God created emotion and hard wired us all with emotion. So what is emotion? Where does it come from? And how is emotion important in relationships?
In This Article
“The mind is an embodied and relational process. . .” – Dan Siegel
“To love at all is to be vulnerable.” – C.S. Lewis
What is Emotion?
“How does that make you feel?”
If you grew up anything like me, you don’t really remember being asked this question. I heard people around me talk about “emotional” as synonymous with needy, hormonal, erratic, irrational, immature, and weak. Emotional was something I did not want to be. When I talk to my clients about emotion, they often express a similar aversion to emotions.
Yet God created emotion and hard wired us all with emotion. So what is emotion? Where does it come from? And how is emotion important in relationships?
Emotions originate from the lower regions of the brain; which are the brainstem and limbic systems. Emotions are physiological states that alert us to both pleasures and dangers. They are generated reflexively and authentically by how we experience our environment. Emotions are physical states that create sensations in our bodies. Words like anxiety or sadness are words meant to describe the embodied experience of emotion. (See Figure 1 for where in our body we commonly feel different emotions).
Emotions reflect the honest response of our experience. We feel emotion quicker than we think. Emotions just are; they are not right or wrong. Each of us are wired by God with the universal experience of emotion. Emotions are subconsciously evoked from how our brain appraises our internal and external world.
What is the Importance of Emotion?
Emotions are key to connection. Emotion is the energy by which our brain organizes itself to ourselves and others. Emotion is the means by which we experience connection to God, our own self and others.
To feel connected we must feel known by God and others. When our loved ones feel known by us, they feel connected to us. I am not saying our emotion makes God’s love any more real or unreal; I am saying that feeling felt by and known by God is how we experience a felt sense of connection with Him. This is how we escape the ever puzzling dichotomy of, “My head knows, but why doesn’t my heart feel it to be true?”
What is Emotional Intelligence?
Emotional Intelligence is defined as “the ability to identify, understand, and use emotions positively to manage anxiety, communicate well, empathize, overcome issues, solve problems, and manage conflicts . . . it is the perception, evaluation, and management of emotions in yourself and others . . . the ability to perceive, use, understand, and regulate emotions” (Gutierrez-Cobo, Cabello & Fernandez).
Another author defines Emotional Intelligence/Quotient as “the ability to recognize our own feelings and those of others, to motivate ourselves, and to handle our emotions well to have the best for ourselves and for our relationships” (Boyatzis, Goleman & Clustering).
So Emotional Intelligence (E.Q) is the ability to perceive and understand the feelings of ourselves and of others, and to use and regulate emotion for our health and the health of our relationships. Your E.Q is vital in the strength of your mental health and the quality of connection in your relationships.
The Primal Brain & Emotional Experience
To increase your Emotional Intelligence Quotient, you need to understand some things about the unconscious processes of the primal brain.
The Primal Brain: Importance of Implicit Memory
Emotion always makes sense given our historical experience. Consider memory and how it impacts our experiences. Explicit memory involves information and experiences we are not able to consciously recall. Implicit memory involves perceptual and emotional unconscious memories. This implicit learning turns into procedural memory that creates our reflexive anticipation of what we expect and know about others and ourselves.
Early Relationships Create Implicit Memory
We start building our implicit memory from our first day. Babies cry because they expect others to care and to come when they are hurting, afraid, and hungry. Every child is unconsciously asking “Am I lovable?” and “Is the world safe?/What can I expect from others?”. These questions are answered by how others respond to our early vulnerability and needs. These responses create our unconscious relational expectations.
Implicit Memory in Action
When something happens, our brain immediately appraises the cue to make sense of what has happened. There is a trigger, an appraisal and then a behavior. Implicit memory informs the appraisal and the procedural response.
Imagine that you arrive home and notice your partner’s tone of voice. Implicit memory informs the brain appraisal of this cue. Perhaps your implicit memory says that your spouse is mad at you, you have done something wrong and they don’t like you. Your body is immediately activated and you have the urge to get away. Behaviorally you answer your spouse’s questions about your day with one syllable and retreat as quickly as you can to a project in another part of the house. Your go-to counter-maneuver is to withdraw to relieve your stress at the tension.
But it seldom helps the situation in marriage, because you have heard that tone of voice many times before, but mainly from your dad who would come home from work and lash out at you in his stress. At the time, you may not have been consciously aware of your anxiety, hurt, fear or shame and now this implicit memory informs the meaning you make of a situation and your reflexive action. There may be little awareness that your reaction to your partner has anything to do with your father. This unconscious response blocks curiosity and connection.
Imagine instead if you asked, “Your tone of voice sounds tense. Is everything okay?” And perhaps your partner received distressing news about a loved one earlier in the day or feels physically ill with a headache. Or maybe they respond, “Yes, you told me you would call me on your lunch break today and I waited for you, but you didn’t call. I feel hurt that you forgot me.” In these scenarios curiosity gives you the information to offer care, repair and reestablish connection.
The Primal Brain: The Fight, Flight, & Freeze response.
When our brain appraises a cue as a threat, the alarm in our brain goes off and has veto power over every other process. This part of our brain’s job is to alert us to danger, flagging relational, emotional and physical threats. Implicit memory impacts what may be appraised as a threat given historical experience.
God wired us for connection and we rely on connection for survival, so relational and emotional danger is rightfully coded as danger. You may feel as activated by danger in feeling distance or criticism from your spouse as you would in light of a physical danger. When such a threat is active in the body, the flight, fight or freeze reflex is initiated. Recognizing the fight, flight and freeze response in yourself and your loved ones is important because it informs what will be helpful. When the nervous system is agitated with this primal fear, we need reassurance, protection and to be heard. Logic, arguing, invalidation or withdraw will agitate and worsen fight, flight or freeze. When the nervous system is calmed, connection and safety can be reestablished in the relationship.
E.Q Skills in Action
Attunement to self and others:
Practice identifying your own emotions. This is the beginning of attuning to your emotional world, which will in turn help you attune to the emotional world within your loved ones. You cannot understand in others what you do not understand in yourself. With patient curiosity ask yourself “What am I feeling?” and notice what is present with non-judgment. Your feelings give you vital information about what you need and how to care for yourself. Your emotion motivates your behavior whether you are aware of it or not. Bringing conscious attention to your emotion protects from reactivity and helps build self-mastery in choosing your response.
When you attune to yourself and understand your needs, you are able to reach out in your vulnerability to God and to trusted others. This vulnerable reaching is an E.Q skill that facilitates healthy connection. Learning to attune to others is the skill of accurately understanding the emotions of your loved ones, feeling empathy, and taking caring action in response. This empowers you to provide your loved ones with the experience of feeling known and loved by you.
Provide Acceptance, Curiosity, and Empathy for feelings
Has your partner ever shared how they feel and you are bewildered by how illogical or wrong their feelings are given what you know? You may tell yourself ‘if they could just understand this . . . then they would never feel that way.’ So perhaps you embark on trying to inform their emotions into disappearing. Unfortunately, this will never work. It would be unhelpful to tell your spouse, child or yourself that you shouldn’t feel a certain way, because in fact the feeling is already present. Emotion means literally ‘to move’; when we accept the presence of the emotion and offer it care, this enables the emotion to move through us and be discharged.
After acceptance, next approach the emotion with non judgmental curiosity. Ask questions to help you look beyond the surface of what your loved one is telling you. Be curious about what fears, insecurities and implicit memory is present. “What was that like for you when that happened?” “What did you feel inside when your co-worker said that to you?” “How are you doing with what happened?” This curiosity is drawing the emotion out to be felt, cared for and released in the context of a safe relationship.
After accepting the emotion and showing curiosity, finally offer care to the feelings and the needs they represent. You can do this first by reflective listening, repeat what you heard them say and ask if you got it right or missed anything. Reflective listening makes our loved one feel seen and heard and is very calming to the nervous system. Express you care and empathy by saying things like, “I am so sorry you feel that way. I can tell you are really in pain.” “Thank you for sharing that you were sad that the teacher said that to you in front of the class. I don’t like that she did that. I feel sad you experienced that.” “I feel that anger with you. That was not right.”
When you are able to empathize with what your loved one is experiencing and actively express care, this gives them the experience of ‘feeling felt’ which brings tremendous safety, and your loved one will have the gift of not just cognitively knowing but experiencing your love, acceptance and protectiveness.
I hope this article was helpful to you in your endeavor to experience a fulfilled and fruitful relational life. There is nothing in life more powerful to bring hope, strength and peace as experiencing love and connection with our important others.
- Thompson, C. (2010). Anatomy of the soul: Surprising connections between neuroscience and spiritual practices that can transform your life and relationships.
- Gutiérrez-Cobo M.J., Cabello R., Fernández-Berrocal P. The relationship between emotional intelligence and cool and hot cognitive processes: A systematic review.
- Boyatzis R.E., Goleman D., Rhee K. Clustering competence in emotional intelligence: Insights from the Emotional Competence Inventory (ECI) In: Bar-On R.,
- Parker J.D.A., editors. Handbook of Emotional Intelligence. Jossey-Bass; San Francisco, CA, USA: 2000. pp. 343–362
If you would like good resources but don’t know where to start here are two very good resources to read aloud together as a couple.
Married Guys Guide to Great Sex by Clifford and Joyce Penner
Enjoy! The Gift of Sexual Pleasure for Women by Clifford and Joyce Penner