Stages of Emotional Development

Emotion Series #1

September 24, 2021
Today's episode is the first of a new series on emotions. To kick things off, we’re going to explore the process of emotional development that we all go through as we start to work through each of the emotions that we’re going to discuss the next upcoming episodes.

Episode intro:

Managing our emotions is maybe a short-term solution sometimes, but it is really not a good long term one. That feeling of our emotions really actually brings us the freedom and the joy we want.

Welcome to the Art of Accomplishment, where we explore how deepening connection with ourselves and others leads to creating the life we want with enjoyment and ease.

My name is Brett Kistler. I am an adventurer, entrepreneur and a self exploration enthusiast.  I am here with my co-host, Joe Hudson. Joe is a business coach who has  spent decades working with some of the world´s top executives and teams developing a unique model of human patterns that underpin how we operate with ourselves, each other and the world. A good entry point into this model is a mindset called VIEW, vulnerability, impartiality, empathy and wonder.  

Through understanding and cultivation we learn to easefully drop into the VIEW state of mind, deepening self awareness and increasing our connection with the world around us. To learn more about this podcast or courses, visit

Brett: Today I am really excited to start a series we are going to do on emotions. I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time. I am very excited for it. For this first episode to kick off this series, I want to go into the process of emotional development that we all go through as we start to work through each of the emotions we are going to discuss in the series.

Joe, I would like to start with how you see the process of emotional development in the work you have been doing.

Joe: I do think there are some pretty clear steps of emotional development. I think what’s interesting to me, before we even get into that, is, I have been a student of human development a lot from Terri O’Fallon’s work to the integral work to early stuff like Piaget and all. I think that almost all of that development work has been done around the intellect and very little has been done around the emotions. I’ve looked quite a bit to look for what I think are coherent, emotional development steps and I have a really hard time finding them.

I think to some degree people who move more from their emotional experience are not intellectual writers, so they don’t write it down and vice versa. I think that’s where a lot of the work falls short. Also, I might just not have found it yet. I just want to start with that, but what’s interesting to me is the emotional development cycle as I see it is very, very similar to a lot of the cognitive development in the way that it feels circular on some level. I feel like it is like a spiral, so when you are at the top of the spiral, it feels circular, but you have actually made progress, something to that effect. The beginning and the end feel very similar.

There also seems to be a unifying thing that happens in the developmental cycle where in cognitive development, the sense of self unifies, or the sense of time unifies. There is an emotional unification that I think that also happens on the emotional development side. It’s not just a grand cycle. It’s like lots of little iterations to get there. You are going back and forth. You are pendulating through the cycle, through the growth and development. All of those things seem to be really similar for emotions.

But you asked the question, so I will answer. What are the stages of emotional development? In my mind, what I would say is, first you are an infant. Emotions are fluid, and they are non-personal. An infant can cry for three hours straight if they have colic, and they don’t wear out their throat. There is no contraction around it. There is no, I shouldn’t be crying. You see humans cry, and they are like [contracting sound]. You see babies cry, and there is an emotional openness as compared to constriction around the tears. That’s the very non personal, very fluid.

Then emotions, we are taught to take them personally and we are taught either just by cognitive development and/or by the nature of the way that all of us are raised, we are taught to repress the emotions. I will make a distinction. Repression means don’t feel that emotion, and management, which will come later, but it is literally something where we are told it is not okay to feel sad. It is not okay to be angry. It is not okay to be scared. It is not okay to be jealous, whatever the emotional experiences are. We are told that. We are told it either by being punished for it or being bribed out of it, or it is just maybe so hard core in our own system that we are just like, “No, no, no, I am not going to feel like that.”

With that, there are muscular constraints that come with it, or then the emotions start to control us. We have these big, emotional experiences. I can’t believe I said that when I was angry, or I lost control. That’s where the world says that’s what emotions are. Emotions never really get out of that for most people in most languages. Emotions are there creating disruption, and they need to be managed apparently to make good decisions, which is complete hogwash when you look at the neuroscience or so that I can manage myself, control myself.

Then we start to try to manage the emotions, which is a form of repression, but there’s an intellectual component to it. We are actively deciding emotions aren’t good. We are going to manage by running a lot, or we are going to manage them by telling ourselves we are not going to be emotional. We are managing them by ignoring them. We are going to repress them in a way that has more intellect to it. It is not like a body repression, which is the distinction I am making there. Meditation, by the way, can be that. It doesn’t have to be that, but Adia Shante, who I adore his work, basically at one point said for most people meditation is management and that’s torture, something to that effect. Even meditation can be a way to manage the emotions instead of allowing and feeling the emotions, which is the next step.

Then we will start to allow the emotions. We will feel the emotions, and we will start expressing those emotions in a way that isn’t at anybody, isn’t manipulative, isn’t part of a power struggle with somebody. Then we will usually do anger and sadness first, then probably fear, then joy, bliss, peace. All of that stuff starts coming. This is where the meat of the work is. For some people, some emotions are easier than others. Usually the negative emotions, almost always, I am not even sure if I have seen a case where it hasn’t been the case. The negative emotions need to move first and then the positive emotions. Oftentimes people don’t understand they are repressing the positive emotions.

Brett: You are referring to negative and positive in the context we have come to understand them through our repression.

Joe: Yeah, what society would say. Sadness, fear and anger were the negative ones, and bliss, deep love, joy, that kind of stuff, that’s called the positive ones or really excited, for instance, is another one. You get to a point where they are neither positive nor negative, for sure.

In that developmental process, it is allowing the negative ones to move that then brings the positive ones up, and then the positive ones often have as much, if not more, resistance. There is that. Then all of the emotions are fluid again. Somewhere in there, they become non personal again. You don’t believe the stories behind the emotions. They are true, partially true or not true, but they are not the truth. You don’t believe the emotions as true.

In Art of Accomplishment, I think one guy says now all of my sadness is wrapped in love. In another story, I remember somebody talked about it, and she said, I was doing the enjoyment exercise that we have, which is enjoy yourself ten percent more, and she was crying. She was like, I can enjoy this ten percent more, and then all of a sudden, that experience of joy combined with the emotion starts to happen. That just becomes more and more like a unified thing, where the distinction between the emotions fades away. That’s the developmental course of the emotions that I have experienced.

Brett: That illustrates how it comes back around to the beginning. To summarize what you have described, it starts out that you are a baby. Nothing has happened to you yet. You are just a blank slate, and the emotions are fluid, non-personal. It is just a process happening in your body. It is your body adjusting. Neural networks adjusting their waves. Hormones shift to match whatever is going on in your world, and then you start to get shaped.

Certain emotions make people uncomfortable. Those are repressed. Consequences start happening to you, so then emotions you have start getting linked to stories of what’s going to happen to you. Naturally, we just start to shape our behavior based on avoiding those stories. It makes sense, because those stories were learned in the way that the world actually was responding to our emotions, and we had no power at that time. That’s the only thing you really can do.

That’s a place where people end up staying often. They will live their lives based on the emotional context they have learned with a particular pattern of repression they have learned.

Joe: Just to talk on that first subject, if you go out and read emotional literature, it wasn’t until recently there was this idea of emotional intelligence to even understand them and that the emotions might have some wisdom to them. They have a tremendous amount of wisdom, and they are the cause of our decision-making process. But most of it is about managing emotions. Most of the literature, most of the self help stuff out there is about how to be in control of your emotions.

Brett: Which seems like the next stage. If we start to recognize that stage three is happening where emotions are controlling us, I think the first instinct is try to control them right back.

Joe: That’s right. You get into a power struggle with your emotions.

Brett: It is an attempt to break free of that structure and that patterning, but it is also an internal war within ourselves. We are creating new impulses to fight the initial impulses that are coming up with us. You can get into a stable state with that and manage your emotions all the way through that and have a story that that’s actually helping.

Joe: Stable, yeah, eh.

Brett: Stable-ish. You could continue to be in this stage for the rest of your life, and it will be metastable in some way. Then the next thing that I heard you mention was this stage beyond where maybe this is where the stability breaks down and the management. You realize it doesn’t actually work, or maybe a heartbreak happens, or some tragedy occurs. Something brings up emotions that are so powerful that you are unable to control them, and they actually move through you despite your best attempts at preventing them. You might recognize that this actually has a positive impact on your life, some kind of post traumatic growth event.

Joe: The thing that propels people into that stage, sometimes it is big emotions they can’t control and then they find relief when they allow it to flow. Sometimes it is, “I control my emotions, but I am not happy. I’ve noticed all the joy is out of my life. I can’t play anymore. I don’t have joy anymore.” A lot of the people, when I talk to them, I am like, “That’s because all of your emotions are repressed.”, or that saying I have, “That joy is a matriarch of a family of emotions. She won’t come into your house until her children are welcome.” That resonates with people, because there is something in us that knows that we need to allow all of the emotions for joy to be there. That also motivates people to get to allowing the emotional experiences.

Brett: We reach this stage where we start to recognize that managing our emotions is maybe a short-term solution sometimes, but it is really not a good long term one. Feeling our emotions really actually brings us the freedom and the joy we want. This then becomes a journey. There is a transition there to when you are living your patterns to when you are on the path of some sort.

Joe: There is a distinction in this as well. That distinction is interesting to me as well, because there are forms of meditation that say feel your emotions and observe the emotions. I am not saying that that’s bad. I think that’s really a great thing. There is also having the emotions expressed and move through your body. That’s an incredibly critical piece of it because the emotional repression is held in our muscles. When you hold an emotion back, whatever it is, you have to constrain a muscle. The muscles aren’t going to learn from just sitting in meditation position and allowing yourself to feel the emotion. That’s incredibly helpful. There is a need for the emotion to actually move your body, to allow it to move your body and move through your body.

Brett: It sounds like part of that distinction is, if you go through this process of observing your emotions and not feeling them by having your muscles exhibit some kind of cathartic release, then you might find yourself less controlled by the emotions. You might be developing a technique to distance yourself from them, but you are not actually accessing the wisdom of them either. You could still stay off track and feel disconnected from your joy.

Joe: I would say not as deeply. I think there is benefit to it, for sure. I did it for years. I still do it. I love it. We are human. We need to go to the bathroom, and we need to cry. It’s just how we are as people. Moving those emotional states through the system, if it is not critical, it is definitely something that expedites the whole damn thing.

Brett: This is where some of that corkscrew wraps around to the beginning, because when we are actually doing this, society might think of the adult way to handle an emotion is maybe close your eyes. Nobody sees anything happen, and then you open them, and you continue with your day. The way people would associate a baby’s emotions are [yelling sound]. A lot of the actually feeling them fully through our muscles and having that cathartic release, like we are describing, actually starts to look a lot more like, we are returning to a baby state where all of our emotions are welcomed and fluid, but there is a new layer of context now, which isn’t just our emotions are fluid and non-personal, because we don’t have any other way of being.

It is, our emotions are fluid and non-personal, and we still know how they have been repressed. We still know what kind of consequences can happen to us in society by expressing certain emotions in certain ways, and we have this appetite, regardless of what society says or does, that our emotions are welcome. We know it, and we feel it in our body. When that happens, this seventh stage that you mentioned, is they all become wrapped in love.

Joe: Yeah, and become indistinguishable. Emotions are so fluid. It is just a movement that moves through you. So hard to feel the distinction between joy and sadness or excitement and fear, all of them actually is what it comes down to.

Brett: I think that’s a very relevant piece to hold in consciousness as we go into this series, because we are going to be talking about individual emotions by name. To recognize that these names are the way society and culture have clustered these physical experiences and named and associated them with certain patterns and certain consequences, acceptance or denial, good or bad, or positive or negative.

Joe: What I would say, there is the idea of most of the emotions that are out there in the world is, the way the emotion presents if it is resisted. People don’t want to feel certain emotions for good reason, because they hurt, but what you find out through this process is, it is not the emotion that hurts. It is the resistance to feeling the emotion that hurts. I hate to use it again. Going to the bathroom doesn’t hurt, but if you are resisting going to the bathroom, that’s going to hurt. It is a very similar thing. It is the clogging of the pipe that hurts. When you unclog the pipe, it just becomes more and more enjoyable right through the whole process.

Brett: Something that’s interesting to recognize also is that when we go through these later stages of emotional development, we start welcoming various emotions. We might start calling them by name, and what I need to feel right now is anger. Then you feel the anger, but then something else happens. I’ve had this experience, where as I am just getting into an anger release, I will start, and I am not really feeling it. I will find myself getting carried away into it. At the very end of it, my voice will crack in pain. It was actually sadness under there, but really it was just a gradient of different emotion just moving through this rainbow of feeling.

As this comes back around to the beginning of this cycle, everything sort of fuses back together. My body is going to do whatever movement it needs to make right now, and I trust I am going to become a reorganized human at the end of this. I don’t even have a story for what emotion it was.

Joe: That’s exactly it. That’s the way it moves. Just generally, that’s the developmental process. You have recapped it really well.

Brett: We have got this process, and there are ways we can get stuck in it. One of the things you described earlier is, it is not a single cycle. You find yourself spiraling around the cycle a number of times. We might be patterned to get stuck in this management of our emotions stage, and then we start to recognize more and more subtle ways that we are managing. Sometimes the ways we thought we were letting our emotions flow are actually managing. We are aiming for an anger catharsis, and we are using that to avoid our hurt, something like that.

Joe: We are naming our emotion as a way to not feel our emotion though when we first started naming our emotion, it was a way to feel our emotions.

Brett: Each epiphany becomes the next rut.

Joe: Exactly.

Brett: I guess I have a question then. As we are going through this process and we are on this emotional development path, how do we recognize when it is actually working for us? What are the signs we can look for? What kind of impact does it have on our decision making or on our cognitive development?

Joe: How do you know when it is working? Let’s start there. You are going to start feeling more joy. You are going to start feeling more love, even if they are uncomfortable. That’s going to start happening more. There is going to be a feeling of more aliveness. Some people describe it as energetic release, and I think that’s a fine description of it. Also, it seems like it is the musculature that you have been holding to prevent yourself from feeling that gets released, and therefore, there is less tension. There is less effort required on a moment-to-moment basis. You are going to feel that happening.

There are going to be moments, but not a lot of them, where you feel potentially lost in the emotion. Each of the emotions has their own story as to why you can’t feel them, but you are going to potentially feel lost in it. You know you are believing the story when that’s happening. Sometimes you will go through something where you are circling on the same emotion over, over, over and over again. If you are not dealing with an old trauma that you are healing over time, that re-creation of the emotion means there is an emotion underneath that you are not feeling.

In general, it is just going to create a lot more peace, a lot more joy in your life and a lot more fluidity and connection. You will know it. It won’t take long. It won’t take long. I mean people after their first anger release are usually like, “Holy crap!” They just feel so much. Not always, sometimes it takes ten, but it doesn’t take more than ten.

Brett: As we are watching, we are going through this process. We are in this process of emotional development. We are looking for certain signs to see how this is showing up in our lives. “Am I feeling more joy?”, for example.

How can we tell the difference between being open to and in wonder about how much joy we are feeling or how much our emotions are coming back fluidly, wrapping around into love, and notice the difference between that and artificially going towards feeling joy to feel that we have done the process?

Joe: You are mentioning three things in there, that are important. The first one is, if you are trying to get rid of the emotions, and you are not loving them. If you are not loving them, then they are not fluid. If you notice that you are trying to get over an emotion, just the act of trying to be done with an emotion or get over an emotion will send you backwards in the process. It is literally the emotions are invited like children in your house. Good, my kids are home. When that’s the feeling, when I can’t wait to feel sad, when I can’t wait to feel angry, when I can’t wait to feel scared, that’s when you are not faking it. Even if you are faking it, but it actually works, I mean if you can fake it enough to go, “I actually want to feel angry when it comes up.”, and the anger comes up. You are like, “Cool, I want to do this.” Great, fake it.

As long as you are doing anything to get rid of the emotions, then you know it. There is a seeming paradox here, which is, if I love my emotions and I let them move as they want to without hurting anybody or manipulating anybody and I love them and welcome them, they change. It looks like I have managed my emotions really well, but the moment I am doing it to manage my emotions, it doesn’t work. It is an amazing little thing.

Brett: It is the idea of letting your emotions in with the agenda of things changing because they are coming in. I am imagining you are preparing the house for all of your emotions, your kids to come in and have a party, and so you are preparing the house. One by one the kids start showing up, and you are like welcome, let’s put you to work over there. You continue preparing for the party, and then what you have is a bunch of your guests preparing for the guests to show up. You are not actually having a party.

Joe: Exactly. That was one of the things that you touched on that struck a chord with me. You are not doing the work if you are at all not welcoming, not excited to feel the emotions. With that, part of what happens is you start to notice that each of the emotions has a message. They have a wisdom. Anger is a deep form of care. It shows us when we have a boundary that has been crossed. It shows us when we are not taking care of ourselves. It shows us what we want to be determined for in our lives, because we care so deeply about it.

Fear has a way of telling us that there are ways we are not asking for what we want. We are most likely taking care of other people rather than putting on our own oxygen masks first. Often there is fear. It can also tell us we are very excited. Fear can tell us we are excited, and we are not allowing ourselves to feel that excitement.

Sadness is the other side of joy. Sadness shows us that there is a change that wants to happen or has happened. It shows us that we love and that we are in joy around things. It is an amazing thing to think about why anybody would avoid heartbreak like that, sadness and grief, because it shows us how much we cared about something and that the transition is happening.

But the stories we tell about them are completely different. If we haven’t allowed ourselves to be sad, the story is, sadness will last forever. If we haven’t allowed ourselves to be angry, the story is, that anger will destroy everything. If we haven’t allowed ourselves to be fearful, the story is, if we allow the fear, then we are going to be crippled by it and we will never be able to get anything done. Obviously when we feel those things, none of that shit happens.

Brett: The self-fulfilling prophecy is if we fear that these emotions will last forever and we don’t allow ourselves to feel them, then they are actually lasting forever because they are stuck in our body. We are feeling them. You have to dissociate more and more to continue the illusion that you are not presently feeling them. Every time you go there, every time you go into it, it is like look, it is still here. You end up retreating into a trap of your own making.

Joe: Beautifully said. The weird thing is there is actually a little bit of truth. We sense something when we think those things, and we don’t have the full picture. We are describing it awkwardly. An example is, if you allow anger to fully move through you, then there is a way it destroys everything, particularly yourself, meaning being angry at people when it is repressed is a way you create separation between you and other people.

When anger is fluid, and you see it is not about them or you and there is no story, it is not personal, it is just something that moves through you, then life becomes impersonal and therefore you are less that distinguished heart edged human. You are actually now this thing, that you can see your relationship to all things. You can see the unity of yourself with everything. There is a destruction of you in there to some degree and everything in there. It is just not the way that you think anger is going to destroy everything.

It is the same thing with sadness and fear. Fear makes us less capable. There is a way that’s true in the fact that, if you fully allow your fear, you are less capable to move from an individual will and you become more and more capable of being moved by something greater than yourself. It feels like you are being breathed instead of breathing. Maybe it’s just a felt sense of difference. Crazy stuff still happens in the world, and you do amazing things, but the feeling is the gifts are moving through you. They are not yours. The more you feel that fear, in a weird way you are less capable. That’s an example of that, but it is not the way we think it is going to happen.

Brett: Again, it seems like feeling the emotion is actually the grounding face that grounds us into the reality that’s already the case. If you are in a codependent relationship and you are avoiding your anger and it is repressed, then the fear is actually that the relationship will be destroyed, but in reality the connection already is being destroyed. The façade of the relationship that is holding the thing together, that makes you think it is still together, that might actually fall apart if you draw a boundary. That might be destroyed, but you are only grounding into what’s real by feeling the emotion.

Joe: That’s beautifully said.

Brett: We are going to be starting this series talking about anger. We have got two parts of an episode coming up for that. I am really excited to get into this.

Joe: That will be fun.

Brett: To get right into it.

Joe: Societally, anger.

Brett: Is the most reviled emotion.

Joe: It is an interesting thing to think about as we let everyone go is, how emotions are unacceptable in our society. I will just give you an example. You think about somebody at a café sitting by themselves having an emotional experience. I remember something like this happened to me. There is somebody sitting by themselves getting angry, somebody sitting by themselves being sad, somebody sitting by themselves being scared, somebody sitting by themselves laughing hysterically, somebody sitting by themselves in just absolute bliss. The question is: Which of these is the craziest? It is the stigma of emotion that’s so apparent when you think about somebody having these experiences in a café by themselves. You can think about how kinky emotions are societally just thinking about that.

Brett: Beautiful. Thank you, Joe.

Joe: You are welcome. Thanks, Brett. It was a pleasure.

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