Our culture has a difficult time with emotions. We do well with the happiness or joy or excitement, and we are even okay with mild levels of sadness. But when it comes to anger or hurt or guilt, let alone extreme levels of any emotion, we are uncomfortable, often discouraging their expression and even experience.
Emotions can be frustrating and can feel unhelpful and overwhelming, but what are we missing if we ignore or suppress them?
Why Emotions Are Important
Our emotions function as signals, giving us information about the world around us. If we pay attention to them, we can better understand ourselves and those around us, hopefully allowing us to live more authentically.
How to Pay Attention to Emotions
Paying attention to your emotions typically starts with learning how to recognize them in yourself. Think about sadness, anger, happiness, fear, hurt, anxiety, guilt… How do you know when you’re feeling that emotion? What do you feel in your body? What kind of thoughts begin to run through your mind?
The Story Your Emotions Weave
Once you’re aware of what the different emotions feel like for you, try to practice noticing them and naming them in the moment and as they emerge. When you are able to recognize them in the present, you can follow them to their source. What was it that led to that feeling, that emotion, bubbling up? What is your body, your gut, telling you?
An Example Using Fear
Let’s take fear, for example. When we feel fear, our body is telling us that we may be in danger, that there is a potential threat. Now, the threat may or may not be legitimate. Once you’ve acknowledged the feeling, you can examine your environment and determine whether or not you are in real danger and act accordingly, which could mean reassuring yourself that you are safe and allowing the fear to dissolve, or taking practical steps to better maintain safety. Fear is an unpleasant emotion, but it gives us valuable information that can lead us to a best course of action.
An Example Using Sadness
Sadness might be telling us that we’ve lost something, and if the sadness is more intense, perhaps what we’ve lost was more important to us. Sadness is one we can easily get frustrated with, but if we ignore it or try to talk ourselves out of it feeling it, we are ignoring the loss or pain. That may be helpful short-term, to numb us a little in order to keep us from feeling sad, but it is not a long-term solution. We likely end up bottling it up only to have it leak out in other areas, often where it doesn’t feel appropriate or proportionate.
Don’t Bury the Signals Coming from Emotions
Hurt often points to a need that is going unmet. Anger can indicate that we’ve been wronged. Guilt can be a signal that perhaps we’ve done something wrong. But all too often we write them off as irrational or unnecessary, or we bury them to avoid the discomfort or vulnerability. But if we were to take a closer look, we’d see that our emotions give us clues about how we are experiencing and interacting with our environment. If we can recognize the emotion for what it is and allow ourselves to move through the experience of it, we can often come out the other side with more self-awareness, more self-acceptance, and with the relief of catharsis, and perhaps knowing how to prepare for similar occurrences in the future.
A Partner in Learning More
All that being said, our emotions aren’t always reliable, and deciding to “give in” to them fully in hopes of catharsis can be dangerous, especially for someone experiencing deep despair, hopelessness, or rage. If you are struggling with your emotions in anyway, or if you are wanting to explore them and follow them in a safe place, and maybe if you are simply interested in learning more about them, please call one of our counselors. We would love to walk with you in this.
Written by therapist Clair Miller
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