Emotional awakening… or, how to take an analytical approach to emotions when waking up later in life
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

All that remains is this one line:

a heart
I build calluses around 
to protect

I don’t remember anything else.

What I do remember is sitting alone at a large desk on a wicker-backed wooden chair on the second floor of one of the most beautiful libraries in the world, alternately looking up at the vaulted ceilings, out at the stained-glass windows, and down at my college-ruled notebook, attempting to compress my pain into as few words as possible.

I forgot about that poem for a quarter-century. And then, one day, at the age of 39, I walked into a therapist’s office and started talking. Memories began to flood back. Those words resurfaced.

Eight years on, I find that one line is my eleven-word six-word memoir. It encapsulates my life.

There was the time of my life I spent building those calluses, protecting myself from unsafe emotional environments. You say family, I say death by a thousand cuts.

There were the decades I spent living the lie. The lie that if you don’t feel anything, you can’t get hurt. The lie that you can live a fulfilling life operating out of your head alone. As a result, I spent most of my adult life adrift, lost in self-rejection so severe one of my therapists compared me to a cutter.

Every moment since entering that red brick office building in Ann Arbor has been about slowly, systematically, and relentlessly dissolving those calluses, opening my heart-mind to emotions and inner experiences I had no idea existed, suffering from inner demons that have almost killed me, and finding new ways of enacting self-compassion, new ways of showing up in the world. 

Self-love is a learned skill. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. 

Waking up later in life is about relearning how to be human.

Or, learning for the first time. Because without access to one’s emotions, it’s far too easy to be inhuman. Callous. Uncaring. Uncompassionate. I’ll save my horror stories for another time.

Today, I want to talk about one of the hardest challenges: becoming aware of my emotions. It’s not been easy, or linear. Unpacking old emotional wounds is a bitch. But with it come surprising moments of transcendent experience.

Before I get all zen, I want to take a quick detour into the world of wine.

Emotions are like wines in an odd way. Both are infinitely varied and nuanced. The experience of which depends both on how the wines and the humans have been nurtured by their “parents” and by how we, as adults, seek to savor them. And, for all their variety, the flavor of wines and emotions are the product of only a few factors.

When I lived in northern California, I wanted to learn more about wine, so I signed up for a course on CreativeLive. The instructor, Richard Betts, is a Master Sommelier, one of 269 in the world. What I loved the most about his unpretentious approach to wine is the simple yet sophisticated map he created of the world of wine.

The Wine Wheel by Richard Betts

Wine, he says, is about three things: the grape, the wood, and the earth.

Don’t know what wine to try? Start with the grape. Do you like the lighter, citrusy flavors of whites or the darker rasperberryish, blackberryish flavors of reds?

The next choice point is about aging. Do you like the kinds of woody flavors that come from fermenting in oak? After that is the earth. Do you want to taste the terroir? Do you want to know if there is a grove of eucalyptus trees upwind of the winery? 

That’s it. Those three factors can help you wander the impenetrable world of wine.

Following this map led me in the direction of zinfandels. The number of fruitless experiments (punny, no?) I didn’t have to run more than covered the cost of the course. And the great thing is about being in the Bay Area was that when I found a wine I loved, I could ride out to the winery.

Many of the best zins are grown in the central valley, about 80 miles east of Oakland.

Many of the best emotions… ah, but that’s a false frame. There are no good emotions or bad emotions, there are only emotions that convey information. And they exist along two axes. We can experience emotions as high or low energy, and as pleasant or unpleasant. That’s it. 

The entire bewildering world of emotions can be reduced to these two dimensions, which, when put together, make a map.

The Emotions Poster by Justin R Adams

The Emotions Poster is the map I’ve created using the feeling words that appear in The Mindful Life Journal. It’s based on the circumplex model of affect, which was originally proposed in the 1940s and subsequently elaborated upon by James A. Russell in 1980. The model is the dominant way in which scientists have come to understand and map emotions.

Each word is placed on The Emotions Poster according to how strong it rates on each dimension. For example, uncomfortable is a slightly unpleasant feeling that falls just north of the neutral line in terms of activation. That’s not simply my opinion. That’s the result of surveying hundreds of people on Mechanical Turk and asking them to rate 800 different feeling words.

While the results of the surveys aren’t scientific, they do aggregate the experiences of many people. Thus, the location of each word on the map carries meaning. One good way to access that information is to survey yourself.

When you don’t know how you feel, ask yourself:

  1. How energetic is this feeling?
    a. Very low energy
    b. Low energy
    c. Neither low energy nor high energy
    d. High energy
    e. Very high energy
  2. How pleasant is this feeling?
    a. Very unpleasant
    b. Unpleasant
    c. Neither unpleasant nor pleasant
    d. Pleasant
    e. Very pleasant

And then, go to the poster and pick a word that resonates with how you feel.

Get to know that emotion. Let it marinate. Don’t be anxious to either keep it alive or shut it down. It won’t last forever. And, in fact, the very act of labeling the emotion will reduce its impact. Turning your attention to the embodied experience of that emotion can be revealing.

“The most damaging psychic irritant arising in the mind,” writes Bhante Gunaratana in his fantastic book Mindfulness in Plain English, “is resentment.” (An emotion with which I, unfortunately, am intimately familiar.)

He continues:

“You may experience indignation remembering some incident that caused you psychological and physical pain. This experience can cause you uneasiness, tension, agitation, and worry…. When we face a situation in which we feel indignation, if we mindfully investigate our own mind, we discover bitter truths about ourselves: for example, that we are selfish; we are egocentric; we are attached to our ego; we hold on to our opinions; we think we are right and everybody else is wrong; we are prejudiced; we are biased; and at the bottom of all of this, we do not really love ourselves. This discovery, though bitter, is a most rewarding experience. And in the long run, this discovery delivers us from deeply rooted psychological and spiritual suffering.”

He concludes: “Mindfulness practice is the practice of being 100 percent honest with ourselves.”

Which ain’t easy.

But as they say in journalism, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

With the help of tools such as The Emotions Poster, you can start awakening to your emotions by focusing on what’s energizing and what’s pleasant. Activation and valence are the simplest, most proven paths to emotional intelligence.

As the calluses on my heart have dissolved, I have become more accepting of myself and more self-loving. My habit is to discount my progress, but when I reflect on where I was a decade ago… I’m living in a whole new world.

The very act of making tools to help myself become mindful of my emotions, intentions, and energy makes my life better. Sharing them with others makes it more meaningful.

Thanks for reading. If you found this article helpful, would you share it with two people whom you believe would benefit from it?

All the best from Bali,

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