Emotions: What They Are and Why You Should Feel Them
The short answer: because they’re there.
A man ahead of his time, the late Fred Rogers spent nearly 40 years teaching children that “Feelings are mentionable and manageable” on his TV show Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.
This message is just as relevant and important today.
Fred believed that if children were given the space to talk about their feelings, and were deeply and sincerely listened to, they would learn feelings “aren’t so scary”.
He was right. Ample research studies on emotion support the notion that:
‘When you name it, you tame’ it'
- meaning, when we can label our emotions (are mindfully aware of and in contact with them), their intensity and potential surge over us is reduced and we are able to regulate and manage our emotions much better.
But the reality is that most people have some degree of a conflicted relationship with their emotions.
I certainly did.
It wasn’t until 30 years of age when I attended a training for therapists to learn about Emotion-focused Therapy from its developer, Dr. Les Greenberg, that I came to understand that emotions are actually OK (Say What Now?!). The emotions themselves – which I had been trying my best to avoid my entire life – are actually NOT the problem.
The problem lies in our broader cultural Emotion-Phobic attitudes combined with deficient education and limited understanding about how to respond well to and relate to our emotions.
The result: corrupted and disintegrated experiences with emotions – typically the suppression of ‘negative’ or more painful feelings, which reinforces a general dislike of and resistance to many different emotions (e.g., fear, grief, sadness, anger).
In her brilliant work on dealing with grief, Megan Devine refers to this cultural landscape as rampant “Emotional illiteracy”.
When I became emotionally literate – to help myself and my clients – time and time again I experienced for myself and witnessed the transformational power of emotions.
We can break free from the fear of feeling our feelings! In fact, when we understand our emotions and know how to relate to them, we can access their inherent messages and live a life that is immeasurably connected to a deeper state of alignment with our Self – what some people refer to as your “True” Self.
Not surprisingly, learning to respond with greater mindfulness and compassion to our own emotions allows us to better respond to the important people in our lives when they express emotion, leading to greater intimacy and connection with others. It’s a win-win, really.
What Are Emotions Anyway?
Essentially, emotions are experienced as sensory energy. All humans are hardwired to experience emotions as part of a sensitive and sophisticated information system that tells us about our experience in the world. They tell us what to avoid (i.e. disgust) and what to seek more of (interest). They tell us when we’ve lost something important to us (sadness) and when our boundary has been crossed (anger). They tell us when we’re not safe (fear) and lots about the quality and state of our relationship to others.
Each of these primary emotions has an associated and intelligent action impulse. For example, if you feel fear – your mind-body state will quickly and intelligently shift into fight-flee or freeze (the survival mechanism hardwired into our brains and bodies that helped us evolve as a species). Anger, at its primary level, is incredibly helpful and purposeful as it tells us when our boundary has been crossed/we’re being de-valued or disrespected. Most social movements rest on the primary anger of many people who use this energy to create positive social change.
Sadness, which we all feel at times, generally requires some type of soothing or comfort. If you haven’t seen the movie Inside Out, watch it for a beautiful example of sadness: the ‘Sad’ character tells her friend who sits quietly beside her, listening, she just wants to be – acceptance that ‘it’s here', and it naturally subsides once it’s accepted and permitted to move through its own process.
Emotions can seem quite confusing – we humans are complex beings. Breaking down emotions into the different types is extremely illuminating, if not educational:
Types of Emotions
1. Primary Emotions: These core adaptive emotions are a source of intelligence. They are first experienced in connection with our outside world in the moment. If responded to well (i.e. considered valid, without added judgment or resistance), they arrive and leave quickly and are ‘adaptive’ (E.g., anger at violation, sadness at loss and fear at threat).
Primary emotions can also become maladaptive, which is the case in an environment where the caregivers’ abilities to respond in healthy ways to the infant/child were deficient. Maladaptive primary emotions are generally based on past learning (including traumatic learning). People tend to feel stuck in these emotions that block healthier primary emotions, which can last long after the situation that caused them – sometimes for years (E.g., shame and humiliation, destructive rage, unresolved grief). These are emotions that benefit from investigation in order to transform them to healthier experiences (like, for example, transforming shame into self-compassion).
2. Secondary Emotions: These emotions mask primary emotions. They are influenced by our judgment about emotion (i.e. resistance to feelings), cultural ‘permissions’ (i.e. "boys don’t cry"), and can serve as a form of self-protection or defensive mode (E.g., afraid of one’s anger or ashamed of one’s fear). These are the feelings that arise from thought. For example, if you have a negative thought about yourself, this will trigger a negative feeling, which in turn triggers another negative thought and therein becomes a negative ruminative loop.
It’s helpful to reflect and investigate our secondary emotions in order to get at what’s underneath – what’s primary. When we can move past the defensive emotions/learned social conditioning to what is our primary emotion, we can access the messages of the emotion and tend to its need (action urge), allowing it to let go and flow out of us naturally.
When caught in a defensive or negative thought pattern, ask yourself: ‘What am I really feeling? Is there a deeper vulnerability underneath? Another feeling I'm not wanting to feel?’
3. Instrumental Emotions: This is the type of emotion usually expressed in childhood as an experimental way to use emotion to manipulate another person. The child who cries when Mommy says “No” to a second cookie, what might be called ‘crocodile tears’. The use of instrumental emotion will work if Mommy gives in and gives the child the second cookie – the learning becomes that by using certain expressions of emotion, one can get what one wants. If this learning is reinforced and healthy maturation or corrected learning does not take place, the child will grow up to continue to use certain expressions of emotions to get his/her needs/wants met.
Anger, for example, can also be instrumental, such as when people ‘walk on egg shells’ around a family member and placate their demands in order to avoid the consequences of their expressed anger. Here, anger is not primary, but is used instrumentally and as you can imagine, highly problematic.
Instrumental emotion does not ultimately lead to healthy and intimate bonds with others, as the other person feels manipulated, which, in turn creates more complicated, confusing and often painful experiences of emotional suffering, and disconnection between both people in the relationship.
Recognizing our use of instrumental emotions is important to ‘check ourselves’ and gain insight into this pattern, asking ourselves: ‘What am I really feeling in this situation and what am I trying to achieve by demonstrating vulnerability/sadness/anger’?
For a really well-done vignette that illustrates how these different types of emotions manifest, check out Alfred & Shadow, a short animation that explains the complexity of our emotions in a simple and accessible way.
If learning about the different types of emotions is new for you, you’ll likely get why translating the cues of the emotions that are triggered in our lives can be confusing and tricky sometimes. Most therapists are not even taught about emotion with this degree of depth, which often results in people concluding that counselling is not very helpful.
Trust me, the pain of avoiding our emotions is greater than the pain of processing them. Over time, suppressed and avoided emotion eventually leads to illness, mental health issues, or at the very least, painful disconnection from one’s self and one’s needs for happiness and fulfillment in life – feeling lost, empty or like ‘something’s missing’.
The gateway to healing is connecting with your feelings and learning to heed their messages – the information they provide you about what you need in your life - to attend to the needs of the heart.
If you can learn to listen to your emotions instead of repressing them or avoiding them, while holding them in your awareness with curiosity and compassion - I’m telling you: Your life will change dramatically. Things will open up to you with new eyes, new ways of being in the world and in your relationships and deeper understandings than you ever imagined.
Emotions are a largely untapped domain of intelligence, wisdom and power. When we learn the language of our emotions and can heed their call, we have found the path to greater connection and alignment with our True Self, our needs and our purpose.
Being able to be with our emotions in this way also opens us up to being better able to connect with others in important relationships. When we can tolerate our own emotions with more grace and wisdom, we are less likely to shut down or move away from emotions that arise in context with another’s pain or time of emotional need (SO incredibly helpful with our partners and children – am I right?).
If you want to learn more, my next blog will speak to the ‘How To...’ of going about relating to your emotions in a way that expands your tolerance of difficult emotions and helps you access the valuable wisdom within them. Subscribe to my website ww.drangeleclose.com if you haven't already to receive updated blogs and offerings.
For now, you may benefit from reflecting on your beliefs about emotion – your family’s messages around emotions and the false beliefs you might have internalized.
Consider the following questions – perhaps journaling as you reflect:
What was your learning about emotions in your childhood/family upbringing? (How did caregivers respond to your expressions of sadness, frustration or fear?)
What emotion(s) is more challenging for you?
Why do you think this emotion is so difficult? Does a memory arise of a time when you felt this particular feeling and expressed it and it didn’t go so well?
What ways do you try to avoid, distract or ‘run’ from certain emotions?
How does that work for you?
How would you feel to know that you could feel your feelings, understand their relevant messages while being able to graciously let go of what doesn’t most matter or serve you in your life?
What would it be like to not fear any particular emotions and to not have to contract, shut down or run in fear if certain ones arose?
The good news: We can always re-learn.
Yours in Wellness,
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