Rob Cobb

Practicing emotions

Updated Oct 22, 2013

This post originally appeared as a column in The Diamondback

At this university, we focus on developing our minds. Fellow students tell us what tricks we need to learn to succeed in particular classes. Advisers and professors will say that studying is more about developing the tools and strategies for effective work in a field. Arguably, the value of a degree to an employer is that it demonstrates the desirable patterns of behavior needed to earn one. Diligence, persistence, creativity, fastidiousness — as students, we implicitly practice these behaviors all the time.

Stepping back even further, your parents and other older acquaintances will tell you about developing the soft skills — the network, the relationships. Learning and practicing how to make friends and generally navigating the social landscape is a valuable objective.

Still others will talk about college as a time to form your identity, to find yourself. This too is important. Although the steps to identity formation are vague, they involve some healthy navel-gazing and reflection; time spent alone in thought can be great for you.

These sometimes explicit but more often implicit motives for what we actually do at school share a dependence on the ability to regulate our mental states. We are very good at practicing certain mental habits, in particular, strengthening our intellect. If our only goal was to be proficient at memorizing facts, applying analysis and articulating reasoning, we could simply pick up the books and practice, practice, practice. Even adding the other (often conflicting) goals on top, we have in this university an excellent training ground for mastering all of these skills.

What we lack, in large part, is an explicit training ground to practice dealing with our emotions. No one says mastering the ability to control how you feel should be a learning goal, and no one has any assessments you can use to see how good you are or how you can improve. We treat feelings as a separate dominion — what control we have we are unable to improve. While we mostly manage to get by, and we recognize implicitly that emotional regulation is useful, we don’t recognize the need to practice and improve.

It may sound strange or silly, but I practice my feelings.

Here’s how it goes: I set aside some time when I know my mind doesn’t have to be engaged elsewhere. It doesn’t have to be long — walking to class, showering, before going to sleep — you can find your own mental space. I notice how I am feeling at the moment, and decide to put that on hold. I pick an emotion — at first, strong, simple emotions are the easiest — and I summon it up. It usually helps to attach the emotion to some situation, real or imagined. I hold on to the feeling, let it swell up and reach my face and body, let my eyebrows and mouth form the look of it, and my throat and chest prepare the associated tone of voice. I feel it as strongly as I can, and then, when I decide to, I let it go and drift back to a calm neutral before choosing another emotion and bringing it up. Sometimes I cycle from one to another, rapid-fire, but I think separating them with a neutral state is probably better for gaining the adeptness of control that I want.

Some days, I don’t practice feelings. Some days I see enough to arouse the full range of my capabilities — outrages that stoke my anger or sadness, frustrations that lead me to feel stubborn or defeated, joys that make me laugh, excitement that sets my heart pounding with anticipation. However, there are many days that are filled with too much boredom and antipathy; I deserve a full range of feelings every day. And so I am going to get them for myself, and become better at feeling along the way.

I recommend it, with a deep sense of gladness, and some hint of pride and hope.

🤓😽 Rob Cobb
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