Balance Meditation Coaches Ofosu and Leah talk with Psychologist Todd Kashdan about how to handle days when you don't feel great and you don't really know why.
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[Effect — Singing bowl]
OFOSU: Hey, what’s up? I’m Ofosu Jones-Quartey.
LEAH: And I’m Leah Santa Cruz. We’re the meditation coaches on Balance. And we’re excited cause we’re gonna share with you a new show. This is a space where we’re going to talk with you outside of meditation, and share some moments from our lives.
OFOSU: Leah, I’m super excited that we are doing this. You know that you and I have conversations that ya know very wide ranging from mental health to just what it means to be a human in this time of life so I think it’s very cool that we’re building this space to gather tools to just live happier lives.
LEAH: I agree. I’m excited! So let’s jump into it.
OFOSU: Alright so to kick things off, I want to talk about something that happens to me from time to time. You know that feeling when you wake up and you just feel kinda…. Bleh.
LEAH: Yeah, I’ve felt it many times.
OFOSU: I’m sure most people understand what that means and I have Psychologist Todd Kashdan waiting in the wings here to answer some questions about how our emotions work. But first let me show you just how personal this was for me. I had one of those bleh days recently, and I wanted to play you a clip I recorded right in that moment.
[Recording] So, uh, it's around 9:45 in the morning, and uh yeah I am sitting in the car this morning has not been a great morning for me mentally.
I kind of woke up feeling a little anxious and, um, I'm not sure. I'm just kind of feeling a little down right now. And I don't know that it's really connected to anything just, that's just kind of where I'm at. It's kind of a gray day and sunshine definitely helps me, um, in terms of my mood. So maybe that's part of it, but yeah.
You know, I’m just allowing it to be what it is. And, um, just holding it with kindness. I know that it'll pass.
LEAH: I can totally relate to feeling that kind of general low mood or little anxiety when there's just gray, dark gray.
I used to live in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. Uh, Oregon and then Seattle for many years, and talk about nine to 10 months of the year. It's gray. And so many people suffer with depression and anxiety in those areas.
OFOSU: I don't really know what to attribute it to, but I, but definitely have noticed my mood is affected sometimes in a deep way, sometimes in a subtle way by what the weather is doing out there. And, uh, I woke up feeling just kind of anxious and a little out of sorts. And then you open your blinds and it's grey. It's just like, ah, you know, so yeah. It’s like a one two punch.
LEAH: Do you remember what helped you shift that mood since it was gray and you couldn't have sunshine?
OFOSU: It really was one of those moments where you just leave it to time. So even when there is a gross weather system that is passing through, um, it will pass eventually. So I think that's what happened that day is that, you know, it passed on its own.
LEAH: Yeah. I like the idea about weather storms within us. My son is starting to throw these little mini tantrums, even though he's just turning like nine months old and I'm just starting to see him starting to go throw his hands up in the air, fuss and make I don't like this. Ya know, I'm like, uh-oh, here we go. That's the beginning.
Um, but in little kids, you know, They just burst into tears and they, they go through all the emotions and all the feels and they just really let it rip, you know, they are not inhibited. And then, you know, they, they kind of learn to self-soothe themselves. I grabbed something and he grabs a bottle of milk or something that makes them feel good, me and will soothe himself. And then just let that wave pass.
And, uh, I think as adults, it can be easy to just bottle all this stuff up without like, we don't let ourselves throw a tantrum.
LEAH: It's not appropriate in public to do that, but, how do we let it out? You know, how do we let the weather storm pass without trying to bottle it up within us?
OFOSU: So that's it right there. Right? That's the question.
And I think that this is the perfect time to invite Todd Kashdan to join our discussion.
Todd is an award-winning professor of psychology at George Mason University. He’s a leading authority on wellbeing, and he’s the author of the upcoming book, The Art of Insubordination.
What’s up, Todd. Welcome. And thanks so much for being here with us.
TODD: Great to be here. Thanks for inviting me.
OFOSU: Uh, let's jump right into it. I am curious how do emotions change from when we are children to when we're adults?
TODD: Well, this is a few things that happen over the course of the lifespan. And one thing is anyone who's spent any time with a toddler knows is their emotion vocabulary tends to be pretty limited.
TODD: You tend to have more course descriptions where it's kind of the thing that you saw in kindergarten, where it had a bunch of pictures on one single poster of, I feel angry. I feel sad. I feel anxious. You don't get, I feel guilty. You don't get, I feel ashamed. And as we get older, as we develop a better understanding of ourselves and other people, we start to get more fine grain precision in describing our emotions.
But that's really not the more interesting part as we get older, we have a stronger ability to inhibit or suppress or conceal or hide what we're feeling. These are skills that only come around in your late teens and early twenties and starts to appeal.
OFOSU: Yeah, well, I'm experiencing it in real time because I've got a five-year-old and eight year old, a 16 year old and a soon to be 19 year old. So we've definitely been witnessing the evolution of the emotional vocabulary happening in real time in our house. So I'm sitting here nodding my head. We actually have that picture poster in my five-year-old's room of happy, mad, sad, et cetera.
So, I've got another question for you. So my day, the blah day, right when there's not an external trigger that we can pinpoint what is actually causing an emotional state to arise or what's causing an emotional state to change.
TODD: Right. So when you can't figure out, if there is a clear, positive edge, you got an ice cream sundae with carmel truffles or a negative event that someone called you a prick in front of you or behind your back - we tend to think of this as like emotions arise for no reason. I think it's useful to take a step back to think about what's the nature of emotions. To realize that that's not actually the case.
So if you think about, at the core of emotion are two questions, how much physiological, arousal or energy do I have? That's one of the two fundamental dimensions of emotion. So do I have a high energy? Do I have low energy? And the second question is how pleasant or unpleasant is whatever I'm experiencing, right now and then what happens is for humans with our lifetime of experience about emotions watching television shows.
For me, it was Charles in Charge and DIfferent Strokes you learn about what these different emotions are. What's the difference between guilt and shame? What's the difference between anxiety and worry with those labels? We outside of conscious awareness quickly decide to say, I'm feeling unpleasant. I've got a lot of energy. Something seems threatening. I'm going to say, I feel worried. And so if we think about the basics of emotions, We think about, well, what influences our energy level and what influences our ability to say that something's pleasant or unpleasant. And with those questions, we can start to better understand what influenced our emotions right now.
OFOSU: So as adults, uh, how can we release our emotional energy in a healthy way. I know how my five-year-old does it. And I, and I also know how my 16 year old does it, there's a difference, but it's subtle.
So yeah, now that we're grownups, um, and we can't slam doors or fall on our faces in public, what are some ways that we can release our emotional energy in a healthy way?
TODD: Can I be annoying once again, and maybe change the question
TODD: And ask about this. So one thing to think about is that we have 2.5 million years of evolution to give us these emotional states, this energy and this pleasantness, unpleasantness. So the question first to ask is what information is this feeling that I have telling me? Because we tend to have a big bin of saying these are the unwanted emotions. And another bin of like, these are the ones that I'd like to have.
And the first thing that I would say to people is ask yourself, what is my mind trying to tell me that maybe I'm not aware of, and I'll give you a good example. I used to live in New York city in an apartment at 76 and Lexington. And often you'd be in an elevator with kind of a strange creepy character and you would get creepy vibes. You’d get a little physiological arousal. Your heart rate goes up. I mean, you know, five, 10 beats per minute, little sweat on your fingers and you wouldn't want to change your emotional energy in a healthy way.
The first thing you want to do is ask why are my hands sweaty and why do my heart rate go up?
And just check to see, like how safe does the situation feel? So the first thing you want to think about is like, is this unwanted emotion useful? Because what we know is from research is that the best way to detect deception, if someone's being dishonest to you, whether it's a friend, a family member or a car dealer you're negotiating with, it's better to be a little bit angry and frustrated and anxious than it is to be happy.
And if you want to resolve problems in your social life, it's better to be a little bit sad than it is to be happy. And so that's the first step that I would give people is to really think of. Is there some evolutionary message that I’m not privy to yet?
OFOSU: Instead of simply designating change it emotion as wanted or unwanted and trying to change it. Yeah, in mindfulness we are using the emotions that arise as the basis of observation. Instead of getting rid of anything, we're leaning in a little bit and listening to the messages that are being presented and seeing if there's any insight that we can glean from that.
Anyway, all of that feels kind of related to what you're saying.
OFOSU: Hey Todd, thank you so much for hanging out with us and answering these questions. This was awesome to learn a little bit more about emotions with you.
TODD: Yeah, thanks for having me here.
LEAH: I loved the idea that there are emotions that we labeled typically as the negative emotions like anger or fear or sadness that are actually catalysts for good.
LEAH: And I thought that point he made that, you know, it's better to be sad than happy if you really want to make some changes in our relationship. I thought, wow, that really makes sense to me.
OFOSU: It does. It does, you know, gosh, in the relationship with yourself. There's been times in the lockdown during the height of the pandemic, where there was a lot of sadness and there were a lot of it had to do with like, man I'm, I'm, I'm examining the relationship that I have with myself. And there are some changes that I want to make in how I'm relating to myself and that feeling of being kind of bummed out was a catalyst, you know? Yeah.
LEAH: Cause if we just bypass all those emotions and try to not feel them and we just try to go straight to happiness, then how are we ever going to make changes?
We would just be putting everything under the rug.
OFOSU: Yeah. You know, the idea that there's value in all of the emotional messaging that we are getting is, is a profound one. And it's counterintuitive. And of course, we want to avoid things that are unpleasant, but it's by leaning into them and looking at them deeper and finding their value that we expand ourselves.
LEAH: Yeah. You know, when I first learned that anger is oftentimes the messenger for telling you basically that there is some sort of need that's been unmet or some boundary that's been crossed a bit, maybe even a boundary that we're not realizing that we have in that anger saying,hey, there's something that needs to be looked at here. So I also appreciated his tip that if you ask yourself what is that emotion trying to tell me that you can get to the root of what it is that we actually need to thrive in that moment and what needs to be shifted.
OFOSU: Yeah. One of the things I always want to encourage myself and others to come back to, or to add to any of these types of observations is with kindness as you're observing and noticing in the same way that I was able to kind of hold that unpleasant feeling, not really knowing where it came from, what it was and et cetera, but just, you know, instead of pushing it away, but I can just hold it and be with it in a kind way. And sometimes, uh, sometimes that's at least that's the beginning, you know, and maybe that's all that's needed. So.
LEAH: Well,I appreciated this conversation to go from blah to insight and ah ha.
OFOSU: Oh! From blah to ah ha! [laughing]
LEAH: Well, thanks for joining us in this conversation. And thanks to Todd Kashdan — he’s a professor of psychology at George Mason University. And his latest book -The Art of Insubordination will be available in a few months.
OFOSU: And we’ve got another episode waiting for you in the feed - whenever you’re ready to dive into another conversation with us. Until then.
LEAH: Have a beautiful rest of your day.
OFOSU: Please be present and kind to yourself and others. And holler back. Peace.