Why Your Emotions Matter
by JANIE LOUBSER & SARAH MATHEWS
Early on in my career I was given recommended reading in a psychology course I was studying; that book subsequently went on to become very important to me and more relevant in my work today (a decade on), than ever before. Why Love Matters, by psychotherapist Sue Gerhardt, is a brave exploration of how our early experience of love and affection as a baby can have a lasting effect on the development of our brain and personality.
BUT ISN'T THIS JUST FLUFFY STUFF?
Well, a study that involves watching babies interact with their mothers behind two-way glass might seem a bit fluffy at first (I mean, how do we know what the babies are thinking?) but many researchers prior to Gerhardt, conducted these in order to understand or disprove highly debated 'attachment theories' that left every new mom wondering if she was doing the right thing leaving her newborn when she had to go back to work.
What makes Gerhardt's research different, however, wasn't for us to see the connection between a mother's love and the child's cognitive development skills (how quickly they learned to read, write and count); rather, she wanted to prove the direct impact of both positive and negative emotional childhood experiences and how these fundamentally shaped the kind of people we become. For the first time, the hard language of neuroscience was being used to prove that this 'fluffy' emotional stuff has a direct and lasting impact on our brain and personality.
YOU GUESSED IT...
The book goes on to explain how positive emotional experiences help to shape and develop a happier and healthier baby, making the role that parents and other caregivers play extremely significant in the child's development. They are there to create positive experiences by offering comfort, reassurance and the necessary support to help transform the negative experiences into positive ones. It would be unrealistic to expect a baby to always be happy because they have a limited understanding of what is happening around them. The more positive reinforcements children receive early on, the better they are able to manage their emotions and adapt.
On the flip side of that, it was found that in really bad cases where babies are denied this comfort by being abandoned and left to cry in their cots, studies showed "a 'virtual black hole' where the orbitofrontal cortex should have been - the part of the brain that enables us to manage our emotions, to relate sensitively to other people, to experience pleasure and to appreciate beauty" and this is what UK newspaper, The Guardian, said made Gerhardt's book hugely important because "she shows you that you can't slide a knife between the heart and the brain. Human babies, like all mammals, are born wired for survival, but uniquely, we are wired to do so through other people*.'
IN OUR ADULT LIVES...
Our emotions still matter. I often write and teach that we are creative beings. We came to this earth to create and we create through the use of our emotions. For example - a crying baby that is hungry and then fed by its responsive mother is considered a positive creative experience. The baby's mother is able to show him/her that a negative experience can be transformed into a positive one; the feeling [hunger] led to the identification of the need = food and the food he/she then receives, is created through that experience.
As adults, our negative emotions can help us identify what we desire. For example - say we see a picture of ourselves on social media that is a bit unflattering... we will feel bad about it and will want to make the necessary changes to our exercise or diet to change that and feel better about ourselves. But if we choose to focus on the negative emotions we are feeling at this time it can become very difficult to create the thing/s we desire - we might actually reach for a croissant instead and this certainly won't make us feel better or help us achieve our goal. That's a very basic example but what I am trying to highlight is that in order to take action and be creative, we need to help ourselves feel good first and there is nobody but ourselves to help us create what we want. If someone else were to run on the treadmill (in the above scenario), it would only help them... you get the point.
Babies learn through positive reinforcement, the more regularly they have a positive experience the more they start to internalise these feelings and they feel good. Adults, on the other hand, rely on our thoughts to help us feel good and if our thoughts and feelings are at war we are a goner, our feelings are always going to win! That's why we need to pay such close attention and choose to take action and take it quick, before our brains kill the idea (read Sarah's My Golden Rules to see how a TEDx talk she watched inspired her to overcome this).
OUR THOUGHTS FEED OUR EMOTIONS
Knowing this is our true power but we also know, we're all going to have bad days. It's normal and I am certainly not saying we should suppress negative feelings like fear, anxiety, sadness and anger; what I am saying though is the way we relate to these feelings is what is really important.
A scared child who is told that he is silly for being scared of the dark will have missed the opportunity to learn how to deal with fear in a positive way. But as adults, we can still learn to overcome our fears. A supportive parent in that situation, would help the child by buying a night light, asking him what he is afraid of and even help, by looking under the bed or in the cupboard so that he can be certain of his safety. All of this is done in a respectful and loving way which will make a direct impact on the child's brain as well as his emotional well-being.
YOUR FEELINGS ARE IMPORTANT CUES
The next time you have an intense feeling, know that it is here to tell you that you have a desire. There is something that you want that will help you overcome these negative feelings and knowing this will instantly move your feelings to a more empowered place. Instead of replaying a negative experience over and over in your head use this empowered feeling to start forming ideas of how you can get what you desire.
Our emotions matter because they are what helps us create the things we want.