Emotions are part of every day life, and most of us have noticed the ups and downs accompanying our varying emotions. Although positive feelings, such as joy, excitement, and love are often welcomed, we tend to struggle with the more unpleasant feelings, such as sadness, hurt, anger, and fear. We tend to view them as “weak,” “bad,” or even “dangerous.” Consequently, we may actively avoid them, trying to race back to the more pleasant feelings.
There are good reasons for our dislike of these unpleasant feelings. Many people grew up in families where they received negative messages when experiencing some of these feelings. Additionally, certain vulnerable feelings such as sadness or hurt might have been viewed as a weakness. Naturally, as a child, you would have absorbed these messages and developed negative reactions to some of these feelings.
The surprising news is that even these difficult emotions can be quite helpful, if we listen to them. All of our emotions have been wired in for survival and difficult feelings serve to signal that something is not going as planned. Healthy anger, for example, may tell us that our goals have been frustrated, we have been treated unfairly, or that our boundaries have been invaded. Sadness may reflect loss, and hurt feelings may reflect experiences of rejection or abandonment. Finally, fear typically reflects a real or perceived threat. By attending to these feelings, we can listen to what we need to do for ourselves and are then primed to act in a certain way – attending to healthy anger may lead to asserting one’s boundaries, attending to fear may result in avoiding a potentially dangerous situation, and attending to sadness and hurt may lead one to retreat in order to heal or, when expressed, result in receiving comfort from others.
However, we normally don’t just impulsively react to each feeling that we experience or we would wind up in some difficult situations. Rather, we use our higher cognitive processes to first identify what it is that we are feeling, followed by what we want to do with the feeling and whether it is in our best interest to express that feeling. Identifying feelings is complicated in that people are often in touch with their reaction to their emotion and not the actual underlying emotion. For example, in our society, men have frequently been taught to not show vulnerability. Consequently, they may act and feel angry, while underneath they are feeling afraid or ashamed. Additionally, people may have vulnerable feelings of hurt and sadness that are masked by an outward expression of anger or even rage.
One of the toughest parts of working with difficult emotions is learning how to regulate our experience and expression of them. Shutting them down and avoiding them rarely works, because inevitably feelings come back or we wind up cut off from much of our life experience. The opposite extreme, feeling consumed by the emotion is also not healthy, as people can feel completely overwhelmed by their emotions. Therefore, finding the balance is essential.
To access emotions that have been avoided or buried, one can talk, write, or even draw about a difficult situation to access feelings that are associated with that situation. Watching a movie (e.g., a sad movie) which evokes similar feelings that have been avoided may be also useful. Further, focusing inwardly on specific body sensations (e.g., tight shoulders, heaviness in the chest area) often brings up buried feelings.
When emotions are too overwhelming, one of the best ways to regulate them is to get some working distance from them by labeling what one is feeling and even writing about the feeling. Reflecting on the emotion in this way allows one to make more sense of the experience or even see it from a different perspective. Seeking comfort from others also can help soothe painful emotions, thereby decreasing their intensity. Other ways to regulate overwhelming emotions include deep breathing, relaxation exercises, using peaceful imagery, distracting oneself with an enjoyable activity, or even seeking humor.
Finally, letting go of shame about your emotions is important. Try to feel compassionate towards yourself for having them, as you would towards a friend. After all, emotions are an important part of our human existence.
Note: Emotions affect much of our life and are frequently managed on one’s own. However, if you find yourself unable to regulate your emotions or find that any one emotion becomes predominant in your life, professional help may be important.