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Emotions sometimes make us do things that we would like to avoid because we may regret them. We remember the headshot of Zidane in the final of the World Cup in 2006: an insult and it’s a blood stroke, the nerves let go and the consequences are irreparable. The good news is that in emotional matters, there is no such thing as fatality. We have four access routes to our emotional life which constitute as many means of action on our emotions: our speech, our thought, our actions, and our body.
Descartes said: “I think therefore I am”. Cogito ergo sum. We can just as well say: “I feel therefore I am”. There are four ways to feel: by speech, by thought, by deeds and by the body. And four ways to act to control our emotions.
Act by our word
Speech provokes emotions. We can say: “I say therefore I feel” or “what I say is what I feel”. For example, when I say to someone, “I don’t want to get mad at you,” I say this to myself first; it means that I am already angry but that I try by my words to dissipate it, to exorcise it. Such a method proves effective. By saying, “I don’t want to get angry with you,” I manage to control my anger. The verbalization of the rejection of the emotion acts on it. Ditto if I say: “I am not afraid of you, you do not scare me”, this word reduces my fear. There is an auto-suggestion. “What I say is what I feel.”
The words that are addressed to me have the same effect on my emotions. We can say: “I hear therefore I feel” or “what I hear is what I feel”. For example, words of encouragement can dispel my fear. When a loved one says to me: “Don’t worry, everything will be fine, you’re safe with me, I’m here”, my fear diminishes.
Speech acts on our emotions in a very powerful way; it is the source of a large part of our emotions.
To act by our word, there are many techniques.
The Coué method is a method of self-suggestion or self-hypnosis by speaking oneself. It acts emotionally as a self-fulfilling prophecy. We have already seen above how much the words we intend for ourselves can act to dissipate our anger or our fear. They are also effective against envy. For example, when a friend announces good news or a success, the compliments we send him act on us like an exorcism of envy. By saying: “I am happy for you” or “I congratulate you”, even if we don’t think so (because we feel envy), after having said it, we start to think it and therefore to rejoice. The words spoken have an emotional ripple effect to which is added a moral effect. Speaking says you have to conform to it so as not to perceive yourself as a hypocrite.
Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is a method of communication that aims to prevent by speech the activation of negative emotions in others, in particular by avoiding any personal attack, any ad personam judgment.
Act by our thought
Thought provokes emotions. We can say: “I think therefore I feel” or “what I think is what I feel”. Imagine that I have bad thoughts about this or that person, about what they are or what they said or did. For example: “How dare he speak to me like that?” Who does he think he is? No one talks to me like that. I have no disrespect for me. Nobody treats me like that.” Such thoughts give rise to negative emotions in me, including anger. I emotionally self-intoxicate with my thoughts. “What I think is what I feel”.
There are also plenty of techniques to act on thought. Some are very old like meditation or prayer. The first is a mental practice which aims to focus all of your attention on an object and, in so doing, to empty yourself of all your thoughts and especially of your negative thoughts. The second consists in calling on the intervention of a divine and good being to find a solution favorable to the situation; in doing so, it bypasses negative emotions.
In both cases, thoughts that caused negative emotions are chased away. Other techniques are more recent such as cognitive behavioral therapies (CBT) even if these re-use the teachings of stoicism according to which what matters to be happy is not what happens to us (which does not depend on us), but our judgment on what happens to us, the representation we make of it (which depends on us).
In other words, if you can change your judgment about things, change your representation, you change your emotions. CBT aims to identify and dissipate the negative thought patterns that cause emotional disorders such as anxiety disorders (obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), phobias, panic disorder, etc.) and mood disorders (depression, disorders bipolar, dysthymia).
Act by our actions
Actions cause emotions. We can say: “I act therefore I feel” or “what I do is what I feel”. For example, if we are afraid of someone and we avoid them, our fear of meeting them will only grow. If we flee from danger, our fear increases because, by fleeing, we confirm ourselves in the position of the helpless victim, the prey who is right to flee. On the other hand, if we face danger, if we face it, our fear will decrease. “I act so I feel”.
Among the most harmless and easiest acts to perform are facial expressions. Choosing to adopt a certain facial expression opens the door to a certain emotion. So, for example, if you take the expression of disgust, you start to experience it; if we smile, we start to feel joy.
A Chinese proverb says: “Who smiles three times a day does not need medicine”. Smiling in itself is, therefore, a mini-therapy. American culture has made it a social code: “keep smiling”.
The actions of others can also arouse emotions in us. We can distinguish two categories of acts of others: those he directly towards us and those which he does not directly towards us. In the first case, we can say: “Others act towards me so I feel” or “what others do to me is what I feel”. For example, the smile of a person, even an unknown person, can be enough to fill us with joy. In the second case, we can say: “I observe others act therefore I feel” or “what I see doing by others is what I feel”. The discovery of mirror neurons in the 90s by the team of Giacomo Rizzolatti, professor of physiology of the medical school of Parma made it possible to establish that the brain does not make a difference between seeing and doing; which would explain empathy and our enthusiasm for TV, cinema or theater. We feel joy to see someone happy and we feel sad to see someone sad. “What I see done by others is what I feel.”
Like words, actions therefore act on our emotions very effectively and are also at the origin of a large part of our emotions. It follows that we can act on the emotional life of others by our words and by our actions.
To act on our acts, we also have cognitive-behavioral therapies, which, as their name suggests, invite to adopt new behavioral sequences more adapted to the situation in order to induce emotional changes. Positive psychology also offers to take actions that aim to stimulate positive emotions, such as keeping a gratitude book where we record everything that, in our daily life, makes us want to say “thank you”, to write a letter of gratitude or a visit of gratitude to someone who has brought us a lot.
Act through our body
The body causes emotions. We can say: “I feel therefore I feel” or “what I feel is what I feel”. We see, we hear, we touch, we taste, we feel, and what our senses perceive triggers emotions. So “what I feel is what I feel”.
There are many ways to act on the body. One can, for example, use breathing. Taking even a deep breath which can be enough to short-circuit anger. Going for a run, practicing a sport or a martial art, or following a yoga session also dissipate negative emotions. It is also possible to act chemically on the body by the use of drugs or medicines but these means make us passive and dependent on the management of our emotions.
We can, therefore, regulate our emotions by acting on our body, our speech, our thought, or our actions. These four means of action on emotions must be mobilized together to cultivate one’s zest for life and maintain those of others. But each of us has a favorite emotional channel because we have chosen to develop it further. Thus, an athlete or a dancer feels more by the body, a lawyer or a speaker by speech, a philosopher or a researcher by thought, a craftsman or a soldier by action. Knowing this, we will choose the most appropriate channel to act on our emotions and those of others.