greater understanding of our emotional life and needs. Doing this allows us to relax perfectionistic idealization and move toward realistic expectations of ourselves and others. 

Modern culture is incredibly effective in teaching us a host of unrealistic notions through social media, television, films, and so on. All too often we compare ourselves to idealized celebrities or believe we should be performing like “Superman” or “Wonder Woman,” free from imperfections or limitations. These impossible-to-reach standards lead to unnecessary mental anguish. Resultant frustration may in turn manifest as depression and self-blame, even to the point of physical self-harm, or hostility and violence directed outward.

When we have a limited understanding of our emotional life, we have greater difficulty tolerating challenges, difficulties and setbacks, and will be less likely to seek and find opportunities for change and constructive action. A realistic perspective regarding our own limitations is crucial to circumventing this toxic cycle. By developing patience and understanding about our difficulties, their nature and origins, we become motivated to reorient ourselves away from these injurious mental states and behaviors. At the same time, we learn that we have self-worth independent of our performance or our ability to meet arbitrary standards set by ourselves or others. This sense of self-worth – not dependent on external circumstances – serves as a powerful support for resilience.

We cultivate this type of self-acceptance by reflecting on the fact that some level of disappointment and distress is inevitable. It’s impossible to be the best at everything, to win all the time, to know everything, or to never make a mistake. It’s not just us who have to face this. These are facts of life for everyone.

Self-Regulation

The topics and practices covered in the previous two sections lay the groundwork for self-regulation. Self-regulation refers to practices and behaviors that reinforce the insights and awareness gained with regard to body, mind and emotions. The goal here is that we can successfully navigate our emotions so that they don’t cause undue problems to ourselves or others: our emotions become our allies, rather than obstacles. Self-regulation is comprised of three components:

  • Balancing the body
  • Cognitive and impulse control
  • Navigating emotions

Balancing the Body

It is not easy to cultivate the cognitive and impulse control required for successfully navigating our emotions if we are stressed or in a state of hyper- or hypo-arousal. Bringing about stability and clarity of mind is almost impossible without some physical regulation of the body. Thus, practices that help balance the body will benefit us greatly. Balancing the body is an especially important step if we’ve suffered from trauma or adverse early childhood experiences, or if we live in less desirable conditions. 

We need to differentiate between balancing the body and merely relaxing the body or inducing sleepiness.  The goal here is to bring about a state of physical and mental regulation that is conducive to attention and learning. It is an active, resilient and balanced state, rather than a sluggish, sleepy or lethargic state.

The first step to balance the body is the creation of a safe space. Without a sense of trust and security, we remain in a heightened state of alert. When we feel safe, however, we are free to explore our thoughts and feelings with curiosity. Safety is created by predictability, and predictability is created by consistent behavior. Here, consistency isn’t about rigidity with ourselves, but rather consistency in dealing with ourselves with understanding and compassion.

Balancing the body and developing a sense of safety can be aided by the following:

  • Resourcing is where we practice accessing “resources,” which can be external or internal. External resources could be a friend, a favorite place, a pleasant memory, a beloved pet, and so on. Internal resources might be a skill we have or some positive aspect of ourselves such as our sense of humor or a part of our body that feels strong and capable. Bringing our resource to mind can help move us into a place of resilience, safety and comfort. Once developed, we can then track our sensations when thinking of our resource, and contrast this to how our body feels when we are stressed or anxious.
  • Grounding is where we touch or hold an object that grounds us, or where the body feels supported. We pay attention to how the object or support feels, and changing postures, try to notice how our feelings change.
  • Activities such as yoga, tai-chi, listening to music, drawing and journaling are also good ways for us to transition into the more formal methods for balancing the body. We can also utilize probably the oldest and simplest method, where we count our breaths or engage in deep-breathing.

Cognitive and Impulse Control

To succeed in life, we need to be able to stay focused on tasks without being constantly distracted. This isn’t just about being able to pay attention during important meetings, but also the ability to notice our thoughts and behaviors that are counterproductive. Being able to control our impulses and not act them out relies on cultivating our attention, to the extent that we can sustain it and not get caught up in distractions. Most importantly, attention here refers to our ability to focus inwards and track the changes in our body and mind as they occur. Training our attention teaches us to create a space between stimulus and response: a space in which a more considered response can be formed.

This ability is necessary if we are to persevere with long-term goals and successfully manage the challenges we face. When we have good control of our attention, more than just paying attention to our teacher or boss, we can control our cognitive processes and emotions, and better articulate our actions. In this way, we can enjoy and gain an edge on life.

There are specific strategies that help to enhance our attention. We can learn to be “fully present” by focusing on specific objects of attention, developing awareness of what’s happening in our body and mind, and engaging in witnessing our thoughts and emotions.

Navigating Emotions

We use the skills gained from balancing the body and cultivating cognitive control to navigate our emotions. This last step is about putting the knowledge into actual practice and constitutes the final step of emotional literacy.

Here, we develop emotional discernment. This is the ability to recognize when emotions are productive and helpful to ourselves and others, and when they become toxic or harmful to ourselves and others. We can do this by reflecting on our personal experience and using our map of the mind. When we try to follow how emotions have played out in the past and the results they have produced, we will naturally develop an understanding of constructive and destructive emotions. This will make us cautious with regard to mental states that might harm ourselves and others. We can also decide which attitudes we want to encourage in ourselves, and which ones we’d like to transform. When we develop competency in identifying and regulating emotions, we should begin to experience a sense of enthusiasm, courage and a boost to our self-confidence.

Summary

Developing emotional literacy – an understanding of our mind, emotions and feelings – is a necessary step on the path to a healthy sense of self-esteem and the ability to deal with the full range of our emotions. When we understand that our emotions are not an inherent part of us, we can deal with them successfully and come to self-acceptance. We’ll see that there’s no reason to feel guilty for being angry, or to get upset about feeling depressed. Once we have our map of the mind and understand the causes and effects of the various emotions, we can discover for ourselves what brings us peace of mind and what causes us anguish; and for those negative emotions, we’ll have the skills to catch them and apply remedies before they get out of control. Training in this gives us confidence and helps us to see and achieve our potential.

If you would like to go deeper, read the full version of the SEE Learning Framework and learn about the other programs of the Center for Contemplative Science and Compassion-Based Ethics.   

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