Most of us become aware of our actions and behaviors before the other levels. We catch ourselves doing something that is embarrassing, annoying, shameful, or maybe even has gotten so bad that our life is in shambles or we have left a path of destruction in the wake. This can be a good start. Just like we took note of the ways we personally tend towards certain actions regarding our bodies and minds because of the Fall, this is an important level of self-awareness too.
But such a surface level awareness isn’t enough to change us. Have you ever tried to change at this level? I bet you have. I know I have. I told myself for the millionth time to just stop it. I told myself I just needed more willpower or self-mastery.
This type of slap-the-hands by only focusing on the outward actions may work for a time, but alone it won’t ever be enough for lasting change. Although awareness of our actions and behaviors is important, we cannot truly control them at this level alone. We are always responsible for the things we do and say, but what I am saying is if we are trying to influence our future actions and behaviors, this isn’t the place for that to happen.
Although, like some troublesome weed, we may just mow over the tops, it isn’t the same as pulling it up by the roots. Mowed over may look pretty, but we both know the weeds will only keep coming back. Attention simply on our “Actions/Behaviors” is not the roots.
Usually our awareness of our actions and behaviors can create a deeper awareness of our “Emotions.” Similarly, many begin with awareness of their bodies, and as they master it adequately enough they next become aware of their minds. Although noticing how we feel is important and can even be key in lasting change, a focus on this level isn’t enough to make it happen either.
We may argue that if we just keep our emotions in check we won’t resort to the unwanted actions or behaviors. Although this is true to circumvent unwanted actions and behaviors once we have already been set off in the present moment, it is simply a method to manage the “Emotions.” Although learning to manage our “Emotions” is important (we will actually catch more of that in a moment), that isn’t what I am talking about here.
The gospel of Jesus Christ has something even better than just learning to control our temper or manage other big feeling than at this level alone. It’s more than trying to curb our “Actions/Behaviors” either. Do you remember how we talked about the Hebrew word for Atonement being “covered.” God has a better plan than your own attempts to cope or manage or control. After our last chapter, I hope you have at least a general idea of Who is at the very center of that plan.
Learning to manage our emotions is important. When we learn how to regulate our emotions, we can diffuse big feelings before they spill out as harmful, unwanted, or unhelpful “Actions/Behaviors.” The “Emotional” level is our last chance to head off such “Actions/Behaviors.”
When we are mindful of ourselves, we can observe what is happening within us. Rather than ignoring, suppressing, or denying what we are feeling, we can learn to give it a name and lean into the emotion. It may seem backwards at first, because our initial response is to run from the big emotion rather than acknowledge it.
Maybe we have had painful experiences in our past that “taught” us that a certain emotion was “harmful” or “dangerous” or somehow “not okay” to feel. We can learn to process through emotions in healthy ways. We will touch a bit more on emotional regulation and processing through emotions in a moment. For now, understand that “Emotion” is simply a messenger. When we lean into “Emotions” too far by not catching when something is happening at this level or if we ignore them, then we lose the message.
Everything in this chapter sounds so black and white and linear on paper, but it really isn’t for most of us. I would also put in a plug for good, professional help as you go through this. Maybe this book will be enough all by itself. Qualified professionals can help you by giving you tools and holding your hand to become more aware of yourself and your patterns, for example, to slow down a racing mind or see past what is actually only the surface to the roots. Be patient and get yourself the help you need!
Let’s hit on the opposite of what I described a moment ago. Have you ever tried to just “shut off” your feelings? Have you ever tried to avoid, ignore, or pretend they aren’t there? As we start down this path and notice we are angry or hurt we may try to convince ourselves to just “stop it.” Again, because of the programming in our “Beliefs,” we may not be willing to allow ourselves to feel and so we bury our “Emotions” down deep. We swallow them and lock them away. Now they are hidden---or so we think.
We may even appear to be successful at stopping our “Emotions” for a time, yet our “Emotions” always come out. One way or another, either now or later, they come out. These “Emotions” may come out as deferred aggression as we are less patient or kind to our children or a friend because of the anger from an argument with our spouse or the feelings of pressure at work.
Sometimes we unknowingly carry them around, always bubbling just under the surface, threatening to erupt. This constantly zaps or energy both physically and emotionally. At some point all these tucked away “Emotions” will be set off and we will snap as we yield to the grief, hurt, anger, or discouragement.
Again, when it comes to lasting change though, does our focus at the emotional level have the power to prevent such “Actions/Behaviors” from happening next time? Does not allowing ourselves to “go there” prevent it from happening again? The answer is no. The power for lasting change does not come in controlling our actions and behaviors or at an emotional level either.
The same goes for our “Thoughts” too. We can learn to pay attention at this level. As we catch unwanted thoughts we prevent it from getting to an “Emotions” level, and therefore undesirable “Actions/Behaviors” as well. But there is still something more than needs to happen to create lasting change.
Although focusing our efforts solely on the “Actions/Behaviors” level, the “Emotions” level, or our “Thoughts” isn’t enough to change our “Actions/Behaviors” for the future, awareness on these levels can be helpful. What is happening on these two levels can be red flags to give us a starting place in our detective work as we seek the roots.
We can learn to observe ourselves. Maybe that awareness begins in our body as we observe that we are breathing rapidly or we are sick to our stomachs. As we practice self inquiry, our first job is to simply notice ourselves. Then we can lovingly learn to ask ourselves lots and lots of “why” questions. “Why did I do that?” “What was I feeling before I did that?” Why would I feel that way? “What was I thinking that made me feel like that?”
The next time you have something you did that you don’t like or you notice you are feeling unsettled, angry, frustrated, or discouraged, observe yourself then try asking yourself some of these questions. We will clarify more on this in a moment. Let’s shift gears and talk about a few things that can help you to start discovering what your mental/emotional self-care plan looks like.
How mindful would you say you are of yourself? Many of us have had experiences that taught us to shut self-awareness off. It makes sense to me that we try to shut off feelings because there are certain experiences we have had where it was too intense to deal with them real-time. We are “past feeling” (1 Nephi 17:45). Sometimes we were merely trying to survive the event at hand. We had to put off what our bodies, feelings, or minds were telling us in order to just get through. But surviving isn’t thriving!
If this hits close to home a little or a lot, the good news is there is a better way! We may have to almost relearn to listen to ourselves and pay attention to what is going on in our bodies, emotions, and minds, but I am living proof that it is possible.
Often people can be more aware of their bodies than their feelings at first. Our bodies can be the gateway to our minds and also our spirits. It takes practice for most of us to learn to be mindful of ourselves---what we are feeling in our bodies, in our emotions or feelings themselves, and also in the chatter going on in our minds through thoughts. So, let’s give you some knowledge and tools to help you pick up these skills and start learning this for yourself.
In our group counseling program we were asked to write down how different emotions felt in our bodies. If now is a good time, open your notebook and do this exercise. If you choose to save it for later, come back and do it at a time you are calm and have the time to be mindful of yourself.
For example, how do you experience anger? I will probably say it until the last page of this book, but there is no “right” answer to this. How does anger feel for you personally? Maybe you tend to tighten your jaw or grit your teeth. Maybe your breath becomes shallow or rapid. Maybe you feel tension in your neck or a tight chest. Maybe your face feels hot. What does it feel like in your body? Take note of other strong negative emotions such as shame, fear, sadness, or any others that come to your attention.
Sometimes even awareness of our emotions in our bodies is too hard to grasp. Maybe the best we can do is to take note at the “Action/Behavior” level. Remember the list you generated of fallen and natural man tendencies? My guess is you will find those interwoven with what we are talking about now.
Are there things you do that you know you "shouldn’t be" doing but you are anyway? Are there actions or behaviors that you just seem to not be able to stop yourself from doing? Can you see trauma from unresolved past experiences exhibited in any “Actions/Behaviors?” Then take note of these.
Maybe in your be still time every day you can jot down one or two “Actions/Behaviors” from that day or the previous day. Then do the work to walk it backwards to the “Emotion” level you were feeling before you did what you did.
Take your Savior with you here! Although I have no idea the details of your own journey, I am confident in the patterns. God answers the honest seeker of truth. "Therefore, if you will ask of me you shall receive; if you will knock it shall be opened unto you" (D&C 12:5). If you ask, He will show you what you are ready to understand and then we ask again and He shows us the next step. On and on it goes in this process of refinement. He wants you to figure this out. There are so many things that dominate our minds and if we are to be effective at ministering, we must allow Christ to help us to clear it all away. Remember John 15 with the vine? This is how we open our little cells wide. This is the process by which we allow Christ to be more fully in us and to pass through us as we reach out and invite those around us. So ask! Ask Him if you need a different way than what I have suggested to discover this for yourself.
Once you pin down the emotion then see if you can walk it back to discover what the thought was that provoked the emotion. We will talk more about this process in the next section. For now, start becoming more aware of yourself. When you are experiencing strong emotions that are about to generate “Actions/Behaviors” or you catch yourself in the middle of doing the “Actions/Behaviors,” you can simply walk them backwards. It wasn't’ like that for me though for a few years of doing this! The good news is that even if it takes you a long time after the “Action/Behavior” happened to realize it, you can still walk it back. Awareness, even if it is weeks or even years after it happened, is huge progress! This means we are finally beginning to break through the blindness that has held us bound for so long. As soon as you are ready, you can start doing this for yourself.
So let’s hit on a few subcategories of your mental/emotional self-care plan. I am going to ask you a bunch of questions to hopefully get your wheels turning on what this might look like for you. I want you to use the space provided below to brainstorm. Remember, you can always come back and fill it in or transfer it to another page where it can be more tidy and organized. Just write for now.
Next Section HERE
Previous Section HERE