1. ⚡ THEORY // Emotional Neuroscience 101
Exploring the distinction between emotions vs. sensations and what we can learn from recent literature.
To paraphrase Rumi ~ this is the work for which everything else has been mere preparation.
This is where we’re going to bring together everything we’ve practiced from interoception to self-regulation ~ into an arena where we’ll be putting ourselves to the test.
- So far we’ve learned how to sense, track and feel our internal landscape through
- We’ve learned how to self-regulate and ground into states of ventral vagal when we get triggered.
- Now we’re going to talk about the top of the RISE pyramid, which is the art and science of Emotional Mastery.
What does Emotional Mastery mean?
It sounds wonderful in theory, to be able to ‘master our emotions’… however in this context I’m referring to ‘mastery’ the way that Lzo Tsu meant, he said:
"True mastery can be gained by letting things go their own way. It can’t be gained by interfering.” - Lzo Tsu
So another way of phrasing this this practicing Emotional Fluidity ~ and learning to welcome the full spectrum of human emotions as they arise in us.
What Exactly is an Emotion Anyway?
Let’s begin with an obvious starting point.
Even to this today there is surprisingly no scientific consensus on a precise definition, which I think is fascinating and speaks to still how little we really know about this emerging field.
I always loved Proust’s description of emotions as being like ‘geological upheavals of thought’ ~ however, you might be surprised to learn that emotions don’t simply ‘arise’ within us like the weather, but rather they are ‘constructed’ by us.
The neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett has shown that emotions arise in the body as sensations ~ and then our brain checks this sensation against the context and converts it into meaning.
So to simplify the meaning that we call emotion = sensations + context.
I had an intense experience of this whilst deep in grief, I tuned in to my sensations and felt a deep open-hearted sense of connectedness ~ and noticed that in a different context ~ these exact same sensations of warmth in my heart would have been interpreted as intense joy.
And this research points to a crucial aspect of emotional fluidity ~ which is that especially early on in this journey our stories about the situation can be powerful for eliciting the sensations, but then almost always get in the way of feeling.
At this point I’ve had countless experiences where emotions will arise, either in conversations or during breathwork practices ~ and there is absolutely no story or narrative connected to them ~ it’s so beautiful to just witness the energy arising and passing.
Building ‘Emotional Literacy’
Another striking finding from the neuroscience is that if someone doesn’t have a concept to describe an emotion, they won’t be able to perceive it.
I’ll share again the line from Ludwig Witginstein, he said that: ‘We cannot enter territory for which we do not have the language’
This is quite literally true ~ even if we have sufficient interoception to feel our bodily sensations, we won’t be able to label them precisely.
Neuroscientists call this ‘emotional granularity’ and you can imagine an extreme example of someone who has the limited literacy to I feel GOOD or BAD ~ they’ll be severely limited by this experiential blindness in their capacity to handle life’s challenges.
Imagine an extreme example: someone who only has the ability to distinguish between “good” and “bad” feelings. They exhibit very low granularity…
On the other hand a more precise emotional literacy ~ as with say a writer having access to a wider vocabulary ~ gives far greater flexibility and resilience to challenges.
One of the key take-aways from this research is that it’s extremely helpful to unpack the sensations hidden in our emotional labels.
So let’s make this practical. Think back to a time when you felt a sense of ‘overwhelm’ or imagine a time in the future ~ in that moment it would be very beneficial to first state the emotion ~ and then go into the body, so in my case this might sound something like ~ ‘I’m aware of a tightness in my chest, my breath feels shallow and my throat is slightly constricted’ & I notice there’s a story that I’m not going to be able to finish this curriculum in time before the deadline. This will allow more spaciousness and from here it will be far easier to self-regulate and find connection again.
This is exactly what we’ve been practicing through the Interoception practice ~ only now it’s tuning in in the context of emotions.
🧠 Emotions & Decision Making
However, I believe there is a pervasive – but thankfully slowly dying myth in western productivity-oriented culture that emotions are somehow at odds with or even get in the way of purely rational decision making.
There's a famous, landmark study conducted a couple of decades ago by the famed neuroscientist Antonio Damasio (study and more context) in which he studied a patient who had the deep misfortune of getting a brain tumour in the frontal lobe tissue in his brain... which eventually grew so large that it had to be removed.
In the weeks following, this patient, named Elliot who previously had a good job at a business firm—begun to have his life fall apart... and even though his IQ remained as high as before Damasio realised that his emotional capacity had been severely limited such that he was unable to make even basic decisions.
This went on to become the foundations for Damasio’s 'somatic marker' hypothesis, which essentially says that our emotions are tools for filtering data sets of information for any kind of decision—and we choose what we think will feel good. And without these somatic markers (what we're training through interoception) even basic decisions are overwhelming.
💡 Clarity lies on the Other Side of Feeling
And something I learnt form a conversation with the executive coach Joe Hudson (link) ~ that I encourage you to listen to ~ is that immense clarity and a sense of freedom always lies on the other side of clean emotional expression.
When we think we’re faced by a challenging dilemma or big decision ~ it’s usually because we’re resisting feeling something that’s getting in the way of our clarity.
2. 😦 THEORY // Exploring ‘Emotional Debt’
Remember the metaphor of the circuit board, well ‘Emotional Debt’ refers to what happens when our nervous systems are flooded with emotional charge but when this mobilisation response isn’t completed.
In extreme cases this happens when we're in accidents like a car crash, but we’ve also likely experienced moments when we’ve felt a strong emotion arise, but it wasn’t appropriate or possible to express that emotion at the time.
In neuroscience terminology, this emotional debt is measured as an increase in what's called 'allostatic load', and typically presents as fluctuating or heightened neuroendocrine response—or in other words we get stuck in this sympathetic mode of being with a diminished ventral brake.
If we have a higher degree of emotional debt, then our nervous system will be more prone to what I referred earlier to as 'emotional flooding'.
Let's say someone at work shares critical feedback to you—and this triggers a memory in your implicit nervous system, which is stored in the subconscious parts of your lower brain-stem — which in turn triggers a felt sense of shame... this feeling of shame might lead to feeling like your brain has been ‘hijacked’ or that your capacity to act rationally or with empathy is severely diminished.
In the short-term, there are certainly times when holding back emotion and building up some emotional debt is essential as it allows us to get through a stressful experience — but and this is the crucial point — if left unaddressed, these accumulate, increase fragility and manifest as greater susceptibility to emotional triggers.
This is an evocative description from my friend Dan Shipper of fragility that arises from accumulated unprocessed emotion:
“Heartbeats became earthquakes. The placid stream of my breathing, once flowing automatically, could start, stop, or flood at any moment without my constant monitoring. Relationships—with co-workers, customers, friends, family—became winding, high-altitude passes fraught with danger and calamitous falls lest they find out that I could suffer an attack at the slightest provocation.”
– Dan Shipper
📝 To Summarise..
As Gabor mate said ‘The body keeps the score’ or put another way ~ our issues are in our tissues.
3. 🚰 THEORY // Un-kinking the Hosepipe
Okay so we’ve talked about the value of increasing our emotional fluidity as well as the highly detrimental long-term consequences of not doing so in terms of accumulating emotional debt and fragility in life.
🚰 How Do Emotions Get Kinked?
Now I’d like to share the two ways in which emotions can become ‘kinked’ in their expression.
It’s probably easiest to grasp this concept in the context of anger.
So if you imagine a hosepipe that is running the emotion of anger ~ if it’s kinked one way, then the anger is repressed and tends to come out as either passive aggression or silent resentment that accumulates over time.
The other way that the hose can kink is through over-expression ~ which might look like aggression or even rage at someone.
The times in life that we experience a ‘disproportionate’ emotional response (as opposed to intentional action) to a situation is a direct pointer to the specific way in which there is likely an emotional kink in the hose ~ caused by emotional debt from our past.
There’s an interesting concept of the Golden Shadow ~ in which our judgements of others also often point to ways in which we have subtly repressed our own expression. For example I have in the past judged others for being arrogant or cocky… because I was afraid of being labelled as that myself ~ however in doing so I pushed away much of my own inner-confidence and expression because of this fear.
😡 Clean vs. Unclean Expression
There’s a key idea here and that is allowing the emotion to be present and expressed without directing it ‘AT’ someone.
This is sometimes referred to as clean vs. unclean anger ~ but can also apply to say sadness ~ where someone can be sad ‘AT’ another person blaming them for their sadness which can turn into shadowy or manipulative power dynamics.
If you're not sure whether you might be unconsciously using your emotions to manipulate others ~ first know that it doesn’t make you a bad person, we’ve almost all done this at some point ~ the key is to bring into awareness any ways in which we might be using our emotions to change another, and let go of any need to change or control their behaviour.
🙏 Emotional Safety
Related to this idea is the concept of ‘emotional safety’. Our brains are constantly tracking our environments to assess how safe we are. And we tend to express emotions to the degree that we feel a sense of internal and external safety to do so ~ this is why the art of being a good therapist is creating connection and safety in the client.
In my view ~ the deeper work of nervous system mastery is to create the internal + external conditions that allow for our authentic + clean emotional expression throughout life.
A good friend and mentor of mine describes emotion as E-MOTION or 'energy-in-motion'—this framing of 'emotional fluidity' I find to be helpful. And it’s literally true ~ our neurons use action potentials as literal electrical signals through our synapses to communicate the spinal cord and then up to the thalamus.
So if you imagine your nervous system as being like a circuit board—which on some level is true as there are literally micro-watts of action potential flowing through our axons — where if too many Watts are charged through it will begin to overheat — which is akin to our sympathetic response...
and then our Dorsal system is almost like the fuse that trips if we spend too long in this over-heated place. I left my iphone outside in the sun the other day and it did that ‘iphone is overheating’ thing which locked me out of using it for 10 minutes.
This is similar to the Dorsal Branch of our nervous system.
🙋 Personal Anecdote
As I mentioned in the introduction to NSM I wouldn’t be here today researching + exploring the human nervous system had it not been for an intense chapter of moving through grief.
Initially, it was too overwhelming that I didn't have sufficient capacity to hold it.
It was the experience of pendulating – imagine a pendulum swinging in and out — through the intense waves of grief in the months and years that followed that allowed me to process and move through that experience.
This process opened my eyes to how emotionally disconnected I had been for much of my life and also opened me up to processing years of buried emotions that ranged from burning out whilst working at my start up to experiences from much earlier in life.
Life will always throw us more curveballs, in fact at times it seems that it unfolds specifically to elicit the precise ways in which we are still defensive or emotionally kinked.
But I can say now that I feel far greater ease & safety feeling into and expressing shame, fear or anger whenever it arises — and this has enormously improved my relationships, my creativity and my sense of moment to moment aliveness.
⚠️ Disclaimer ⚠️
I know I’ve mentioned this before but it is worth repeating ~ that although we are all capable of making a huge amount of progress on our own ~ in my experience it is almost always easier to go deeper working in a small group or even better 1-1 with a trained professional who has somatic + trauma aware training.
🎨 Welcoming The Full Spectrum
If I were to sum up Emotional Fluidity in a single image, it would be one of a crayon box.
If you can remember back to the days when you would colour in things ~ generally there were always a few crayons that we like and then others that we never touch ~ for me this was the purples and the light greens.
The same is true of our emotions ~ most of us have some feelings that we’re comfortable in ~ and others that we avoid at all costs (for me these were historically shame + anger)
So the key to true emotional mastery is welcoming every single colour onto the page ~ shame, guilt, fear, anger, lust — many of these sensations have been exiled or labelled wrong through our societal conditioning ~ and the invitation to us is to begin to welcome them back into our conscious experience.
💡 A Powerful Perspective Shift
I remember during a breathwork teacher training a few years ago, I had a conversation with Kelly my partner and fell into a shame response ~ one of the most intense I’d had, my stomach was clenched, I could barely look her in the eye ~ but a thought came ~ and the thought was ‘WOW, how interesting, I’m really excited to go into a breathwork journey now to see what’s underneath this’. I was still feeling the same things ~ but there was a new perspective of
‘oh how interesting that I responded so disproportionately to what my wife said, there must be something here for me to learn and feel and integrate’.
And honestly this, perhaps more than anything else I’m sharing in this course ~ has radically changed my life ~ this has happened enough times where my reaction to a trigger is often paired with a sense of curiosity or even sometimes anticipatory excitement to see what I’m holding underneath the surface.
And I believe this is the path towards genuine embodied wisdom and authentic expression ~ viewing our triggers and reactive tendences as signposts towards how we can experience greater wholeness and integration.
4. ⚡ THEORY // Working with Emotional Charge
Alright, let's take a step back. Hopefully now you have at least some sense of the beautifully complex process of what is going on in our bodies when we experience intense emotions but aren't able to express or release them.
In all honesty, there is no one size fits all protocol for mastering our emotions – it's more of an art than a science and perhaps it's part of maturing as adults — or more accurately unlearning some of our childhood conditioning patterns to resist or repress our full expression.
I'd like to share three principles to keep in mind, and offer that this work that we're touching on here is rarely a linear path and likely a lifelong journey.
There are always more depths to be felt and new layers to unpack and I would love to hear your thoughts on both what arises for you listening to these and your own experiences navigating your own emotional landscape.
1. Cultivate Courageous Curiosity
This is something of a meta-principle that applies to working with our emotional landscape and that is holding an orientation of what I call courageous curiosity. If we can let go of any judgements that we have and have the deep interest to deeply enquire into the nature of our felt experience and the courage to explore, feel into or accept whatever we find, I believe this really is the key to cultivating emotional intelligence and wholeness as humans.
The poet Rumi once wrote: 'Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.' — what we are really investigating in this work are the various barriers that have been lodged in our minds and bodies to this innate wholeness.
2. All Emotions are Welcome
The second principle which follows from the first is that, all emotions are welcome and none are inherently bad.
For most of us aspiring adults, and I speak for myself here, we have work to do retraining our nervous systems to feel a sense of safety (i.e. ventral vagal tone) whilst expressing the full spectrum of our emotions.
Our culture tends to label certain emotions as undesirable or even bad, but the truth is that they're all sensations and an inherent part of the human experience.
In my case, growing up I learnt to hold in my anger to the point where I didn't even realise that I felt it... for others we can have deep resistance to feeling guilt, shame or maybe grief.
If you sense that a challenging emotion may be arising, the invitation is to do your best to embody that sense of courageous curiosity and to trust the wisdom of your body, which is the 3rd principle.
3. Trust Your Body's Wisdom and Drop the Story.
As greater levels of awareness comes on line we'll increasingly be able to track sense and feel the more subtle sensations that lead to emotional charge.
According to the neuroscience and my own lived experience, emotions themselves if fully leaned into only last for a matter of seconds, at most 90 seconds) before most of the charge disappears or they flow into another sensation.
If you think of young children who often display remarkable emotional fluidity, or even the Dalai Lama who might be moved to tears one moment and then belly laughing in the next. We get stuck only when we're lost in story.
In moments when I've found myself highly charged or triggered, I've found it helpful to ask myself the question 'if this sensation could speak what might it say' or even deliberately amplifying the sensation itself and then witnessing my body move or express in any way that it needs to.
It really is a constant game of returning to the felt sensations and gently dropping stories or meaning or judgement that we have attached to the feeling.
The gift on the other side of what is often very challenging and confronting work is not only deeper self-awareness but in my experience when we can unblock the natural flow of our emotions, a torrent of creativity and aliveness is unblocked — it's almost as if to truly master our nervous system, our conscious mind needs to surrender to it's wisdom.
As these practices become more intuitive, I've found that we also tend to be more embodied — which others will recognise in our presence and trust us more to express authentically. And perhaps most importantly we're gradually able to return home to ourselves and our full sense of aliveness in each moment.
5. 📝 REFLECTION // Emotional Mapping
Labelling an emotion in the moment is helpful but it's also a trap if we label as a way to not feel.
I know that I’ve been called out before from saying “I’m angry right now” as a way of avoiding feeling the sensations of the anger itself.
Visualising Interoceptive Awareness of Emotion
In a 2013 study coming out of a Finnish research lab the researchers invited participants to draw ‘body-maps’ of where they think they experience various emotions in the body. In these maps blue represent de-activation & red is activation.
This is an invitation to
Think back to a moment that was Take an emotion and write that word at the top of a journal page - or even better buy small journals and dedicate them to each emotion (choose 5-6 to work with).
For each emotion ask:
- where do you feel it in the body?
- how would you describe your relationship to this emotion?
Secondly, list the spaces in which you have previously felt safe to feel + express emotions:
- e.g. in a therapeutic setting, in your car, swimming in the ocean, in your bedroom, with a loved one or close friend ~ this is really helpful to know where you can go to if there’s something that you know you need to feel…
6. 🧘 PROTOCOL // Emotional Clearing
Okay we’ve spoken a lot about the context and theory behind emotions ~ but remember that Knowledge is only a rumour until it lives in the muscle.
So let’s move onto the protocols for working with emotional intensity skilfully as it arises.
I want to restate that it’s vitally important to create the conditions for emotional safety before going into an emotional process. This is why working with a professional therapist or somatic experiencing guide is often essential for deeper emotional pieces.
Another way to think about Rising out of Reactivity is:
- Notice Trigger (interoception)
- Find Centre + safety (self-regulate)
- Get Curious + Welcome Everything (emotional fluidity)
Guide through a 20-30 minute journey that begins with 2 minutes of activating nose-breathing.
- Bring to mind a moment of emotional intensity
- always start with interoception, slow things down, extend your exhale (helps to access pre-frontal cortex a little more)
- trace + track the somatic sensations that are SEPARATE from story. The story helps us get into the feelings, but then we must learn to let it go.
- Lean into and even AMPLIFY what you’re experiencing. Allow the sensation to take up space and MOVE THROUGH you.
- You can say ‘I accept, I accept, I accept.’
- Ask how would the emotion want to BREATHE? If it’s anger perhaps you might want to increase the intensity of your breath.
- Remember that it’s all welcome. If you soften your resistance to it the emotion won’t last more than 90 seconds.
- From here — utilise MOVEMENT + SOUND + BREATH. Again let go of the story and just ask what does your body want to do? How might your limbs move? What noises might you make? How might you breathe?
- Finally — re-resource + ground + integrate. Ask if there was a message in here? What can be learned from this process?
- helpful questions + journal prompts: does this remind me of an experience in my past? Often the ‘thing’ is not ‘the thing’. Is there an origin story? If my feeling could speak what might is say?