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Emotions: A Code Book
What I write about my own personal journey is intended as just that—my personal journey. If you are having serious trouble, get help from a professional.
Envy helped me realize that I was afraid that my social standing was at risk (because of wobbly financials) & helped me do something about it (edit Tidy First?, coming soon from O’Reilly).
The Language of Emotions by Karla McLaren introduced me to this framing of emotions as envelopes containing important messages. I have often introduced coaching students to this model when they describe “negative” emotions at work.
The book intimidated me at 450 pages. Having finally read it through I can say there is loads of good stuff in there. However, I’m focusing on one aspect today—what kind of message does each emotion bring? (There’s lots more in the book about what to do about each emotion, how each emotion can go wrong, what to do about someone else experiencing that emotion, & how to build skills to deal constructively with all this—read the book if that sounds interesting.)
How did I get to where I needed a cheat sheet or code book for my own emotions? I experienced overwhelming emotions as a kid. I learned to numb myself to survive (kudos to Kid Kent for figuring that out!). When I hit 42, all those suppressed emotions burst their dam & I (and those around me) had a tough few years.
Since then I’ve been practicing opening these envelopes as they come, reading the message, doing something about it, & moving on. (Poker is great practice for this.)
Here then, in brief, is the code book—what kind of message does each emotion bring?
Fear—a call to focus. I need to increase a priority & let go of other things.
Anger—a call to establish & enforce my boundaries.
Anxiety—a call to pay attention to something I am ignoring.
Flashbacks—a call to deal with my past trauma.
Confusion—a call to step back & re-establish my intentions. For me this often takes the form of asking what I would do if I was serving my mission to help geeks feel safe in the world.
Envy—a call to safeguard my social standing.
Jealousy—a call to safeguard (or let go of) an important relationship.
Hatred—a call to accept something about myself I don’t like.
Boredom—a call to do something I am avoiding.
Apathy—a call to accept that I am stuck.
Guilt—a call to change.
Shame—a call to accept myself & then change.
Terror—a call to freeze in the face of fear (rather than run or attack).
Sadness—a call to release something I’m attached to.
Despair—a stronger form of sadness. I really need to release something I’m attached to.
Grief—a call to honor loss.
Depression—a call to understand deeply.
Suicidal thoughts—a call to change. (I hesitated to include this. If this is you, get help. I’ve read too many “logical” geek suicide notes. My suicidal thoughts diminished when I learned to interpret them as saying, “I really don’t want to be in this situation.”)
As I said, there’s so much more to this, but this is my cheat sheet. When I experience an emotion & say “ewww 🤢 yuck”, I (as quickly as possible) look the emotion up in the table above & try to decode the message it’s bringing.
Note: emotions are tricksy. They can be about here & now or they can be about the past. One emotion can trigger another (fear→anger is a classic). I’ve only been practicing for 20 years so I can’t claim to be any good at reading the language of emotions. I can say that, as with any language, the locals will appreciate you even speaking a few words.
As a geek, I take great satisfaction in helpfully decoding an emotion. It’s like a puzzle, one of those substitution cyphers I loved as a kid. The deeper & quicker I find a helpful message, the better I like it. These brains we have? They are pretty weird. The better I learn to operate mine, the better.