When it comes to emotions, as a psychotherapist I often hear some version of these phrases from clients: “I have so many emotions – it gets overwhelming”, “I don’t have emotions”, “What do I do with this emotion”, or “Emotions are a sign of weakness.” Have you ever said or thought of some of these phrases? Has someone in your life ever said something like this to you?
What is it about emotions that makes them so confusing? Although the reason for this may vary from person to person, in general, I think a few things contribute to emotions being confusing for many people. Remember that these are broad statements about the general population and may not all apply specifically to you or your situation.
First, many of us have received negative messages about emotions from our families, friends, or society. For example, men are often told from a young age to “man up” if they cry. Similarly, when women cry, they are often told to “stop being hysterical.” The messages here are that certain expressions of emotion are “not manly” or are “too much”, and are therefore not allowed.
Second, there has been a prevailing societal belief that emotions are illogical and a less sophisticated form of communicating. Rational thought, or using logic, has traditionally been more valued. Unfortunately, this belief is based on a misunderstanding of emotions and the role they play in decision-making and rational thinking.
In order to make emotions less confusing, we need to understand more about them. Keep reading to find out what emotions are, why we have them, and four tips for how to work with them.
WHAT ARE EMOTIONS?
According to the American Psychological Association (2022), emotions are “a complex reaction pattern, involving experiential, behavioral, and physiological elements, by which an individual attempt to deal with a personally significant matter or event.” In other words, emotions are rapid, often automatic, responses in the brain and the body that happen in response to a situation. For example, let’s say you’re hiking along a trail and suddenly hear a rattle and see a rattlesnake right in front of you. Without thinking, you jump back and run back down the trail. This immediate automatic response happened outside your awareness which your body responded to automatically. It takes the thinking part of the brain a bit longer to catch up and put words to what you are feeling in the moment.
So, where do emotions start? There are two schools of thought about this. One perspective is that emotions start in the emotion center of the brain – the amygdala and limbic system. The effects of the emotions are then felt in the body. The other perspective is that emotions start in the body. A situation triggers some physical response in the body that then registers in the brain as a specific emotion.
Instead of getting caught up in which of these two perspectives is more correct, what is important to note here is that emotions have both a cognitive and bodily component. This is why, when you talk with your therapist about your emotions, the counselor may ask you where you feel an emotion in your body. The therapist does this to help you connect the brain and the body to have a more connected, holistic experience of emotion. Doing this helps you process the emotion in a more cohesive way.
All humans experience emotions. There are about 7 core, or primary, emotions that all humans throughout the world experience – fear, sadness, happiness/joy, disgust, surprise, excitement, and anger. All other emotions are either a more or less intense version of a primary emotion, a blend of multiple primary emotions, or a reaction to a primary emotion (e.g., anxiety can be a reaction to a primary emotion). These emotions are called secondary emotions [insert emotion wheel image next to this paragraph].
Emotions may look different from person to person because factors such as culture, gender, and family influence how emotions are expressed. Additionally, individual beliefs about emotions and messages we have received about emotions can influence how comfortable we are with emotions and how in touch we are with our emotional experiences.
WHY DO WE HAVE EMOTIONS?
Now that we have established that everyone has emotions, you might now be wondering “WHY? What do emotions do for us?” Well, emotions have two basic functions: they give us information and alert us to danger or a need we have. These functions have various purposes depending on the context. These three contexts are intrapersonal, interpersonal, and social/cultural. Let’s look at each one below:
Intrapersonal refers to your relationship with yourself; what happens internally. Emotions are important for motivating you to act in a particular way in response to a situation. In the example above with the snake, the emotion of fear motivated you to move away from danger. Emotional awareness is also important for self-regulation. Emotions reciprocally influence our thoughts and behaviors, and being aware of this influence helps us intentionally respond to our emotions instead of reacting from our emotional state.
Interpersonal refers to your relationship with others. Emotions are an important part of building relational connections. For example, feelings of love toward your partner help you feel more connected to them. Feeling, experiencing, and expressing your own emotions can help you relate to others and understand their emotional experiences. Also, emotions can alert us to when something is not right in our relationships. For example, feeling lonely can let you know that you are missing connection and can prompt you to seek out support from your loved ones.
Not only are our emotions and emotional expression influenced by the society and culture around us, but they also help us assign meaning to events and cultivate and maintain relationships with those around us. Imagine going to see your favorite band in concert and being surrounded by other fans who also love and appreciate this band. The emotions you feel while watching the concert – maybe joy – are probably similar to the emotions of others watching the concert. These emotions you feel help you connect with others through this experience and create meaning together. Without emotions, there would be no sense of connection.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN I IGNORE MY EMOTIONS?
Even though emotions are a natural part of being human, sometimes our beliefs about emotions or messages we have received about emotions can influence our perspective of having emotions. Maybe a parent or caregiver told you something like “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about” or “Boys don’t cry” every time you cried. The message you probably got was that tears were only “allowed” in certain situations and that crying is not manly. It is quite likely, then, that you learned to push down or ignore any emotions that could result in crying (e.g., sadness, loneliness). When a situation happened where typically you might feel sad or lonely, maybe instead you coped by getting angry or numb.
Your brain and body learned to adapt to an environment that was not open to certain emotions. This is actually a wonderful survival technique! Unfortunately, over time, this selective numbing of emotions can result in you feeling more numb to emotions in general, having more intense reactive emotional responses (e.g., explosive anger – see our blog on anger here), or having difficulty feeling connected to people. Like Jennine, the owner of Estes Therapy, says, trying to selectively suppress emotions is like trying to hold a beach ball underwater for an extended period of time. Eventually, you will lose control and it will pop up! Essentially, this is what can happen if you try to selectively suppress emotions. Over time, they will surface!
SO, WHAT DO I DO WITH EMOTIONS?
If you have read this far and are convinced that emotions may have some value, you might be wondering what to do next. As a counselor, I help people learn how to get through their emotions. Keep reading to learn four tips to help you identify and process your emotions.
4 TIPS TO PROCESS EMOTIONS:
1.) RECOGNIZE – The first step in responding to your emotions is actually recognizing when you are feeling emotions. How do you do this? Ideally, you would notice in the moment when you are having an emotion. However, if you are not used to noticing your emotions, this may be quite difficult. If noticing emotions in the moment is hard for you, take some time at the end of the day to think back on times you felt emotions throughout the day.
What are you looking for? Emotion-related thoughts and reactions and body sensations can clue you in to when you might have been feeling an emotion. Also, thinking about if other people would have felt an emotion in a particular situation can help you begin to get curious about your own emotional response to that same situation.
2.) NAME – Naming an emotion is the first step toward taming it. According to Dr. Dan Siegel, a psychiatrist and author of The Whole Brained Child, simply putting a name to an emotion helps calm the brain. Once you have identified times throughout the day when you had an emotion, try putting a name to it. If you have trouble identifying a word to match what you are feeling, use the emotion wheel above to help you put words to what you are feeling.
3.) FEEL – This might seem obvious, but feeling your emotion is an important part of processing or working with your emotions. What does “feeling your emotions” mean? Once you have identified that you are having an emotion (or more than one!) and have named it, notice where you are feeling it in your body. Maybe you notice tightness in your chest or a knot in your stomach. Try to feel the emotion without judgment.
This can actually be quite difficult. Often we have feelings about or reactions to our emotions or try to convince ourselves that we are not feeling the way we are actually feeling. Believe it or not, this judgment of our emotions gets in the way of being able to effectively process and move through the emotion. What can help? Take some deep breaths, tell yourself that your emotion makes sense, or practice mindfulness. Allow yourself to feel the sensations that come with the emotion and remind yourself that this emotion will not last forever. If allowed to process fully without judgment, primary emotions typically only last about 90 seconds.
4.) RESPOND – Emotions call for a response. Many times, however, we can get stuck reacting to our emotions instead of responding. What is the difference? The key difference between reacting and responding is intentionality. Responding to your emotion means that you have paused to notice and reflect on what you are feeling, identified what the emotion is communicating to you, and made an intentional choice in how to respond.
4 KEY TAKEAWAYS:
- Emotions are a natural and healthy part of the human experience
- Emotions do serve a purpose
- Emotions do not last forever
- In order to process emotions, you need to recognize them, name them, feel them, and respond rather than react to them
Interested in learning more about your emotions or having a better understanding of your emotional reactions? Counseling can help! Reach out today to schedule an appointment with one of our trained therapists by calling or texting 619-558-0001. Also, check out our other blogs here, here, and here about emotions to learn more about identifying and working with emotions.
APA Dictionary of Psychology. (n.d.). Emotion. In American Psychological Association. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://dictionary.apa.org/emotion
Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2012). The whole-brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind. Bantam.