This country used to be famous for its British reserve and its stiff upper lip. Now we take our cues from television characters who scream and slam doors and hotly accuse each other at the slightest provocation. Public displays of rage or sentiment are reckoned as more honest, authentic or ‘human’ than calm and rational courtesy; and we freely broadcast a spattering of emotional reactions to the world on social media, in the convenient shorthand of emoticons.
Emoticons can express what we find difficult or are too inhibited to put into words. In this world of remote communication, where the person you are speaking to is not right there to read your expression, a wink or a smile can convey your meaning more subtly than words. But do emoticons help us to accept how changeable, irrational and complex our emotional weather really is? Or do they reduce complex shades of feeling to a set of clichés and grimaces, the online equivalent of cartoon expletives like ‘Grrrr’, ‘Arrgh!!!’ and ‘??’
In magical tradition, to name something gives you power over it. When you can appreciate your emotional state of mind lucidly enough to label it – “What I am feeling is angry, or sad, or anxious…” – you take command of the stress or upset that a moment before was controlling you. It is immensely helpful to give a child the words to pin down their confusing emotions: “That looks frustrating”, “Are you very disappointed?”, “That was surprising, wasn’t it?” It is immensely helpful to yourself to name your feeling, or cocktail of feelings: “This is only fear talking, this is my critical self having another go at me, this is confidence saying Go for it!” It is helpful to everyone when you learn to communicate your feelings: not as rights, or excuses, or reproaches, but to clarify where you are coming from; to explain your present point of view, without demanding sympathy or compliance.
Your kneejerk reactions are never a reliable guide to what matters. Our emotions do not tell us what is true. They can only tell us what we believe, or hope, or fear at this moment in time. But they give us a rich, rapid and intuitive range of responses to the world and to each other, faster than thinking. To be emotionally aware is to become emotionally resilient. If you know what it feels like to be afraid, defensive or hostile, you can also be more freely grateful, affectionate, compassionate. When you pay attention to your feelings, whether your heart is sinking or singing, you will know the direction of your thoughts. Then you can make decisions and move on, wholeheartedly – with heart and mind together – instead of being blown off track by mysterious and unwanted impulses.