Do Our Feelings Mean What We Think They Mean?

Kate Spade was one of the most successful designers of all time. An icon of New York style in the 90’s, she amassed a personal net worth of over $150 million. She also suffered from depression, anxiety and likely undiagnosed bipolar disorder.

Anthony Bourdain was a witty, adventurous chef who connected us to undiscovered culinary oddities and cultural delights. His writing was both poetic and prophetic; even when describing something one might typically find revolting, he had a way of highlighting its beauty and worth. It’s ironic that someone who was such an advocate for discovering the good in just about anything — no matter how bizarre — was going through his own personal battle to do the same for himself.

While we all struggle with the pressures of life, the negative emotional stressors can be dramatically intensified when we’ve put everything on the line to build a business. There are deadlines to achieve, investors to please, customers to keep happy, employees to motivate and retain — the list is endless. Add to this the social weight of keeping up the appearance of success, and suddenly we may feel like we are all alone; that no one can understand or even believe what we are going through. Rather than seeking help, often we resist it for fear of showing weakness or exposing ourselves to social stigma. Instead, we try to ride it out and suffer in silence.

When I learned about Spade and Bourdain ending their lives, it was easy for me to imagine that they had just reached the limits of their capacity to hold their suffering. One can see how their emotional turmoil could drive them to thinking that ending their life felt like the only option for relief. I can relate to this because I know this feeling intimately.

Even before I became an entrepreneur, I battled depression and suicidal thoughts. When I was young, I suffered from crippling phobias and depression and frankly didn’t expect to live very long. Like Anthony Bourdain, I self-medicated for years, because deep, deep down I felt like I didn’t belong here. For me, it was just a matter of time before I would either consciously choose to leave this existence or would subconsciously end myself by engaging in reckless behavior.

Like with Spade and Bourdain, I let my emotional pain and self-judgment drive my choices over and over for decades. I ended friendships. I quit jobs. I developed a “scorched Earth” policy. My pattern was to burn as many bridges as I could, torch my foundations, and start fresh from the ashes. It felt cathartic, but it didn’t actually release the emotion. In fact, it caused more problems than it solved, which set me up for the next conflagration.

As I’ve grown older (I dare say wiser), I’ve come to recognize that this pattern is not unique to me. Each of us wrestles with these sorts of feelings. Sometimes on occasion, sometimes every day. At times moderate, at times intense. We all have experienced feeling that we’re not good enough, or that we’ll never get it right, or that we’ve failed ourselves or others in some way. Although it may feel as if we are utterly alone in those moments, the reality is that those experiences connect us just as powerfully as experiences of love, or laughter, or profound silence. They are part and parcel of what it is to be human.

Each of us, I would argue, knows what it feels like to let our emotions drive us to destruction. Spade and Bourdain took this to an extreme, but how often have we all sabotaged or destroyed a relationship, or a project, or an opportunity, just to be released from frustration or despair we feel?

There came the point in my personal struggle with depression when I realized that, even though I regularly thought about how much better it would feel to put an end to all the pain, I was no longer willing to give in to my emotional stories and let them drive my life. Rather than continue to identify with the suffering, I deliberately and consciously chose a different path. I decided to separate my identity from my self-destructive and depressive emotions by reminding myself, repeatedly, that how I felt (and my stories about those feelings) was not an accurate reflection on the person I was, nor did they have to determine my actions.

With time, I was able to gain enough perspective to see these emotions objectively for what they were, a cocktail of chemical reactions in my brain that were not a signal that something was wrong. This does not mean I stopped feeling these emotions (if anything, once I gave them my full attention, they felt stronger), they just lost their power to control me.

The Chemicals of Emotion

While there are dozens of hormones and neurotransmitters that make up our thoughts, the three most common are dopamine which drives us to seek pleasure and its twin opioid which rewards us when we’ve found what it; serotonin the “feel-good” hormone, which when out of balance can manifest in anger, anxiety, depression, and panic and norepinephrine which is in charge of the fight-or-flight response and connected to alertness, restlessness and anxiety.

These chemical programs were very effective for the prehistoric brain to motivate us into staying safe, alive, and with people who will help us achieve those two directives. The challenge is in modern life, they are easily turned on and off by what we see, hear, taste, smell and feel.

Unfortunately, our cogitation-prone minds are not satisfied with these chemical signals as they are, so it attaches meaning (stories) to them. As a result, these signals can be misinterpreted and amplified in undesirable ways if our brains have developed more receptors for one particular chemical over another. If your brain doesn’t have enough receptors to receive dopamine at reasonable levels, you may feel less happy, or even sad, after what should have been a “rewarding” or “positive” experience.

If you’re unaware that this might be what’s happening, your mind might misinterpret why you’re not feeling as happy as you expected, and attach false meaning to the feeling. Then, you might be tempted to remember other bad times that reinforce how you feel in the present and cause your brain to release more of the same chemicals, which then produces even more emotions.

It’s this chemical spiral that can cause us to feel like victims to our feelings as if we are helpless ships caught in the troughs of stormy waves. However, just as ships are built to slice through waves with the point of their bows, so are we designed to release emotions when we stop resisting them and turn to face them head-on.

Techniques for Managing Emotions

No matter if you feel depression or anxiety on a daily basis, or sporadically, here are some tools you can employ to be a master of your experience. Please note: these tools are not an alternative to medical treatment for cases of chronic depression, bipolar disorder or other illnesses that affect how our minds interpret the world around us. If you suspect your condition might be serious, please seek professional help.

  • Separate the emotions from your identity.René Descartes said “I think therefore I am,” not “I feel therefore I am.” Just because you feel a certain way doesn’t mean you are that way. If you are feeling not good enough, or like a terrible person for whatever reason, it is not an indicator that you should identify that way. Remind yourself that those feelings come and go, but they do not reflect on the person that you are.
  • Focus on the good memories.Research suggests that thinking of positive memories can cause the brain to release dopamine. The next time your mind is running a loop of bad memories, consciously step back, and focus on your good memories. Relive those experiences with as much dedication as your mind automatically relives the bad ones. It helps to have a shortlist of positive memories you can use to jumpstart this process.
  • Turn that frown upside down.Thich Nhat Hanh once said “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy” and science is proving him right.Studies show that merely smiling can lift your mood and lower stress, by a spurring a chemical reaction in the brain that releases dopamine and serotonin.
  • When you’re feeling down, set a timer for two minutes and force yourself to smile. If you have a hard time holding the expression, put a pen or pencil between your teeth to help you keep your muscles engaged. If you suffer from chronic downswings, make a commitment to smile for two minutes at the beginning of each day.
  • Transmute your feelings with breath. The Tibetan practice ofTonglen is for more than just meditation. It can help you release emotions by transforming them into positive ones. When you’re feeling down, close your eyes and breathe in deeply, gathering all of the negative feelings you have into a bundle inside you. Next, hold your breath and concentrate on transmuting that negativity into positivity or peacefulness. Once you feel this transition in your body, breathe out the positive energy into the world. Do this for a couple of minutes until the negativity that’s bothering you has been removed from your system.
  • Give yourself time to stop resisting. Our bodies are designed to process and let go of the chemicals that make up our emotions, not hold on to them. So sometimes it’s best just to allow feelings to pass through us, rather than resist them. When we do, they can dissipate faster.
  • For this exercise, set the alarm for 10 minutes and commit to yourself that after the time is up, you will release the emotion and no longer let it hold you back from going about your day. During these 10 minutes, bear witness to the emotion, honor it and allow it to be without judgment. During this time, your mind will likely process the chemicals making up your feelings, and release them.
  • Understand that your emotions might have a pattern. For some of us, the highs and lows of life come in a repeatable cycle that covers 1-3 days. If you notice this might be the case for you, chronicle your emotional state on a spreadsheet. At the end of several weeks, plot those emotional states in a graph and notice if you can see a pattern that looks like a sine wave, moving up and down over several days. Then, mark these high and low days on your calendar and refer to it when you’re feeling down to remind yourself that you’ll soon be feeling up again.
  • In today’s society, we hear a lot about honoring one’s emotions, either by expressing them to those around us, acting on them or using them to justify our behavior. The challenge with this line of thinking is that it puts the chemical reactions that we experience as emotions in the driver’s seat when this is not the role they are meant to play. Instead, honor your feelings by acknowledging them and resisting the temptation to attach meaning to them.

    None of us is perfectly happy all the time. Some of us are set up to manage our emotions more easily than others, and some of us will even make a choice to end our suffering prematurely. It’s not for me to judge the choices people like Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain made (although I do feel a profound sense of loss). In my opinion, everyone is entitled to choose their own destiny. My only wish for each of us is that, whatever choices we each make, we are fully and consciously choosing them.

    One of Bourdain’s messages that most resonates with me is that the search for beauty and meaning doesn’t end when the meal or travel is over. It also doesn’t end now that his life is over. Those of us who remain have the opportunity to pick up his quest and carry it forward — and we can only do this if we choose to remain here. I know I owe it to myself and the quest to keep going further, discovering the unknown, and bringing it back for others to experience and enjoy.

    I’ve got a good feeling about that.

    “Emotions can certainly be misleading: they can fool you into believing stuff that is definitely, demonstrably untrue.” — Francis Spufford, British author (1964 – )

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