Many of our emotions are self-experienced: the joy I feel when I see a child’s laughter is my emotion in the present moment. However, sometimes our emotions are carried emotions, emotions that we do experience but that are not ours. These emotions have been given to us by others (our parents, our culture, etc.) and we carry them around with us, confusing them with our own feelings. Since they are not ours, they make us feel like we are living someone else’s life. How can you liberate yourself from them? And what does that have to do with giftedness? In this article, Jennifer Harvey Sallin explores the difference between self-experienced emotions and carried emotions, and show how gifted people can gain conscious control over their inner emotional lives.
written by Jennifer Harvey Sallin | originally published on rediscovering-yourself
Part 1: Emotions, Feelings, Thoughts & Automatic Feedback Loops
Many people have not thought much about the differences between emotions, feelings, and thoughts. If pressed to give an answer, most would say that emotions are the same as feelings, and that thoughts are either the same as or a separate response to emotion and feeling, rather than something generated by them. They would say that our emotions and feelings result mostly from external events and experiences that happen to us or around us. In fact, at least as it is defined in psychology, our emotions are not the same as our feelings, and our thoughts are often generated by our emotions by way of a feedback loop which serves to create and recreate (moment by moment) our subjective experience of being a separate individual, a unique identity.
We define ourselves moment by moment by remembering who we were a minute earlier, a week earlier, a month earlier, and so on. If we woke up tomorrow and had no memories, how would we think about ourselves? (For a fascinating look at how you might feel about your identity after the loss of long-term memory, see Umberto Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loanna.) We have an identity thanks to the feedback loop of emotion, subjective feeling, and thought. And when it’s all working great, there’s often little desire to understand it further. When the feedback loop has gotten stuck, blocked, or otherwise damaged, however, our identities can become quite dysfunctional and painful, and understanding and learning to control the feedback loop can become a matter of urgency. It is at this point that the question of our own personal feedback loop of emotion, feeling and thought becomes crucial in learning to “self-correct” toward a functional and fully conscious adult self.
The Difference Between Emotions, Feelings and Thoughts
Here, I will briefly define emotions, feelings and thoughts. Then I will launch a discussion of carried emotion, the big culprit in feedback loop dysfunction across time and culture.
Emotions are physiological states: they are physical processes and reactions that happen in the body in response to external and internal experiences (i.e. racing heart before public speaking, or racing heart when thinking about having to speak in public)
Feelings are phenomenal states: they are subjective conscious experience of, among other things, our physiological emotions. Feelings as a concept are quite ephemeral, so I will refer to them here as the subjective experience of our emotional states (i.e. the scared feeling you get before you go on stage). (It is interesting to note that in language, “feelings” are a bit of a misnomer, as feelings are really more the experiential, non-languageable bridge to the thought “I feel scared” than the actual thought itself. However, it is rather difficult to describe that which precedes thought and exists uniquely in the experience of each individual person).
Thoughts are mental labels: categories and arrangements with which we organize our experiences. Once we have an emotion and feeling experience, we label it consciously or unconsciously, and put it somewhere in our mind. (This is where the thought “I feel scared” would arise). It is rather obvious that the stronger our emotional and feelings experience, the more vivid the resulting thought will be, and the more “ space” it is likely to take up in your short- and long-term mental arrangement (in your self-identity). Keep this in mind as it will be an important aspect of understanding the dysfunctional loop of carried emotions and how to fix it.
How Do Your Emotions Work?
When you consider any moment of your life, you can imagine that one of three processes has happened:
- Something has changed in your external world (you walked up on stage)
- Your body “automatically” responded with an emotion sequencing (racing heart, flight response)
- You had a subjective feeling experience of that emotion (subjective feeling of your racing heart)
- You organized that experience as a thought (memory, idea, etc) in your mind (“That was scary”)
- Something has changed in your inner world (a memory popped up in your mind of going on stage)
- Your body “automatically” responded with an emotion sequencing (racing heart, flight response)
- You have a subjective feeling experience of that emotion (subjective feeling of your racing heart)
- You organize that experience as a thought (memory, idea, etc) in your mind (“That was a bad memory”)
- Nothing has changed in your inner or outer world
- You experience no emotion sequencing
- You have no subjective feeling experience
- You have no thought
Of course, you can infer from the above options that life, experience, consciousness and identity is all about change. Without it, there is no consciousness, and therefore no identity (I first learned about this in Buddhism, where we learned in meditation about the constant changing nature of life, and our propensity to search for stable “ground to stand on.” We practiced being okay with the changing nature of life and not “grasping” to anything; not even to stability or identity). From the second process above, you can also infer one of the common claims found in all spiritual literature, (and now more and more, in scientific literature): We create our own reality. Though people love to repeat this phrase as if it explained everything, it is somewhat of an oversimplification; the “we” here sounds like a conscious entity, as though we were really choosing consciously to, let’s say, feel pain and frustration, and that is not generally true. I think it would be more accurate to state it this way, though it is much less meme-worthy: Until we learn to consciously direct our emotional responses, our automatic emotional sequencing creates feedback loops that subjectively feel like our reality.
The keyword here is automatic. Our emotional sequencing is automatic if we aren’t consciously aware of it (and is sometimes automatic even if we are consciously aware of it). If you have stage fright, going on stage seems to create an automatic emotional sequencing in your body – you didn’t ask for your heart to start beating fast, or for your palms to sweat, or for your face to get red. It happened automatically within you. But everyone knows that with time, attention, and practice, it is possible to change that automatic emotional response. With enough practice, even the person with the worst stage fright imaginable can become a great speaker or performer. And when he does, his emotional sequencing is going to be very different from before. Instead of a racing heart, sweaty palms and blushing cheeks, he will have positive body sensations, high energy, warmth in the heart, and so on. Speaking will “feel” good, and he will develop good thoughts about it.
The fact that we can, with enough conscious attention and practice, change our emotional sequencing translates to the idea that “we create our reality.” If we don’t know how to consciously direct our emotional responses, however, changing our reality will never happen.
Here is how the automatic feedback loop works: If you have a bad experience while going on stage due to your automatic emotional sequencing of panic, it is likely that this bad experience will subsequently be organized as a thought in your mental memory bank (“filed” under “things that make me uncomfortable” or “things I’m bad at”). The next time someone asks you to do a presentation, the bad memory of your last experience(s) that you’ve filed away comes back into your mind, and your automatic emotional sequencing starts an automatic (physical) panic response. As a result, your feeling experience in the moment is not positive, and you likely create a new negative thought memory of the current moment to add to your mental bank (“Whenever anyone asks me to do a presentation, I panic.”). The next time you have a memory of the memory of speaking in public or of the memory of being asked to do so, the now multiple “bad experiences” will come to mind (consciously or unconsciously) and the automatic emotional sequencing of panic will start all over again. The “paths” get well-worn, and feel familiar, if bad. They feel like “reality,” and, as we’re discussing, while we don’t know how to consciously change and positively direct these emotional sequencing responses, our reality will feel out of our control.
But it’s clear that this process doesn’t start as an adult with your first on-stage performance. Your mental bank and self-identity has been constructing itself all along your life, often following emotional patterns from even before your birth. The process is somewhat analog to the “self-fulfilling prophecy” where, let’s say, your mother often told you and other people how terribly sensitive and shy your were, how you were not good at talking to other kids, and so on. Later, it is likely that you grew up to be a terribly shy and sensitive adult. (The same is certainly true for positive self-fulfilling prophecies!). The emotional and feelings paths are well-worn and familiar; it feels like reality.
Then it’s you who takes over the self-fulfilling prophecy as an adult, in your self-identifying explanations: “I’m terrible at public speaking” continues to be true, as a self-fulfilling prophecy, through the feedback loops. But here again, it works the exact same way with positive self-fulfilling prophecies – the man who works to improve his public speaking skills initiates positive emotional feedback loops, creating pleasure in action and positive memories of competency, courage, pride and commitment, among other positive thoughts to add to the mental memory bank (and identity). When he thinks back to his experiences, he will experience positive emotional sequencing, such as joy and passion, and this will encourage him to take on the next challenge. The new memories of competence create more positive memories, and more positive identity, and the feedback loop becomes a regenerating one instead of a destructive one.
In a Nutshell…
The first part was about our emotions and the way they work. We’ve learned that:
- experience is about constant change
- our emotional sequencing happens automatically (that is, if we are not consciously directing it ourselves, which I will explain below)
- our subjective feeling experience and the thought-construction of our identity is based on our emotional sequencing
- our thoughts can create emotional sequencing loops, which helps us explain how we “create our own reality”
Part 2: Carried Emotions
In this second part, I want to focus exclusively on the most destructive aspect of these automatic emotional sequences for a moment. Here, I want to introduce carried emotions.
Self-Experienced Emotions vs. Carried Emotions
First, there are self-experienced emotions. This means: your automatic emotional sequence is a physiological response to something that is happening to you now, in the moment.
Then, there are carried emotions. Carried emotions are emotions carried inside us from someone else. It is as though we were carrying someone else’s emotional baggage with us from the past into the present moment.
It is an emotional sequencing that we “inherited” or learned, or some combination of the two, from parents, caregivers, and important adults in our society and culture. The result is that “false” sequences lead us to have false emotions about a situation or a potential situation, hence not allowing us to have access to our own feelings about the situation, hence not allowing us to have our own thoughts about a situation, hence not allowing us to create our own identity. Carried emotional sequencing leads us to feel someone else’s pain, fear, shame, guilt or other emotions, rather than our own, and leads us to react to the situation that is happening to us now as if it were someone else’s situation in the past.
It is as if we were carrying the emotional sequencing of someone else’s past into our present.
“Carrying” someone else’s emotions into our present life means that the emotional reactions to external or internal changes in the present aren’t sincerely our own. As described above, being false, these carried emotional reactions often lead us to create mildly or highly dysfunctional feedback loops. These dysfunctional feedback loops cause us to create and recreate ongoing or recurring painful or frustrating situations, thereby causing us to have a subjective experience of and, repeated over time, a strong belief in a false identity.
How to Be Aware of Carried Emotions
The signs of carried emotion are very clear, and serve as easy “markers” as to where the carried emotion is coming from. There are different signs that make us aware of our carried emotions.
Notice the Physical Signs
It is fascinating to observe the distinct and unmistakable physical differences between our own emotional reactions and carried emotional reactions. Both are realized as a set of biological processes (the physiological sequencing as discussed above), but interestingly, they are not the same biological processes (physiological sequences). The differences between them, which I will describe below in detail, are unmistakable signs of whether an emotion is your own or carried.
In our own emotional reactions our bodies respond simply to the situational change at hand. This emotional response is neutral and serves as important information about the change in our internal, external or mental environment. It “generates” for us an intuition or instinct about what we need to do in any given situation, such as seeing physical or emotional danger. Our heart starts racing in order to send blood to the whole body to give it the energy it needs to respond to the fight or flight intuition. Evolutionarily speaking, our own emotional response “tells” us to leave the scene or to otherwise protect ourselves. We respond accordingly, and the situation is complete.
Carried emotional reactions also serve to give us important information, but not at all in the same way that our own emotional reactions do. While our own reactions generally give us helpful intuition or an instinct to act appropriately in response to change, the hallmark of a carried emotional reaction is that it doesn’t give us any instinctively helpful action to take. Rather, it often causes us to feel stuck, frozen, paralyzed, hopeless, or at the other extreme rageful and out of control. When we are in danger, our carried emotions might cause us to freeze or act otherwise inappropriately, in turn causing us to hurt ourselves or others. It is worth mentioning here that an additional problem with carried emotions is that they can also cause us to see danger where it doesn’t exist (i.e. “No one will ever love me if I’m not perfect”).
Signs of Negative Carried Emotions
Shame as your own reaction generally produces a body sensation of heat or redness around the face, neck, and upper chest (just imagine saying something really inappropriate during your public presentation). Embarrassment, humiliation and having our weaknesses exposed are some feelings labels you could put to describe the mental experience of the physical emotions of shame. This reaction serves to allow you to excuse yourself, apologize, try again, or otherwise improve your behavior.
Shame as a carried reaction generally produces a body sensation in the gut, rather than in the face, neck and upper chest. And it won’t just be a sensation of redness or heat, it will be a heavy sense of worthlessness felt in the abdomen. Rather than just embarrassment, the feelings that result from carried emotions are more severe – severe self-doubt, feeling like you’re not worthy to try again, and other similar value judgments that attack your value as a person. Repeated over time, they cause you to have a negative identity, and experience yourself as a “shameful person” rather than just a “person who made a mistake.”
Fear as your own reaction is experienced physiologically as a tingling in the upper stomach and/or a tightness in the upper chest. Apprehension, threat and overwhelm are the associated feelings, and allow you to ask for help, to protect yourself, to face your fears, and/or to seek safety.
Fear as a carried reaction is experienced as a numbness and/or tingling in the arms and legs, and as panic (yes, this is the panic in panic attacks!). Whereas fear as a self-experienced emotion allows you to take action and protect yourself from threat and overwhelm, fear as a carried emotion makes you freeze and sometimes literally “go numb.” You can’t move to protect yourself. You don’t ask for help. And repeated over time, you feel that “life is scary” rather than that a particular situation was scary.
Anger as your own reaction is felt as a strong neutral power throughout your entire body, giving you the energy to act positively. You can use the energy to respond, express yourself, protect yourself, or whatever action might be appropriate for the moment.
Anger as a carried reaction is felt as an intense pressure and sense of rage in your abdomen. In this case, you will tend to have more extreme thoughts of revenge, rage, violence, and maybe even hatred in response to a given situation. And while this will certainly give you energy, it will not be a neutral energy that you can use to act positively. Instead, your carried anger will usually be more internal (in fact, depression is often described as “anger turned inward”). Even if you do externalize the anger, let’s say, by starting a verbal or physical fight to dissipate the rage and pressure in your gut, you know that you will not likely leave the situation satisfied with yourself or with a feeling of resolution and closure to the situation. Repeated over time, carried anger leads to seeing “stupid people everywhere,” arrogance, depression, and other chronic forms of dissatisfaction with the world and the people in it (often including ourselves!).
Guilt as your own reaction is experienced in the belly as a gnawing sensation. With this neutral discomfort, you might realize the mistake you made and go apologize to the person you have hurt. You may seek help to understand why you did what you did, and how you can behave differently in the future. You can take positive action.
Guilt as a carried reaction is about feeling physically stuck and unable to move – the sensation of the bottom of our feet being stuck to the ground. Carried guilt is in some ways a death sentence which removes our permission to go forward and continue living fully. With your own guilt, you get to excuse your behavior and try again. With carried guilt, you might abandon your project, deny you did anything wrong, blame others, justify your actions, claim that you are the real victim, or perhaps just stay quiet, not say anything, try to compensate for your behavior, not seek help, or not change your behavior. Repeated over time, you see yourself or others as “guilty people” rather than just as forgiveable humans making progress, and learning as we go.
Pain as your own reaction is experienced as a hurting in the lower chest and heart area. Your own pain allows you to grieve, have gratitude for the good even amidst the pain, and eventually integrate loss into your life with acceptance. It allows you to physically, emotionally, and mentally process change and loss in a healthy way.
Pain as a carried reaction is felt in the gut as a pressure and as a profound sense of hopelessness. Carried pain doesn’t let you grieve or move on, it stays in the belly and threatens you with the hopelessness of life. In this case, you might refuse to accept that death, loss, disappointment, hurt and pain are a part of life, and you may avoid taking action to grieve and move on. This often leads to physical illness as an expression of the carried pain.
Signs of Carried Positive Emotions
It is interesting that we can also carry positive emotions. Have you ever met a person who laughs inappropriately or seems uncomfortable enjoying themselves? The expressions of positive carried emotions are subtler (carried sexual passion is an exception here), and are more visible by noticing what other emotions accompany the positive carried emotion. One might, for example, profoundly love their child; however, feeling embarrassed by the profound love they feel, they might then feel carried shame and be unable to express their love clearly to their child. In the case of carried sexual passion, one might feel carried guilt for having such strong impulses and feelings, and as a response, either express their passions in destructive ways (such as sexual addiction, at the extreme) or simply severely limit their sexual expression. I can attest in my years of working with people that many of us are afraid or ashamed of our positive emotions, and it is crucial that we understand whether we are limiting ourselves from feeling the good in life!
The key here is that the self-experience of positive emotion feels comfortable and unique to oneself, and one can feel a great depth and breadth of positive emotion without discomfort, fear, or judgment. When it feels bad or uncomfortable to feel positive emotion, one can be sure there is a carried emotion or emotions at play. Here is how we experience joy, passion and love:
Love experienced as both self- and carried emotion is experienced as a warmth and swelling in the chest area. Carried love can lead to other accompanying emotions as listed above, notably fear and shame.
Self-experienced joy is felt as a lightness throughout the body. Carried joy can lead to other accompanying emotions as listed above, notably fear, guilt and shame.
Self-experienced passion is felt as a positive overall power or energy (as opposed the neutral power and energy of anger). Enthusiasm, desire, and sexual desire and arousal are included here. Carried passion is felt as nausea and can lead to other accompanying carried emotions as well, notably shame. Carried sexual passion is felt as an icky, slimy and dirty feeling, and can lead to other accompanying carried emotions, notably fear, guilt, and shame.
Look For the “Inner Voice” or “Vision”
Emotions are often accompanied by an inner voice (also experienced at times as inner wordless images), but the tone of the voice or vision serves two very different purposes in self-experienced and carried emotions.
In reaction to our own emotions, we may hear a clear, distinct, and helpful voice guiding us or, in moments of urgency or crisis, commanding us to clearly act. We see a man on the street fall over in pain, we hear the voice in our head “call the police!” and we obey. The voice serves to help us act positively, efficiently and appropriately.
With carried emotions, we may hear a clear, distinct voice, but this time it is bullying us, telling us why we aren’t capable of handling the situation, threatening us about the consequences, and so on. We see the man on the street fall over, we stand back and watch, frozen, and can’t seem to find the courage to act. In fact, with carried emotions, we develop a “story” – a narrative we tell ourselves about who we are and the way the world is. We develop sometimes complex justifications for why we can’t act, why we are “like that” and so on. (i.e. “I always panic in a crisis, so I’m no good at helping out”).
If you have a complicated story, you can imagine that you’re carrying emotions. Without carried emotions, life is much simpler. Your emotions give you information to act, you respond, and the story is finished. With carried emotions, the story is never finished, because it’s about holding back, attacking, hopelessness, rage, panic, and overwhelm. Later that evening (when the man fell on the street and we didn’t help him), we berate ourselves for our incompetence and worry that we’ve contributed to the death of an innocent man. Then, as a consequence, we drag others into our carried drama by awfulizing our story or our position, or seeing ourselves as hopeless, or worse, projecting our carried emotions onto others and seeing them as the “cause.” Perhaps we pick a fight with our spouse, or complain about the government, or are harsh with our children or employees, pointing out how incompetent they all seem to be. We do this, unconsciously, so that we can project our blame onto someone else, and feel (temporarily) relieved of the painful carried feelings of incompetence that we are carrying inside ourselves. (If you want to know how someone feels about him- or herself, listen attentively to what they say about others!)
When all carried emotions are dropped, there is no more story. Life is at it is (does this remind you of some common spiritual teachings of being in the present moment?).
People with carried emotions believe consciously or unconsciously that, as individuals, they are to some measure bad, stupid, unworthy, worthless, shameful, “not good enough,” unlovable, incapable, inferior, or superior.
People with carried emotions believe consciously or unconsciously that, as individuals, they are to some measure bad, stupid, unworthy, worthless, shameful, “not good enough,” unlovable, incapable, inferior, or superior. At the extreme, they can believe that life is hopeless, scary, unfair, or exhausting. They can justify their position, their inappropriate behavior and their inaction with projected “facts” such as that other people are selfish, stupid, incompetent, more powerful, or less powerful than they are. They can claim that love, peace and joy is impossible; or some combination of all of these thoughts and others.
Example: How I Learned About Carried Emotions
I learned about carried emotions at a time when I myself was carrying some paralyzing emotions. I was at the start of my career and in the process of trying to define my identity as an independent and autonomous adult. However, I wanted people to be happy with me and was eager to please them. And while pleasing others and making them happy is certainly not a fault in itself, in my case, it had become a fault because of my carried fear. When my own wants or needs conflicted with the wants or needs of someone else close to me – which they often did – I sometimes became literally unable to choose or assert what I wanted and ended up doing what they wanted instead (and feeling angry about it and resenting them!). It wasn’t that I chose willingly to refrain from saying what I wanted; rather, I was unable, physically unable, to react – physically paralyzed with numbing and tingling in my arms and legs.
This was the physical sign of carried fear. It wasn’t my own fear – which I would have felt as a tightness in my upper chest or as a tingling in my upper stomach, as a neutral source of information and energy prompting me to speak up for myself! Rather, I experienced mental and physical numbness as a real panic, and was often unable to even formulate the words that I would have needed in order to communicate. The voice accompanying the carried emotions told me things like, “You have to do what they want!” and “You can’t disappoint them!” and “You should feel guilty for wanting something different.” And with these thoughts, carried guilt had entered the picture. I felt carried guilt in the bottom of my feet, as though I was stuck to the ground, unable to move, unable to choose.
When I was all alone with my thoughts, I seemed able to formulate my own independent desires, wishes and preferences. But when I was with others, or thought about others who I knew wouldn’t approve of my wishes and preferences, I seemed unable to be aware of my needs. When I thought about contradicting others’ wishes, my mind became mushy and often I couldn’t think straight or take appropriate action to assert my own needs or behave in a healthy (non-codependent) manner.
I experienced this cognitive dissonance (two conflicting facts at once: “what I wanted” vs. “what they wanted”) in my mind and body as a complete block – unable to think and unable to act. And as a carried fear response, I simply submitted myself to the other. But the submission wasn’t really so simple, because it led to carried anger (feeling that my wishes were “invisible” to others). The rage I felt in my body led to physical symptoms and rather severe cynicism toward others and toward life (need I point out that this was not a healthy situation to be as a beginning psychologist?)
A fellow psychologist pointed out to me at that time that my adult panic (and other carried emotions) seemed to be carried from my past. She asked me about my mom’s emotional state when I was born, which surprised me as a question – I had thought my anxiety was caused by my own inefficiency in responding well to people’s demands, and other such “stories” and justifications (this is what the inner voice linked to my carried emotions regularly told me). In fact, it was true that my mom had talked to me about her pregnancy, and that while she had been very excited to have me, she was also very anxious about a variety of things during her pregnancy and even suffered a post-partum depression once I was born. As the psychologist pointed out, anxiety had, in many ways, always been with me even from the womb, and in fact, the roots of it had been awaiting me at my conception.
As I studied the phenomenon of carried emotions and thought about my own family, I began to understand that I really had been “born into” a general anxiety, and especially into the people-pleasing anxiety of my parents who were themselves people-pleasers of the gentlest kind. My parents genuinely wanted to make everyone happy, which again, is not a fault in itself; however, it had become a fault, and even destructive, because not pleasing others caused them high anxiety (as had become the case with me). And the reality in life is, as we all know: you can’t please everyone.
Instinctively knowing anxiety (some might even say being “programmed for it”) from even before birth, and not knowing any better as a child, I unwittingly adopted the same “limits” of thinking and behaving in my personal relationships as my parents did. Pleasing others – and having anxiety (panic) in the face of displeasing them – was something I was “programmed” with very early on, and which was adapted into my mind and physical structure, including the physiological sequencing of my emotions in response to it. At key times as a child, when I faced opportunities of displeasing others or asserting my conflicting needs, I unconsciously blocked myself physically and mentally toward doing so, sensing that those thoughts and behaviors caused my caregivers anxiety. To put it another way, my preexisting “emotional sequencing programs” and feedback loops didn’t register or allow for the expression of causing others discomfort. And the feedback loop helped me integrate this instinctively into my sense of identity. I was a “people pleaser” and a “good girl.”
I wasn’t able to properly develop the feeling of comfort when disagreeing with others, or having preferences that did not match theirs. I wasn’t really able to develop my preferences, because others’ preferences came first. When in a conflicting situation, the voice in my head told me “You have to do what they want,” and there was no other option. (I’ll explain below how I have overcome this as an adult, and how you can follow the same process if you are experiencing carried emotions).
Part 3: Family Cycles
You might be able to guess by now that my parents’ emotions were also carried. They conceived and “taught” me to be a people-pleaser because they too were conceived and taught (emotionally “programmed”) to be people-pleasers. And my grandparents were people-pleasers as well. And though I never really knew them, I can imagine that their parents were as well. And on and on.
My editor asked me when editing this article whether carried emotions could be considered genetic. In a way, yes. It is as if we “inherit” the emotional blocks of the people that raise us (though the genetic discussion of such a transfer is too complicated for the purposes of this article). And I dared to share my own story here because, in fact, it isn’t uniquely my story. It is rather universal as a theme. So many of us come from generations of “people-pleasers,” or “conflict-avoiders” or “conflict-makers” or whatever theme describes your family line. Children of alcoholic parents often tend toward alcoholism. Because it’s genetic? In part, and that idea includes the fact that alcoholic parents are carrying emotions from their past, and not knowing how to face or fix those emotions, they numb them with alcohol (here we can see the theme of numbing and non-action). Their children, who later tend toward alcoholism, didn’t learn from their alcoholic parent(s) how to process and resolve the carried emotions, but did learn how to numb them…with alcohol. And when they have kids, if they don’t learn how to face and resolve their carried emotions, their kids stand a good chance of not developing the emotional capacity to resolve the carried emotions either; yet, once again, they will know an effective way to numb them – with alcohol. And so the family cycle continues.
It is when one individual in the family cycle says, “enough is enough,” and takes the time to learn about what emotions they are carrying and how to resolve them, that these “genetic” or inherited programs are updated and overcome. This is also true in different ways on the level of the community, the society, cultures, and so on.
The Link Between Breaking Family Cycles and Giftedness
Because of the often heightened emotional experience of gifted individuals, the responsibility for breaking these family cycles of carried emotion often falls to them. Everyone who carries emotions experiences the pain of it, but many don’t experience the pain intensely enough to be motivated to take action (this could be called a “slow burn”). Gifted people, however, often experience the pain of carried emotion very intensely (this could be called a “raging fire”), and so the motivation to resolve the source of the pain becomes urgent. If they don’t have the help they need, gifted people in these moments risk being overtaken in the fire (burnout, depression, physical sickness, etc.) – at least for a while – until they do find the help they need. Once they do have the support they need, as I witness every day in my work, they are able to make amazing changes in their own lives as well as their family systems (and usually, in their entire circle of influence, which can often be vast).
One snag for gifted people is that they often resent being responsible for breaking the cycle. They often ask, “Why me?” (as in, “Why doesn’t the responsibility fall instead to my parents, or my brothers or sisters?”). And my answer is always, “Because you are the one who can.” Many times, the parents, brothers or sisters are simply not able to take the responsibility at present, aren’t aware or interested in such a process, and maybe never will be. The key is that, in any given situation of need for change, those who have the possibility to change can choose the responsibility. Those who don’t have the motivation and/or capacity, cannot choose the responsibility. Responsibility comes with awareness, and it is this awareness (and its intensity) which is often experienced as the blessing and the curse in the gifted person’s life.
If you are gifted, and you experience your awareness as a curse, you can probably be sure that even this is linked to carried emotion – after all, a curse by its very definition means that things are hopeless, and therefore there is no good action (paralysis, stalemate). To the gifted person, I encourage you strongly to look at the opportunity you have to resolve pain, and to be grateful that you do have the opportunity. As you can see from the above paragraph, and a quick mental scan of the people you know, many people don’t have the opportunity at present (the awareness, motivation or capacity). And to those who rise to the challenge, I say: Thank you for taking responsibility for resolving your carried emotion. Your action gives us all the possibility of change. Changing part of the system changes, necessarily, the whole. Without you, we could all be stuck in unconscious carried pain for the next hundreds of years! Do it for us! And do it for yourself!
Part 4: How to Break the Cycle of Carried Emotions
This is all rather simplistic reasoning (a bit of a “just-so” story), yet there is a profound truth contained within it, and I could give countless examples of clients stories from all around the world that attest to its power. The idea is that, if you are carrying emotions, and if your feelings, thoughts, and identity have been based on them, you can change it, now. You can “reprogram” and free yourself of someone else’s past. The point is, you can’t fix someone else’s past. In some ways, you can’t even really fix yours. But you can free yourself in the present! The obvious question is How?
Here, I will walk you through a process to help you free yourself from the carried emotions. It is the same process that I followed in order to free myself of the carried fear and guilt I described above. It does not take years of psychotherapy, just dedication and conscious attention.
Step 1: First, pay attention to the physical signs of carried emotions
Where are the emotions in your body? What are they like? Do they incite you to action or do they make you feel blocked and paralyzed? If the body sensations are keeping you from taking action, it is carried emotion. Refer to the chart above with the common physical reactions and their accompanying emotions to help you in your evaluation.
Step 2: Listen to the voice accompanying your physical sensations (or see the images accompanying them)
If the voice is bullying, discouraging, judgmental, violent, rude, or threatening, it is carried emotion (or if the image is threatening, painful, or frightening). If the body sensations are keeping you from having a clear mind, it is carried emotion.
Step 3: Identify the voice
Listen to the voice in your mind (or see the image) that accompanies the emotion. Is it your voice, or someone else’s from the past? What is the nature of the image? What thoughts is it telling you? (i.e. “You idiot! How could you make such a stupid relational mistake! No one will ever love you! You probably don’t even deserve to be loved!”). When we are honest, we usually discover that the voice is curiously familiar, but that in fact, it doesn’t really belong to us at all. Rather, it’s the voice of a parent, or a caregiver from our past (or an image of them) threatening or pressuring us still today through our carried emotions. Often, the voice (or image) is that of a parent experiencing his or her own carried emotions. Usually the voice is very quickly identifiable – your mother, your father, etc.
I recently did this exercise with a client, a 50-year-old woman who is exceptionally competent, educated, well-spoken, wise, warm and loveable. She owns her own business and has success in many areas. But this particular day, she was in a panic – she wanted to speak up to a business partner about an inappropriate action that had been taken, but when we role-played about what she planned to say in the meeting, she became physically stuck. She couldn’t find her words, and even began to stutter. This kind of “reversion” to a child-like state (pre-verbal) is classic of carried emotion, similar to that of my own example described above. I asked her, “What voice do you hear in your head right now?”
“It’s not a voice, it’s an image,” she answered without pause, “It’s my dad. I see him clearly at our kitchen table…” It was as if she had gone back in time, and had once again become a little girl in the kitchen with her dad, and, as is often the case in these moments, she was overcome with emotion and began to cry. She told me about her dad’s stoicism in the face of conflict – a stoicism that turned to rage when his “buttons were pushed.” She imagined him silent, at the kitchen table, and she felt her fear of speaking up to him…in fact, she realized as we talked, she felt his fear. She felt his fear of conflict and his fear of being out of control, which, when she really thought about it, seemed more like a carried fear that he too was carrying from someone else in his past… After realizing this, she suddenly became inspired to talk again – but this time, using her own words and feeling her own emotion. And her meeting with her business partner went great. She gave the feedback that needed to be given, without fearing retribution, and experienced a newfound sense of pride and freedom (this time, making good memories of facing conflict appropriately).
These moments are special in coaching, when I get to see clients understand in a flash the unconscious pain they have been feeling for so long, and to see them, in the same moment, begin to overcome it. It is beautiful to watch the underdeveloped or stunted aspects of clients’ personalities finally grow up! There is an innocence to these aspects that is beautiful and vulnerable, very much like an impressionable child. It is a privilege for me to be able to help these aspects to come out of the past and to discover life in the present!
Others have told me during this exercise about hearing their mothers’ voice telling them how selfish they are, or “hearing” their fathers’ silence, or feeling their parents’ shame about being “poor”, or seeing their mother crying in secret, or of themselves being left alone or threatened at key moments. Whatever your particular case, when you’ve identified the voice, or see the image, this is the person whose emotion you are carrying.
Step 4: Visualization – Giving back the carried emotion
This is the crucial moment. Now, imagine that person (whose voice you hear in your mind, or whose image you see in your mind’s eye) in front of you. I am going to walk you through a highly effective visualization exercise to help you let go of the carried emotion. It is the same one I used to break free of my own carried emotions, and the same one I recommend regularly to clients.
Imagine the emotion you are carrying from the person whose voice or face you’ve identified in your mind – the shame, let’s say. Imagine their shame in a box, and imagine holding that box in your hands. Tell the person in front of you, “Here, this is your shame. Today, I am giving it back to you. It is not mine, and I will no longer carry it.”
In my case, I first imagined myself giving my mom’s fear of displeasing others back to her. As an initial reaction, I felt incredible relief, feeling for the first time that I really could have my own preferences and assert my own needs. After all, without the carried fear, it seemed suddenly obvious that there was no objective rule making others more (nor less) important than me. It seemed plainly obvious that I had not been born to live someone else’s life! What freedom! But only seconds later, I was taken over once again by a wave of carried fear (as an emotional sequencing)!
Interestingly, it is very common to feel intense carried fear or guilt when giving back carried emotions – even though it is a mental exercise, and the person is not physically present with us, we may fear retribution from them for our “disloyalty” (for refusing to continue carrying their shame or other emotions), or we may feel guilty for “hurting them” by giving the shame or other emotions back to them. In my case, as I gave back (in my mind) the carried fear to my mom, and as I passed from feeling relief to feeling carried fear once again, I distinctly heard a panicked voice, “But she can’t handle it (the carried fear I was giving back)!”. I took the time then to reflect on the reality of that panicked voice and where it came from. In fact, it was my mom’s voice from when I was a young child. And when I thought about it, it was clearly what she believed about herself back then (at least to some extent). But when I thought about it in terms of the present and of who my mom was now, it was no longer true. My mom was no longer the young, stressed mother of three. She had grown up in many ways and now she could handle her own fears, even her own carried fears. So, I put that old carried fear and overwhelm in a box, and gave that back to her too.
Gaining Conscious Control Over Our Emotional Life
If you experience fear, guilt or other debilitating emotions while doing this mental exercise, they are most likely carried, as they serve to keep you from taking positive action (from carrying out the exercise, and from freeing yourself). To deal with these “secondary” carried emotions, repeat the process: feel them in your body, listen to and identify the voice associated with them. It most likely comes from the same person you have been giving carried emotions back to. Imagine the secondary carried emotion in a box in your hands, and give that back too (or, in the case that you discover the secondary carried emotion is from a different person, give it back to them instead).
We are each responsible as adults for our own emotional maturity. You cannot continue to carry the emotional weight of others from your past and at the same time have full access to your mind, body, energy, and life decisions. It is time for you to get back your own life. Let others respond to their own emotions. Now it’s time for you to take responsibility for your own emotions (notice here where you might be giving emotions for others to carry for you!). When you take responsibility for your own emotional life, you no longer need to push your emotional overwhelm onto others (often your children), and you break the cycle of passing down carried emotions generation after generation.
Remember: Our own emotions serve as information from the current situation, directing us to act in the now. Carried emotions serve as information from ours/others’ unresolved past to paralyze us so that we cannot take positive action.
Think about it: how would you feel if it was just your feelings – no threats, no shaming? And how would life be for your children, your family, your friends, if everyone got to feel only his or her own emotions (aside from empathy, which is a healthy expression of feeling, but not carrying, others emotions) and got to take integrous action according to their own inner self-knowledge? It would be a different world! Guilt, shame, fear, and pain would no longer be overwhelming aspects to run from, but rather messages to be listened to, and calls for doable action.
So, what happens after you give back the carried shame? It pops up again and again, and you do the visualization again and again, until one day you realize that the inner voice is changing. You start to hear your own voice – (maybe for the first time!). It’s calmer, surer, and never threatening. Where the old carried voice threatened and scared you, your voice might say something like this: “So, you made a mistake. It’s not serious. Mistakes aren’t cause for abandonment, and don’t mean you don’t deserve love. You deserve love, and you can take the steps to behave in a more appropriate way now and in the future. Now, let’s take action!”
Many people with chronic anxiety and anger issues, as well as those with physical pain and illness, shame and guilt, are surprised and – after a time – relieved to learn that there is nothing “wrong” with them. Rather, they have been carrying the denied emotions of others within them, and have been acting out or feeling paralyzed as a result, thereby repeating a vicious cycle of pain and reaction that seems to play itself over and over without end. And they are freed as they learn to recognize when they are being “taken over” by others’ emotions, and choose to give those carried emotions back, feeling their own emotions again (or sometimes for the first time). Over time and with practice, previously chronic anxiety and anger issues become questions of the past, as well as physical pain, illnesses, and other seemingly unsolvable problems of life. Moreover, these issues of the past are replaced with something much more valuable – an identity based on one’s own emotions and feelings, in the moment, with no drama, and no judgments.
With practice, we gain conscious control over the automatic feedback loops which once created ongoing pain and frustration. Life is lived consciously, in the moment, uniquely through our own subjective feelings, and how we “construct” our mind becomes much more a matter of choice and intention than ever before! We begin, consciously, to create our own reality.
(For more information on carried emotions, see the work of therapist Pia Mellody. This article was adapted from her Eight Basic Emotions Chart.)
About Jennifer Harvey Sallin
Jennifer is the founder of InterGifted and is a mentor and coach for gifted people. She specializes in mentoring and coaching highly, exceptionally and profoundly gifted adults. She also provides training and mentoring for gifted coaches and writes extensively on giftedness and self-development. You can find her articles here on IG's blog and on her own blog at Rediscovering Yourself. She is happy to consult with you or connect you to our coaches in InterGifted's Coaching Network. Feel free to reach out!