BY: T. Franklin Murphy | December 2018 (Revised November 2020)
We grow when we integrate the wisdom of emotions into a healthy narrative of self.
The multiple slings and arrows of experience collide in our hearts. We feel the affects of living. Life crashes into our expectations, damaging conceptions and sending us into a rage. Emotions are a key element of experience, learning to integrate emotions into healthy action is essential for successful survival in this competitive world.
Throughout human history the brightest and the feeblest of mind have wrestled with human emotion. Many historical philosophers regarded emotion as a trifling and pestering distraction to the greater and more definable cognitions. Science has shifted. With expanding discoveries kand many debates, emotions still stand strong, remaining a formable part of living. As we juggle between the many approaches to emotion, we are still tasked with living, securing a future for our selves and those to follow.
Sometimes emotions push us in the right direction; other times they pull us towards selfish desires with heavy costs. Our challenge is to feel life, with all its beauties and aches, and act with decency, honor, and a balanced approach between others and ourselves, truth and loyalty, and the present and the future.
Our conscious experience gives the illusion that our mind operates as an integrated whole. All our synaptic networks appear to converge, giving a realistic view of experience. This image of existence is misleading. The trickery of consciousness disguises the various synaptic networks furiously processing the world as a unified machine, combining information into a neat and orderly package. The mind is a combination of many networks that process different aspects of experience. Many systems feed the cognitive, emotional, and motivational components that create our experience.
"Sometimes emotions push us in the right direction; other times they pull us towards selfish desires with heavy costs."
Joseph LeDoux explains that, “there is an imperfect set of connections between cognitive and emotional systems in the current stage of evolution in the brain. This state of affairs in the price we pay for having newly evolved cognitive capacities that are not yet fully integrated into our brain.” (2003).
The evolutionary purpose of this multi-prong system creates an advantage. We are complex beings with massive capabilities to process complicated and dynamic environments. Our system observing internal and external stimuli transforms the chaos into meaningful predictions that we can use in obtaining short and long-term goals. This process of integrating information from differentiating sources is the genius of our evolved state.
The trilogy of thoughts, emotions and motivations work together well, and we amazingly adapt to environmental challenges. But when this mental partnership of the mind breaks down, mental illness and maladjusted responses sneak into our lives and disrupt functioning.
Integration is the capacity to put together different aspects of the self. It involves assembling all of the pieces of a life story, clarifying emotional contradictions, and harmonizing aspirations and attitudes to establish a coherence that results in a whole, complete, understood, and respected “me.” ~ Mardi Horowitz
Modern society changes exponentially. The demands easily overwhelm our systems ability to cope. We must adjust and find harmony between ourselves and the surrounding pressures by maximizing the intelligence gained from all our systems. In Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's fabulous book, The Evolving Self, he states that harmony is achieved through an organism’s increase in complexity, growth in both differentiation and integration. (1994).
We must artfully integrate an emotional existence into practical action. We can’t ignore the wisdom of emotions, stifle the feelings and act logically; nor should we distance our selves from discomfort by reformulating life into pretty colors and a bountiful universe.
Life events are not catered to our specific needs. A multitude of forces gather, clash and create each moment. Many times, these moments interfere with our ordered expectations; we are knocked off course and in need of reconciliation with life. These moments demand clarification, balance and harmonizing. We must work through this recalibration over and over throughout our lives—loved ones leave, expectations fail, and our health falters.
Emotional Integration is a Continual Process
Integrating is an ongoing process. Much of the integration occurs effortlessly. We have multiple sensory systems because they benefit our survival. We draw wisdom from these sources without intention. However, we don’t utilize everything. We have limited working space, much of the information we pull from the world remains hidden in the shadows of the mind. We compartmentalize experience, only drawing to consciousness small bits and pieces—a fraction of reality—failing to integrate many rich sources of information.
Past experience, cultural preference and defensive strategies intertwine to determine what flows to awareness and what gets kicked aside. The stoic unemotional man has historically been respected for his courageous lonesome wanderings. This fairs well for the adventurer and wild west lawman but fails to cultivate necessary progress in modern living, raising families, and negotiating salaries.
We still have occasions when compartmentalizing experience serves us well. The surgeon performing critical incisions on an infant or the police officer may act with more proficiency when perilously running into a crowd to confront a crazed and murderous gunman. But even in these situations, for mental health, the heroes should revisit the events once the environment is safe and integrate the suppressed emotions into a coherent and workable whole.
Emotional Integration Supports Wellness
Recent studies support the mental health benefits of emotional integration, finding that integration surpasses the benefits of suppression or emotional distancing. (Roth, G., Shahar, B., Zohar‐Shefer, Y., Benita, M., Moed, A., Bibi, U., Kanat‐Maymon, Y., & Ryan, R. 2018).
Emotional Distancing: An Attempt to minimize, avoid or change one’s emotional experience.
Diana Fosha refers to Emotional Integration as “Feeling and Dealing.” (2000). Feeling the affects of living and then effectively dealing with life demands. Some deal without feeling. While others feel without dealing. All of these are adaptations to feeling affects. Modes of response to life.
Those that deal without feeling are the emotion suppressors. They appear to instinctively deal with life situations without the messy interference of emotion. Yes, the lonesome wandering cowboy fits this bill. While action is given a logical twist (a well-worded reason), the behavior still isn’t the product of their cognitions alone.
Feeling affect still exists and still motivates. Being able to exclude emotion from post-fact reasoning doesn’t exclude it from the motivational causes. The logistician is largely unconscious of motivating influences and easily gets lost in destructive behaviors that he subsequently dresses-up with smooth flowing justifications.
Those that feel without dealing get lost in the emotions. Life overwhelms, and they cower in the corner, failing to act. Their common escape is emotional distancing. They try to control the emotions, limiting experience, wishing for a paradise of only joy and ease. Although we can paint a momentary beautiful picture of the moment, excluding the obvious and concentrating on the positives, life smashes through these illusions.
Some happenings never reveal their positive purpose. Our forced positive focus clashes with reality, creating greater conflict and confusion than more measured approaches. With too much emotional distancing, we lose the skill to effectively process the disrupting and disappointing emotions of living.
Integrating experience, the felt emotions and the cognitive explanations, bridges the duality of body and mind, coordinating different sources of wisdom and responding as a functioning whole. As a functioning whole we eliminate internal conflicts and clarify opposing drives. This integrative process brings to consciousness more of the richness of experience, preventing blind adherence to feeling affects that interfere with relationships, aspirations and success.
"Being able to exclude emotion from post-fact reasoning doesn’t exclude it from the motivational forces."
We are born with our own constellation of sensitivities. We respond to emotion differently. Our innate differences combined with early experiences of attachment to form a mode of reaction. Each element impacts the other. Our biological programming influences our caregivers, and our experiences activate new expressions in our programming. The key point is our reaction to emotions is not indelibly set. We can manage emotions to better serve our purposes. We can alter adaptations that obstruct goal attainment.
“Integration and personal growth may be promoted by emotional regulation strategies that foster deep cognitive processing of people’s emotional experience.” (Koole & Van Dillen Gal Sheppes. 2017).
With the power of deep cognitive processing, we increase our complexity, enlarging our abilities to constructively respond to the competitive pressures of living and relating. Once an emotional arousing and painful experience has been integrated into greater cognitive networks, we increase knowledge and width to our sense of self, not confined by ego protecting definitions. Subsequently, the broader definitions lead to greater emotional regulation. We free ourselves from the rusty chains of reaction and justification.
Integration is facilitated through mindfulness (see Mindfulness). We integrate experience by stepping back and observing, allowing experience to seep non-judged into the deeper recesses of our mind. Healthy reflection is different than emotionally charged ruminations full of plans and regrets. Refection examines, without judgment, the feelings that were present during experience, curiously examining them in wonderment.
Beginning exposures to mindfulness can be daunting for those not accustomed to feeling (dealing but not feeling) and those easily overwhelmed by feeling (feeling but not dealing). Their first forays into this new world of calmness coupled with emotion may need to be brief and controlled, often aided with the assistance of a coach or therapist. Sometimes adding physical movement to mindfulness creates protective comfort buffering full exposure to the affects. This can be achieved through yoga, Tai-Chi or calming walks in nature.
Another scientifically supported approach to integration is with expressive writing. Writing forces cognitive coherence, transforming disturbing emotional encounters into approachable narratives. (Pennebaker & Chung, 2008)
Efforts to integrate are not so particular that slight errors in the process eradicate the benefits. We will never seamlessly integrate the complexities of our ever-expanding world into the finite definitions of our mind. Integration is a continual process that will augment our personal growth, broadening skills to process and regulate emotions. Our willingness to intimately engage in life reduces the fears and heals the wounds. We become the heroes that change generational patterns of misunderstood emotions, transmitting to our friends, children and partners the power of emotional integration.
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Chung, C., & Pennebaker, J. (2008). Variations in the spacing of expressive writing sessions. British Journal of Health Psychology, 13(1). Retrieved at Deep Dyve.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1994). The Evolving Self: A Psychology for the Third Millennium. Harper Perennial. Kindle Edition.
Fosha, D. (2000). The Transforming Power of Affect: A Model for Accelerated Change. Basic Books. Kindle Edition.
Horowitz, M. (2009). A Course in Happiness: mastering the Three Levels of Self Understanding that Lead to True and Lasting Contentment. Tarcher Perigee. Kindle Edition
Koole, S. L. Van Dillen Gal Sheppes, L.F. (2017). The Self-Regulation of Emotion. In Editor #1 K. D. Vohs, & Editor #2 R. F. Baumeister (Eds.), Handbook of Self-Regulation, Third Edition: Research, Theory, and Applications. (Loc. 1040-1105). The Guilford Press. Kindle Edition
LeDoux, J (2003) The Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are. Penguin Books. Kindle Edition
Roth, G., Shahar, B., Zohar‐Shefer, Y., Benita, M., Moed, A., Bibi, U., Kanat‐Maymon, Y., & Ryan, R. (2018). Benefits of emotional integration and costs of emotional distancing. Journal of Personality, 86(6), 919-934. Retrieved at Deep Dyve.