The power of naming your emotions

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There’s a scene in the Pixar movie “Inside Out” where Disgust provokes Anger.

“Of course your tiny brain is confused,” Disgust says, knowing exactly what will set him off. “Guess I’LL just have to dumb it down to your level!”

Anger’s head begins to smolder.

“Sorry I don’t speak moron as well as you, but lemme try!” Disgust continues. “Duuuuuhhhhhh!”

That’s all it takes, and Anger literally blows his top in a fiery eruption of rage. Disgust puts Anger “on blast” and the results were as predictable as an Internet rant.

“She did that on purpose,” my 5-year-old daughter Clara said while watching the movie with me. If there’s anyone who knows something about intentionally pushing buttons, it’s a strong-willed 5-year-old.

With this weapon, Disgust can now direct Anger’s flames at a glass barrier that had been blocking other emotions. The fire quickly burns a hole that allows Joy and Sadness to enter.

I thought of this last night when I was going through a “body scan” meditation with my creativity class at Marquette University. We were led by Kathy Coffey-Guenther, who has a masters degree in psychology and a doctorate in theology. She’s an expert in the mind-body-spirit connection.

Kathy guided us to feel where our emotions reside. We were invited to search for the place where fear, anger, sadness, joy and peace live in the body.

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Human emotions as felt in the body

This may sound very new age-y spiritual, but there’s a science behind the mind-body-spirit connection. The brain’s emotions produce a physiological response, and vice versa. Think about how when you are sick or injured and how that can cause you to feel down and depressed.

You already intuitively know this because you’ve felt the stomach butterflies of nervousness, the nausea of disgust, the racing heart of fear, flushed cheeks of shame, the heaviness of sadness and the lightness of joy. But maybe you’ve never thought about them as something so tangible.

Sitting in that meditation, it felt empowering to think about emotions like fear, anger or joy as living in a place. It’s powerful to name something. I thought of them just as the characters in “Inside Out.”

It made me think that if I know where emotions hang out— like on the Islands of Personality — I could invite them out when they are useful. Fear can be a welcome motivator. Disgust can harness the power of anger. Sadness can produce empathy and connection.

For me, it’s helpful to view emotions as simply tools in our toolbox. Anger, sadness, fear and pain aren’t necessarily bad. They can actually produce positive results.

It’s only dangerous when we’re not aware of what these emotions are doing. That’s when they can become destructive.

Being angry too often will burn you out. Being sad all the time will dampen your empathy. Get disgusted too much and you become cynical and disaffected. Even being too calm can cut off your connection to the world.

When emotions aren’t being useful, that’s when you can put them back in their place. Sometimes, it’s OK to leave behind anger, sadness, fear, disgust and pain.

It’s OK to visit where joy and peace reside, and let them take over for awhile.

Educator. Podcast addict. Wrote a book about creativity:

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