On the duality of our emotions

You can miss something and not want it back. Paulo Coelho.

I can feel sad that I no longer have the freedom I used to have before kids. And I sometimes do. There are moments when the persistence and intensity of the “missing” are especially high. I used to be afraid of those thoughts; I used to be shaving them off ruthlessly as something I am not supposed to have. Like: hey, girl, how dare you even think about it?! What are you saying: that you wish you have never had them?! No!!! God, no! That’s not what I was saying. I just said that I missed the time when I was a childless free girl. That’s it. Missing that doesn’t mean I don’t love my kids with all my heart and that doesn’t mean I wish they were never born. Which is more, I have never said I even want these times back, have I?…

A human being is a complicated organism, that’s a given. Even such polar emotions as love and hate can be perfectly entangled in an eternal dance. Those are emotions after all. We cannot control them. We can (and in fact, we’d better!) control the expressions of our emotions, however, emotions as such are outside our control. 

Just let them be. 

If emotions are blocked or denied it affects our physical state. For example, suppressed anger will most likely hit you with a headache or another type of ache. 

We are not our emotions, but our emotions are expressions of certain parts of our personality. If we feel a certain emotion, there must have been a trigger, while understanding that trigger and why it affects us can bring us a step closer to understanding who we are. 

I cannot stress it strong enough: it is OK to feel different emotions! Moreover, it is perfectly OK to feel polar emotions about certain subjects, especially if those subjects are complex and multifaceted. Feeling different emotions doesn’t make us good or bad; it makes us alive. 

What is also important to stress is that we frequently misinterpret our emotions. It might sound strange but think about it for a moment. Can you always tell fear from anger? What about disgust from jealousy? That’s a difficult one, you know, as a feeling of disgust on the surface might actually conceal jealousy deep inside. We can be annoyed by someone doing something we secretly want to do, but for this or that reason deny ourselves… Yes, exactly, there are layers! There are numerous layers of emotions…

Thus, the next time you feel the confusing and perhaps even polar emotions about something, don’t suppress them and most importantly, don’t start labeling yourself or shaming yourself. Let emotions be. Try to pause for a moment and just ask yourself why do you think you feel what you feel and what might be hiding underneath. Just consider this to be a good moment to get to know yourself a bit better. 

The trap of rehearsing

Remember that story when you were still a toddler playing in a sandbox in the park, and a bigger kid came over to you and took your toy away? You were so angry and frustrated, and felt helpless… Remember? But are you sure you actually remember this exact moment? Are you convinced that all the details were right? Are you even confident it actually happened in reality and not in your childhood nightmare?

Our memory is horribly unreliable. What is more, we frequently confuse reality and imagination when it comes to something which happened in the past. Memory not rehearsed fades away. On the other hand, memory rehearsed over and over again becomes less of an accurate account of what happened, but rather a story we decided to tell ourselves.

The trap is: it is the story we tell ourselves which is the most powerful.

Any situation which happens affects us not directly, but through the emotions, it causes in us. The curious thing is that the initial emotion as a reaction to a particular situation or event is rather quick and also rapidly disappearing, unless…

Here is an important caveat — unless! Unless we start rehearsing the situation in our heads.

After a very short while it is no longer the fact that causes our emotion, but our interpretation of the fact.

Look, your boss calls you into the office and tells you that the report you made is total crap. You are insulted, you might disagree, but anyway — you feel embarrassed, sad and… (add whatever is applicable) After the incident, you keep on replaying in your head the whole situation, you start inventing dialogues, which never actually took place in reality and you start thinking about yourself as a total failure not able to complete even the simple task. Or… Maybe you just accept the fact that the report is a crap, ask what needs to be improved, brainstorm what else can be done and just get down to fixing the problem. The choice is yours.

The choice to get into the trap of rehearsing and a downward spiral of negative emotions versus focusing on the fact and how to fix the fact.

They say that time heals. It does, but this comes with a small print. Time heals if you don’t fall into the trap of rehearsing. I do have some painful memories, memories of a loss, which still haunts me from time to time. However, luckily I decided relatively early on that details, accusations, “what ifs” and “why oh whys” are not going to change anything. So I moved on. Some years later I don’t remember the details. I know the fact, it is not going anywhere, but the web of storytelling around it is just not the baggage I want to carry.

To draw the line, we cannot choose what happens to us, but we can choose our reaction. We are not able to choose our emotions, but we can avoid stimulating our emotions by unnecessary rehearsing of (perhaps already partially, or even completely invented) stories.

The power of a streak

One very intensive day of language training can teach you something, but in general, it will not improve your knowledge significantly. However, consistent 15-minutes a day is sure to bring results.

One very intensive day of sports training can teach you something, but the same as with a language, it will neither significantly improve your sporting abilities, nor your condition. However,… you guessed it right! Consistent even only 15-minutes a day exercises will render much more sustainable results.

I have been talking about the power of small steps for a while, but here is an important add-on to it —

coupled with the power of a streak, you will be surprised how far you can get.

The most important caveat here is consistency. When I say “every day”, that means “EVERY day!”. With all capitals in “every” and an exclamation point at the end. 🙂

No excuses like “I will skip today because I am so tired…” or “I will have to skip today because we are going to that party”. Nope. That doesn’t work like that. If one day is lost, the streak is lost. As simple as that.

In the language app I am using (Duolingo), my streak recently crossed 200 days mark. That means that for more than 200 hundred days EVERY single day I spent at least 15 minutes doing exercises in Dutch. I can tell you, it got me far! As far as being able to have a fluent conversation in Dutch at a party we attended last month. For the record, Duolingo is of course not the only source of learning for me, as the app is more for practicing and — which is probably the most important — for streak-keeping.

Now, the last part is actually very important.

It is a pure psychological trick — a “satisfaction-banana” for our “monkey-brain”. If we see the counter and it is consistently increasing, after a very short while it is kind of sad to lose this streak. For instance, you have already the proverbial 21-days (needed to form a habit), you would not want to go back to zero and start all over, would you?

(Even more, if you do, there is a big chance that you will not pick it up again).

Keeping streak helped me make the learning of Dutch into a daily habit, but it likewise worked for 5 minutes of meditation, a daily plank, and some other small habits – my small steps – of improving my life. Thus I wholeheartedly believe that streak-keeping is an important power working together with the power of small steps towards getting to any big hairy audacious goals you can come up with.

Don’t mistake possibilities for probabilities

Anything is possible — that’s inspiring and in a way assuring phrase. Indeed, anything can become possible with the right targeted effort and… with the right conditions. Now, this is a tricky one. The right conditions can be just there or they can be created. How probable is that both the effort and conditions will materialize is a completely different question.

To give some examples, it is perfectly possible for me to learn Chinese. If someone else has ever succeeded in doing so, why wouldn’t I? Well, what is the probability that I will learn Chinese? Pretty low. It is not one of my goals nor even dreams. Therefore, despite the theoretical possibility, it will remain impossible for me, or better — it is improbable.

It is theoretically possible for me to become an athlete. Even now in my thirties, if I put all my efforts into reaching this goal, I am convinced I will get myself there. At the expense of what? Pretty much everything I guess, so the probability of this event is likewise pretty low.

If I would put percentages, practically everything where there is at least a tiny chance of occurrence is possible. There are examples of successes that defy all odds. Like a million to one, and still… a possibility is a possibility. However, the probability is a likelihood of occurrence, which can easily be close to zero for this or that reason.

This difference sounds pretty obvious, yet the problem arises when a person mistakes a possibility for probability. If someone says: “It is impossible!”, what is meant on many counts is not that it is impossible, but rather that: “It is improbable!”. Slight nuance, but a huge difference in meaning.

In his book “Principles” Ray Dalio explicitly stressed: “anything is possible. It’s probabilities that matter.” and I cannot agree more.

The price of getting what you want…

There is a phrase which is literally haunting me recently.

I was following a course on writing and, when studying about Neil Gaiman, I came across a quote from one of his books:

But he did not understand the price. Mortals never do. They only see the prize, their heart’s desire, their dream… But the price of getting what you want is getting what you once wanted.”

Reminiscent of the classic “be careful what you wish for”, Gaiman’s version makes the idea sound much more powerful. Imagine that your dreams of, say, ten years ago suddenly realized? It could very well be that some of your wishes you still cherish and long for, but in ten years people tend to change. At least I did. Ten years ago I had a different life, different wishes, different dreams, and desires. Lots of things changed since then and by “lots of things” I mean — everything!

It could be that you cannot relate to the ten-year span. Take 20. Or 15. Maybe 30. You see, the number does not really matter. The truth is, that we tend to change, so do our dreams. Sometimes we realize that we have misunderstood ourselves; sometimes we better understand the price we need to pay, the opportunity costs if you will.

Be careful what you wish for.

I try. I have always tried. However, having heard that phrase of Gaiman I suddenly felt a cold shiver down my spine. There are things I wanted, which by no means would I want now. They would cost me too much. I would even accept never to have things that I do want at this moment if the price for them is… having those old dreams realize.

“The price of getting what you want is getting what you once wanted.” — a scary thought.

On the other hand, would that mean that we should not dream at all out of the fear of dreaming “wrong”? I don’t think so either. I believe in the power of dreams, and in the power of dreaming. I wouldn’t want to forgo it. However, some of our dreams take hold of us and we give them all our energy. Those dreams can become our obsessions and that is where the trouble might be lurking. Even though it is impossible to predict what kind of people we will become in the future, what would our situations be, and what new dreams will arise in us, we are able to learn to understand ourselves now, in this very moment. We are able to understand what is it we are actually dreaming of. Moreover, with some reflection, we are also perfectly capable of understanding the opportunity costs.

In my work as a mediator and as a personal buddy (“wise friend for rent”) I have seen many situations when a person thinks s/he wants something, but s/he actually hasn’t reflected on that wish good enough. By “good enough” I mean understanding (1) why? and (2) what is s/he willing to pay?

You might have heard of the psychological exercise the “five why’s”. In essence for any dream or ardent wish, you have to ask yourself “why?” five times (or at least as many as needed to get to the core).

Let’s take the following hypothetical example: I want to travel around the world.

  • because I like exploring new cultures and new places;
  • because it enriches my life with experiences;
  • because I see differences and reflect on them, and that makes me question things I am accustomed to;
  • because in that way I can improve my life;
  • because I believe in progress and making progress makes me happy.

Note that for every subsequent answer there are also options other than traveling around the world. Basically every “because” comes with a set of assumptions. You assume that traveling around the world would allow you to explore new cultures for example. Maybe it will, but that largely depends on the way you intend to travel and things you are planning to do while traveling. However, maybe your underlying wish of exploring new cultures could be realized by being active in the local expat community. It might very well be that traveling around the world still is the right way for you. Nevertheless, it is good to understand that there are also other ways to cater to your underlying needs. Be it as it may, every dream comes with a price; and before vesting too much energy in that dream, it is best to understand its price.

Self-development, reaching goals and lifestyle balance through the prism of parenthood and immigration

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