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Emotional Strengthening

(Finding power in personal awareness)

“Emotion is powerful. Having emotion work for us rather than against us gives us beneficial use of that power”
We all have natural or innate strengths. Some of us have a strong will; we stick to our decisions and carry them through. Some of us have a strong passion; we are willing to sacrifice to achieve our ambition. Some of us have strong reason; we are guided by our logic. Some of us have deep intuition; we can easily trust our deeper purposes.
We all have weaknesses as well. Some of us lose heart easily and find ourselves tending to drift aimlessly. Some of us procrastinate and end up less able to take important actions. Some of us live lives filled with sacrifice to our families or partners. Some of us work hard but somehow have little meaning to our lives.
Personal growth or personal development attempts to achieve a different balance, to remove blocks that weaken us and make more appropriate use of our strengths.
Emotional strengthening is the outcome of successful personal work which shows itself as greater emotional resilience, an experience of more of the emotions and feelings that we enjoy and that motivate us and less of the emotions and feelings that we find uncomfortable or distressing. Dealing with anxiety, looked at in the last chapter, is one particular form of emotional strengthening where the aim is to reduce anxiety and make room for a more self-assertive and peaceful state of mind.
This chapter presents some of the core contributors to effective and long-lasting personal work.
Guides: This chapter also presents the first of several structured processes that can be used as needed to contribute to achieving lasting personal change.

Personal Awareness Work

There is a long history to personal awareness work and personal improvement. Religious writings and teachings have always been concerned with various forms of self-improvement involving practices or rules of behaviour that would, according to the teachers of the time, lead on to spiritual enlightenment or worthiness.
More recently the field of psychology has been established, largely involved with the practical identification and treatment of mental illness. The development of psychoanalysis also originated from the study of illness or neurosis but introduced the idea that therapeutic change was possible for a number of conditions using non-invasive methods, not just physical treatment aimed at suppressing or managing extreme behavioural symptoms. It was not long before these approaches were being used not just for neurotic patients but also for the self-improvement or personality growth of almost anyone.
Within the last 50 years there has been an explosion of interest in, and knowledge of, a wide variety of psychological approaches and techniques used in diverse fields for business management, finance, marketing, individual therapy, self-improvement, performance training, relationship counselling, parenting courses, and so on. This has happened along with an increasing adoption of spiritual and personal development techniques from around the world, some representing traditions, approaches, and wisdom thousands of years old.
The result is a somewhat bewildering range of practices and theories, some psychological, some derived from various cultural practices, some religious or spiritual, some based more on hope and imagination than observable results about how to go about being human.
However, there are some key approaches and concepts that have emerged as very functional and straightforward yet also effective at increasing personal awareness, enhancing self-esteem and confidence, and promoting personal effectiveness and achievement.

Basic Awareness: Feeling What You Feel

Self-awareness is a natural part of daily living and, there are times when this is heightened. For example; during periods of high physical activity, or during deeply reflective moments, or in traumatic or frightening situations, also during sexual encounters or in response to embarrassing moments. At such times, awareness may be much higher than normal, either during or after the event.
The common feature of these ‘accidental’ periods of heightened self-awareness is not about what is going on externally but about our internal level of focus on what is actually going on in the moment, a concentration of attention on the here and now. During these periods there may often also be a reduction in levels of self-doubt and self-inhibition. This allows us to engage with the situation in a direct and less restrained manner.
Self awareness, depending on the nature of the awareness and the circumstances, also allows us to experience a deeper sense of pleasure, fulfilment, and connection with self and others.
Being consciously aware of the here and now is promoted by some as a basic practice of spiritual development. It reduces our tendencies to fixate on past events or our fears for the future.
However, there is a more significant importance to self-awareness for directed personal work. Self-awareness is a necessary starting point for any form of personal development work as it increases self-knowledge about what and how to change and, over time, it establishes a way of monitoring progress. You cannot reliably change what you are not aware of, and personal awareness is the basis for any form of self-knowledge and self-understanding.

Practising Feeling – the door to awareness

So, how can we actually work with awareness? How can we choose to ‘be’ aware? How can we deepen awareness?
There are actually many ways to consciously or intentionally practise awareness, from meditation to physical practices such as yoga, from prayer to listening to music, from choosing to consciously engage with an activity to various relaxation techniques that focus on one part of the body after another.
One door to awareness is through what we feel – after all, feelings are the body’s awareness system. Our nervous system provides much information about our body that we are generally not aware of. By focusing on what we are feeling we gain more appreciation about what our body is up to which in turn gives us more information about our overall state. Our body responds to our mental state in a number of direct as well as subtle ways. Changes in brain chemistry and activity may give corresponding changes in body chemistry and activity (through the sympathetic and parasympathetic nerves), which in turn is apparent to us as physical feelings in our body.
Most of us have heard of the fight-or-flight response, where the body prepares for physical action in response to perceived danger. There are also responses such as adjustments in blood flow, transfer of blood from body core to limbs, skin flushing, changes in breathing pattern, tightening of stomach and neck muscles, facial expressions, and so on that reflect quite small changes in mental state. More extreme examples include feelings of sickness or a sudden need to go to the toilet.
Certain physical feelings can also be associated with, or correspond with, our mental state and so an enhanced awareness of our physical state can give us clues about what is going on in our non-conscious mind.


Control of breathing is used by singers and athletes to prepare for and to enhance their performance, and in many forms of meditation to achieve greater focus. We often unconsciously control and restrict our own breathing pattern when we are experiencing low-level or even significant emotional feelings - we tend to hold our breath or breathe very shallowly.
By consciously breathing in a particular way, by deepening our breathing and taking full regular breaths, we allow our body and mind to slow down therefore encouraging calmness and an internal focus that promotes an inner awareness of our true feelings.
A particularly useful breathing practice consists of consciously taking four long slow breaths fully in, right down to the stomach, each followed by a full exhale. At the same time noticing any changes in emotional or physical feelings before and after the breathing practise.

Changing Feelings

As we grow more used to being aware of our physical and emotional feelings we are also better able to make changes to our mental state. Many of us have been encouraged by family or society to hide or suppress our emotional feelings, and we have become very adept at this. The problem is that this produces the likelihood that we will tend to suppress unwanted feelings such as anger, grief, or stress without letting the feelings run their course. When we bottle-up our feelings in this way we also keep them within us for much longer than we need to – we hold on to our resentments and our sadnesses, our depressions and our frustrations.
The Feelings Guide is a very simple way to reverse this habit. It combines our awareness of our emotional state with the power of vocalisation to shift our state. Very often, when we state something out loud, to another person or to ourselves, the effect of making the statement is much more marked than if we simply make an internal realisation.
To quickly shift your state – particularly when you are getting caught up in emotion
Breathe! ALL the way through.
1. Stand and move as appropriate.
2. Still the mind, no thoughts, no story, and no judgements – these can all wait for later.
3. Say out loud, to other people if they are present and know what you are doing; “Right at the moment I feel…” and name the feeling.
Eg; “Right at the moment I feel scared.”
“Right at the moment I feel angry”
“Right at the moment I feel hot and bothered”
State whatever emotion or feeling is true for you in the moment and allow yourself to feel it fully. Note: there is no need to act your emotions out.
4. Continue stating your feeling truth until you experience a shift of some kind.
If you shift to another strong feeling you may wish to continue and state the new feeling, and another, and another, and another.

Telling the Truth

Awareness is just the start. Simply becoming more self-aware does little on its own and indeed may, if used inappropriately, become self-undermining. Becoming oversensitive or holding a heightened state of awareness may actually lead to an increase in stress or an increase in the feedback cycles that exist within conditions like depression or anxiety-based disorders (eg; eating disorders, sexual disorders, mild phobias, self-diminishment). Increased awareness is only of real value if it leads on to something else.
Again, just as there are a number of ways of becoming self-aware, there are a number of ways of making use of awareness to our personal benefit. The Feelings Guide is one of these; it combines a practice of awareness with a verbalisation technique that helps to deepen constructive feelings or shift out of states that are uncomfortable or counter-productive. There are also meditative practices that aim to achieve a particular mental state, and so make the awareness part of a directed process with a particular aim. Similarly, we may use heightened awareness as part of an appropriate activity, such as heightened enjoyment on a trip to a theme park, or focused attention at a theatre or concert.
Within personal development work, however, we are looking for something a little more direct and a little more effective in terms of achieving a specific result. We experience life with a mind and a body. We feel our feelings within our body and experience our states of mind often as a combination of mind and body. A further step is to realise that just as there is a connection between what we feel in our body and what we feel emotionally, there is a direct connection between our emotional state and what we are thinking.
Cognitive therapy and a number of other modern techniques are based on the concept that change can be achieved by working directly with what is going on in our mind: our thoughts. By monitoring what we think in particular situations or in response to particular events, and working specifically with these thoughts, we can actually begin to gain more choice about how we live our lives and what we do with our awareness.
In the last chapter we encountered the concept of truth-telling to deal with mind whirl and the anxiety that is generated by our unchecked fears, projections, predictions, and demands. The concept of truth-telling builds on awareness and adds both a powerful way of gaining conscious control of our reactions and behaviour and it leads on to empowering us to make realistic choices about all aspects of our lives.
Truth-telling can go far beyond dealing with anxiety, it can be used as one of the most powerful practices in serious personal growth work.
But don’t take my word for this, we can explore it here and now, and also explore what happens when we choose to do something about it. In attempting to engage effectively in self-development, or self-empowerment, or self-fulfilment, or any of the other self-something-or-other activities that we may choose, we can now adopt a very simple technique to make progress.

Exposing Thoughts

Working with our thoughts can be a strange and sometimes difficult challenge to begin with. We are very used to the way that we are, and working with our own thoughts requires us to become a keen observer of our own thoughts and not just have an experience of them.
For most people listening in to thoughts exposes several ‘layers’ of thought that seemingly happen very quickly if not at the same time. What we are interested in is the deeper layers of very fast thought that we are often not even conscious of, and it can take a while to get used to becoming aware of these.
Try this simple exercise, which is a slightly more sophisticated version of the approach presented in the previous chapter. Take some paper and remember a time when you were stressed or confused. It should be a time when you were experiencing some strong feelings that you did not like. If you can, visualise a particular moment that represents that time which you can use as an anchor point for remembering your physical and emotional feelings along with your thoughts at the time. Write down each thought that you remember having or that comes to mind when you remember your anchor point. Avoid the really long sentences that may be going through your mind – what we want here are the short statements, judgements, accusations, and predictions that are bound to be there.
Keep writing one thought under another and keep bringing yourself back to your anchor point memory. You may find chains of thought appearing and as you get more used to monitoring your thoughts you will find more and more going on. At some point you will reach a natural conclusion, or stop yourself after say 10 minutes.
Now let go your anchor point memory, take a breath to bring your awareness fully back to the here and now and read through what you have written. You may be surprised at how much has been going on in your mind and, if you are really getting to grips with this way of observing yourself, you may be surprised at some of the statements that are appearing.
Next, taking some of the thoughts that you have written down, ask yourself whether the statements are objectively true and fair statements – are they statements of fact or of opinion? If the statements are in any way anything other than simple statements of fact ask yourself what would be the full truth as an alternative to what you were actually thinking.

A Guide to Work With Thoughts

This is the second formal process, which builds on this ability to listen in to our thoughts and to tell the full truth.
Core Truth-Telling/Clearing to Shift Your State
Take some breaths and centre yourself. Be aware of your breathing whilst following this guide.
1. Bring to mind an issue that you are anxious or worried about, an event that you are shocked or confused about, or a disquieting feeling that you currently have. Consciously breathe until you feel your feelings.
2. Write out 3 to 5 of your one-liner thoughts on a sheet of paper, leaving a gap of 3-4 lines between each.
3. For each thought that you have written, cross through it and ask yourself: “What is actually true about this?” - write it down. For example, I might have the thought "I can't take any more of this", which is crossed through. My truth might be something like "I don't want to be involved with this any more at the moment and I'm beginning to have doubts about my ability to carry it through".
4. Read your truths, out loud if possible, and write down a choice about what you will be doing about this. Take a moment to visualise yourself completing your choice. For example; "I will take a break for 10 minutes and do something completely different. After that I will complete another hour and the reassess what I have achieved."
The last chapter included some hints on truth-telling with some particular types of thought; questions, projections, and so on. Those notes apply here as well.

Deepening the Anchor Guide

The basic form of the Anchor Guide draws out 4 to 5 main thoughts, there are two main ways to deepen this.
1) Go for around 10 thoughts: Going for more thoughts takes a little longer but tends to cover more ground as well. It can be useful to deal with more complex situations or to cover a particular situation more completely.
2) Deepening a particular line of thought: Thoughts tend to run as a series and to be based on a deeper level of thinking; a more basic level of thinking that we are not normally aware of which consists of a series of judgments about how life works, what sort of person we are, how other people behave, and so on. Exposing these deeper thoughts can be very revealing and very rewarding to achieve change as they actually have a very large but usually unnoticed impact on our behaviour and our emotions.
Take a thought and simply prompt yourself for another, typically using one of these prompts: "I think this because..", "If this is true then...", "And...", "So...", “Basically...."
For example;
I may have a starting thought: "She's not listening to me."
I prompt myself: Then... "I won't be heard."
And... "I won't get what I want."
So... "I have to give up."
Because... "I'm useless in these situations."
Because... "I'm not clever enough to keep up."
Basically... "I'm stupid."
Following this route allows us to find deeper and deeper automatic thoughts and expose our more basic belief system. Telling the truth about some of these deeper beliefs and judgments is what leads to long-lasting change.

Dealing With the Past

The principle and process of truth-telling can be used over a period to revisit important events and issues from our past and correct some of the inevitable judgments that we made at the time concerning them. Deep beliefs that we still carry with us tend to be created during times of trauma and challenge. These deep beliefs (core beliefs) will continue to impact our life if they are left unverified or unchallenged.
The significance of dealing with past events is that our current experience is directly impacted by the way that we think about ourselves and life. What we think about ourselves and life has been built up as layers of habitual thought which reflects how we tried to make sense of our own existence as we grew up. Some of our most significant conclusions are likely to have been fixed in stressful situations when we were too young to fully understand what was going on.
When something happens in the present that reminds us (unconsciously) of the past, those early conclusions can become active; reawakened along with memories of feelings and states of mind that can surprise us in their intensity. This is simply our mind doing its job of attempting to detect and warn us about possible dangers and get us to act accordingly.
By revisiting these formative issues and events, the issues and events that have formed our opinions and beliefs, and telling the truth about them we can encourage more appropriate and balance adult thinking. If we do not address our own core responses then whatever we attempt in terms of personal change and personal growth will tend to be short-lived.
It is common to have difficulty addressing some of our most basic beliefs. We may know that we are not ‘stupid’ or ‘weak’ or that life is not intrinsically against us, but that adult knowledge does not change our underlying judgements at times of stress. Simply telling ourselves to stop believing something does not work.
To weaken or break the influence of past events we can usefully include a particular form of statement in our truth-telling. To weaken a strong past memory or feeling we can consciously point out the difference between the past and the present. For example, we can use a statement such as “That was what I felt at the time and I invented a belief that I was…/others were…/life was…. I am older now and changed. I now recognise that l am…/others are…/life is…”
This approach is effective perhaps because it triggers a re-learning response rather than simply attempting to negate the original learning. It redirects the associations to the past learning rather than attempting to erase them.