This is the fifth in the “Six Types of Courage” that we will explore in-depth here on Lion’s Whiskers. We hope you’ve already had the chance to read over our page called “The Six Types of Courage” for a brief overview of our definitions. The examples we give for each type of courage may apply to your children and/or to you — when you are reading this post please keep in mind that some of these examples may involve taking “baby steps” on your way to emotional courage! Every step towards courage is both worthwhile and important.
“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”— Elie Wiesel
“We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”— Thornton Wilder
Emotional courage is being open to feeling the full spectrum of emotional experience, both positive and negative. Oftentimes, the terms “emotions” and “feelings” are used interchangeably, but it’s worthwhile to be more precise. A simplistic, but helpful distinction between emotion and feeling is as follows:
·Emotion is the complex psychophysiological experience combining our internal (biological) response to external (environmental) stimuli.
·As that emotion crosses the threshold between unconscious to conscious awareness, the verbal and non-verbal language of “feelings” comes into play as we engage higher, prefrontal cortical processes to seek to understand, label, express, suppress, and/or make choices based on the lower and middle brain regions’ generation of core emotions. All emotions evoke feelings, but not all feelings evolve from core emotions. Some feelings are subtle variations like ecstasy which is related to joy, or melancholy which relates to sadness. Other feelings are associated with the states between core emotions and are not directly traced to one core emotion as opposed to another.
For example: let’s say there is a loud crashing sound, a stimulus which triggers an emotion. Immediately, the pulse accelerates, the breathing quickens, and a number of other physiological things happen in a cascade without our conscious participation. Then the mind creates a feeling based on thoughts about that stimulus: “Hooray, the fireworks are starting!” or “Oh no, the scaffolding collapsed!”
Researchers such as Paul Ekman and Antonio Damasio posit approximately ten core emotions: anger, fear, sadness, enjoyment, disgust, surprise, contempt, shame, guilt, embarrassment, and awe. Some are genetically-driven. Others (like compassion, admiration, pride which may also share some of the same core emotion attributes) are social adaptations based on genome potentiality. The most universal are happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust. All are associated with biological intelligence and a drive to survive.
Our emotions are an evolutionary adaptation to help support our survival. At a highly unconscious level, the limbic system generates the physical arousal associated with each emotion. Once an emotion intensifies, thoughts begin to form about the emotion, cognition is engaged, and behaviors are generated to deal with the emotion and the needs that must be met.
Feelings can help guide us back to the core emotion we are experiencing; they can help answer our need for connection, wellness, and ultimately survival. Emotional intelligence is, in essence, a study and practice devoted to supporting human insight and evolution based on emotional awareness. We start at birth: babies are born with the capacity for fear, anger, sadness, and joy! Then we begin to learn the over 4,000 words devoted to the feelings that flow from our core emotions and experiences in life!
Here are some helpful resources with feelings broken down into positive and negative emotion.
We can teach our children to become emotionally intelligent by giving them the language of feelings, modeling healthy emotional expression, pointing out the various thoughts/facial expressions/body reactions associated with core emotions, and honoring their feelings as signposts of underlying emotion linked with core needs. We can observe what is happening in our body, our facial expressions (or those of others) for example, as signposts of core emotions and secondary feelings.
What we are suggesting by emotional courage, is beingwilling to be vulnerable, truthful, and aware of your conscious experience of core emotions, which you think about and express often in language as feelings. When we choose to ignore, suppress, or deny our emotion, we risk a reduction of insight, leading to faulty decision-making, inaccurate mental representation of our experience, and/or even failure to ensure or restore homeostasis and thus ensure our survival.
Unfortunately, we can’t have only positive emotions — it’s a package deal. But, we can choose where to place our attentional focus. According to Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2000) pioneers in the field of Positive Psychology, when we shift our attentional focus from fear, for example, to experiences that are associated joy or “flow” (an intrinsically rewarding, completely focused, motivation in performance or learning that evokes joy, rapture, and renewed energy for the task at hand) the happier we become. For example, shifting your focus to gratitude may be one of the easiest ways to diminish irrational fear that results in feelings we label “worry.”
Emotional courage also means loving yourself, being proud of yourself, and believing that you are worthy of love and happiness. Essentially, it is related to self-acceptance, coupled with a willingness to move outside our comfort zone, to explore new ways of being that may not be familiar. It also seems related to the quest for self-realization and fulfillment. Emotional courage requires digging around and uprooting the tangible and mostly intangible sources of fear resulting in anxiety, worry, sorrow, and depression that can poison the proverbial wellspring of joy. Happiness is the buzz word most associated with emotional courage—having the courage to be unconditionally happy.
Emotional courage means being willing to give your heart without expecting anything in return. Remember Princess Di visiting with AIDS patients in early years of the epidemic, listening to their stories, holding their hands, meeting their gaze without turning away? If your daughter dreams of princesses, tell her what a real princess did.
Here’s a fantastic video from the TED.com site that speaks to emotional courage in a thoughtful and often funny way. It’s about 20 minutes long. If you don’t have time for it now, please come back to it later. You’ll be glad you did.
helping friends grieve a loss
confronting a family member about abuse or addiction
crying in a therapist’s office
making friends at sleep away camp, even when you know you might never see them again
taking in an injured animal
forgiving someone you love
laughing so hard the tears come
crying without embarrassment
helping a stranger who is in distress
public displays of affection
maintaining eye contact and smiling
working as a social worker, counselor or emergency medical personnel
Lackof emotional couragelooks like:
looking away, avoiding eye contact
walking away from an “emotional” situation
covering up or suppressing an emotional response, such as crying
laughing off, mocking, or otherwise dismissing someone else’s emotional response
begrudging someone else’s success or happiness
embracing the victim role
numbing feelings through overuse of drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, food, etc.
losing your temper and lashing out at others
blaming others for faults or failures that you are covering up in yourself
avoiding self-reflection, even after a loved one expresses heartfelt concern
kicking the dog
never being willing to be alone
checking out of your life through obsessive behaviors like excessive t.v. watching, shopping,
Emotional courage sounds like:
“I can do it!”
“I can’t do it — yet!”
“Congratulations! I am so happy for your success!”
“I love _______ about you.”
“I’m angry right now but I know it won’t last forever!”
“I can see you’re angry at me right now and that’s okay.”
“I’m good at ___________.”
“Let me help you.”
“You are amazing/awesome/special.”
“I’m worthy of love.”
“I love you.”
“Are you okay? Would you like to talk?”
Lack of emotional courage sounds like:
“I don’t like talking about my feelings.”
“Boys don’t cry.”
“You’re too big to cry.”
“I never get angry!”
“Don’t be sad, I hate it when you’re sad!”
“Get over it!”
“It’ll just make me feel worse if I talk about it, and I don’t want to feel that.”
“Oh, grow up!”
“I won’t talk until you control yourself.”
“You’re getting carried away as usual!”
“Why do good things always happen to other people?”
try acting! Acting out feelings can help you get used to feeling your feelings. Role play scenarios your kids may be currently facing
learn from your mistakes without punishing yourself or making yourself “bad” or feeling guilty
practice gratitude by saying blessings at meals (religious or secular), sending thank you notes, making thank-you phone calls, etc.
find a service project that has meaning for your family
give your kids meaningful jobs to do at home so they can feel they can make an important contribution to the family
acknowledge your own power to choose happiness
tell a friend what particular quality makes their friendship special to you
develop healthy habits: exercise regularly, eat a balanced diet, minimize the use of alcohol and/or other stimulants/depressants that are often used to numb feelings, and cause psychological, social, or occupational distress and stress
tell stories that call upon a wide range of emotions
decide on some emotional courage challenges and support each other in their pursuit
Damasio, A. (1994). Descartes Error: Emotion, reason, and the human brain. NY: A Grossman/Putnam Book.
Lane, R. & Nadel, L. (Eds.). (2000). Cognitive neuroscience of emotion. NY: Oxford University Press, Inc.
Prinz, J. (2004). Gut reactions: A perceptual theory of emotion. NY: Oxford University Press, Inc.
Seligman, M. (2000). Positive psychology. In Gillham, J. (Ed.). The science of optimism and hope: Research essays in honor of Martin E.P. Seligman. (pp. 415-430). Radnor, PA: Templeton Foundation Press.