Most of us did not receive formal instructions on how to love. As we were growing up, we learned by observing our parents, siblings, and caregivers, who may or may not have been competent at managing and expressing their emotions. If your parents, like so many, were emotional amateurs, you likely have experienced challenges in meeting your love needs as an adult.
The first step in creating more loving relationships is understanding the essential nature of emotions.
Bringing Awareness to Emotions
Emotions are physical sensations associated with thoughts in your mind. They are the essential mind-body experience. At the most fundamental level, we have the capacity for only two basic feelings – those of comfort and those of discomfort. When something or someone makes contact with your skin, which is the boundary of your physical self, nerve fibers send you a message of either comfort (a loving caress) or discomfort (stepping on a tack). In a similar way, as your emotional boundaries are approached, you receive signals of comfort (someone compliments you) or discomfort (someone criticizes you).
A signal of comfort usually encourages you to move towards the source of stimulation, while a signal of discomfort persuades you to move away from it. We can express these poles of emotions in different ways:
Whether or not you are consciously aware of it, every decision you make is based upon the expectation that your choice will generate more comfort, or at least less discomfort. This is true whether you are choosing a partner, a job, or a brand of toothpaste.
Why Do I Feel This Way?
Although every one of us is driven by this pleasure/pain principle, that which generates comfort or discomfort is different for each person. If you like strawberry shortcake, eating it for dessert will bring you pleasure. On the other hand, if you are allergic to strawberries, the same experience will generate feelings of distress. Some people thrive on the exhilaration of a roller coaster while others wouldn’t take a ride even if they were paid.
To begin bringing our unconscious emotional patterns into conscious awareness, we need to ask ourselves a critical question:
What determines whether I interpret an experience as comfortable
When I ask this question at seminars, the inevitable first answer is “prior experiences.” It is, of course, true that past experiences influence our responses. If you were taken care of by a nurturing, Hungarian nanny when you were a child, you learned to associate her accent with kindness. As an adult, when you meet people from Hungary, you are predisposed to anticipate kindness from them. On the other hand, if you had childhood piano lessons with a harsh, demanding, abusive teacher from Hungary, hearing someone speak with that familiar accent might elicit anxiety in you today.
While past experiences influence our present perceptions, we do not have to be slaves to our conditioning or emotional Pavlovian dogs. We can go beyond our habitual thought patterns and make new life-supporting choices. An ancient Vedic expression declares, “The wise use memories, but do not allow memories to use them.”
Needs Are the Heart of Emotions
If past experience is not the whole story, we have to look to the present, which means that we have to listen to our body. Remember, emotions are sensations in the body associated with thoughts in the mind. From the perspective of our body, our feelings of comfort or discomfort are primitive. We feel comfort, happiness, and pleasure when we are getting our needs met. We feel distress, sadness, and pain when we are not.
All emotions derive from needs. All emotions derive from needs.
Repeat this statement to yourself like a mantra until you grasp the simple profundity of this insight. When you do, you will possess a vital healing tool: the ability to nurture your emotional well-being. Whenever you are uncomfortable, in distress, or in emotional pain, you can begin to change your situation by realizing that you are suffering because you are not getting something you need (or want).
We can observe these core emotional principles in action by watching young children. When a child wants to be held by his mother, being picked up makes him happy; not being held makes him sad. On the other hand, when the child wants to play with his friends, being held makes him miserable, whereas running free brings him pleasure. Emotions derive from needs. When our needs are being met, we feel comfortable. When they are not, we feel uncomfortable.
If you can accept that needs determine emotions, you are ready for the next step: recognizing and communicating your needs more consciously. Experiencing greater emotional well-being flows from mastering the ability to clearly communicate what you want in life. This is a learned response. If you are not currently adept in this area, it is because you learned from people who weren’t proficient.
Experiencing greater emotional well-being flows from mastering the ability to clearly communicate what you want in life. The better we become at communicating our needs, the more likely we are to get them met – and the greater emotional well-being we will experience.
The key principle of conscious communication is making it as easy as possible for the other person to meet your need by asking for the specific behavior that will fulfill it. I encourage you to master it by practicing the following simple method.
Here are the four steps:
1) Whenever you feel upset, realize that it is because you have an unmet need.
2) Identify what happened that was different from what you expected.
3) Identify what you need that you did not get.
4) Ask for the behavior, being as specific as possible.
Although using this process does not guarantee that you will always get your needs met, it will increase the probability that you will spend more time feeling comfortable and less time in emotional distress.
Love Is a Practice
Love is an ability that improves with practice. The more consciously you can identify and communicate your expectations, the more likely you are to create a healthy, evolving bond. Listen therefore to the wisdom of your heart and allow it to guide you into higher expressions of love.