Reading your emotions is all about perspective. Perspective is just a place from which you are looking at something – it’s a point of view from which you observe things as they happen. Your experience of an event can be dramatically different depending on how you view that experience.
If you’re watching a movie but sitting behind someone with an enormous hat that blocks your view, you’re likely to experience frustration because you’re missing out on the movie. You might politely ask this individual to remove his or her hat, and sometimes that works. But if they refuse, the situation can become even more upsetting and you might be tempted to start an argument. After all, people “shouldn’t” wear big hats in movie theaters! While you might feel you are justified in arguing, making a scene usually isn’t actually much fun for anyone (no, your date will not be impressed). If the point of your evening is to have fun enjoying a movie, then the simplest solution is to change seats.
But notice that whether or not your view is blocked by a hat, the movie itself is exactly the same. For that matter, changing seats doesn’t mean the person with the hat suddenly stops existing. The important difference is in where you’re sitting – it all depends on your perspective. The same is true of your emotions: don’t try to change them, get a better view.
The ability to take perspective on one’s emotions isn’t a matter of understanding – it’s a matter of repetition and practice. The more you do it, the better you’ll get. One of the best ways to develop your emotional perspective-taking skills is through practicing mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is the practice of taking perspective on your feelings, thoughts, and sensations. It can also help you learn to take other people’s perspectives, develop a stronger sense of self, and become more accepting of your psychological experience (see my earlier blog post on the perils of judging emotions).
Just like it’s hard to read a book that is an inch away from your face, it’s hard to read your emotions without creating a little space. How and from where you look at your emotions can be much more important than what emotions you are looking at. By “stepping back” from your emotions you create a new vantage point that will help you see more clearly. As you’ll see, that perspective gives you an advantage.
Author: Paul Guinther, Ph.D
Dr. Guinther coordinates the Depression Treatment Program at Portland Psychotherapy. He is specialized in the treatment of panic disorder and has a special interest in helping people who are struggling with bereavement, grief, and loss.