Befriending your emotions

We all know how important it is to take care of our bodies to achieve optimal health. In this quest for physical wellbeing, our emotional health often gets lost in the details. Although emotional health is an equally important aspect of your whole body health our relation to emotions is highly problematic. Here we look at how you can turn inwards and learn more about your feelings to help take better care of yourself.

Emotions in Brief

Emotions are neither rational nor irrational, good or bad, right or wrong; they are adaptive – helping us in the process of survival and adjustment to the external world. They are evolutionary older than cognition and they form a rapid-response system designed to enhance survival. Emotions prepare us for action. For instance, fear readies us for escape; anger prepares us for self-defense or attack; shame demands that we hide away from sight; kindness and love facilitate cooperation, etc. Emotions exert a powerful influence on reason and decision-making. They also are an indispensible source of information about our reactions to situations and our presently active needs and goals. In social and interpersonal settings emotions communicate our intentions, our readiness to act and inform others about our “weather” inside.

Fear of Emotions

Many people are troubled by the prospect of opening up to their feelings. We avoid them and go to great lengths to steer clear of them and keep them hidden. What drives these choices is fear of and discomfort with our own emotional experiences. We certainly are afraid to experience basic emotions in a deregulated, unmanageable fashion but being alive, experiencing life fully, and embracing the mix of pain and joy is a part of being human. And yet, we are afraid of being exposed as vulnerable and weak, of being overwhelmed, of losing control.

In many ways our society has created and facilitated skewed views and beliefs about emotions: “boys don’t cry,” “feeling emotions is weakness,” “I have anger issues,” “if we allow ourselves to feel what’s inside us, our dark feelings will swallow us,” “we should not have feelings such as anger or jealousy,” “people would not like you if you expressed your feelings,” “keeping a stiff upper lip is an essential masculine strength,” “negative emotions are bad,” and myriad of other equally problematic and fear-based beliefs that incapacitate peoples’ social and emotional skills. About 10% of the population is affected by a personal trait called alexithymia – emotional blindness – a condition that impairs peoples’ ability to perceive, describe, and interpret emotions of others and themselves.

Befriending Your Emotions

In his 1995 book “Emotional Intelligence,” Daniel Goleman promoted the idea that the ability to understand and benefit from emotional data is a fundamental skill. Practicing this important skill starts with learning that emotions are temporary states that come and go like waves in the ocean. We can’t always control how we feel and we cannot turn emotions off like a light switch.  Emotions can be hard to change, as we are evolutionary wired to experience them, but the main obstacle to modulating our emotions is the belief that we are not able to do so.

Developing an awareness and understanding of your emotions can be difficult when you are not accustomed to noticing how you feel. However, like most life skills, your ability to non-judgmentally observe, tolerate, accept, and regulate your emotional experience will improve with practice.

Experiencing your emotions takes time and work, but it comes down to:

  1. Learning to tune in to what’s happening inside you right in the moment and consciously directing your attention to your felt experience. No judgments, no criticisms.
  2. Identifying what emotions you are experiencing. There are 6-8 basic emotions on which all the other combinations are based. The simple action of naming/labeling your feelings activates the brain’s control system and diminishes emotional discomfort.
  3. Becoming aware of your defenses – all the ways we’re stopping ourselves from experiencing our emotions.
  4. Accepting the emotions for what they are: temporary states with a beginning, middle, and end. Neither good nor bad. When we allow them to run their course through to completion, we feel a sense of relief.
  5. Reflecting on our experience and understanding where these emotions are coming from (e.g., unfinished business from the past).
  6. Changing the way we think about the situation that provoked a certain emotion.
  7. Recognizing your needs and wants in order to make changes in your life.

It’s important to remember that overcoming feelings phobia is a process guiding us to acquiring a more realistic view of emotions: we are capable of experiencing a wide range of emotions and we don’t have to be controlled by them. This process takes practice and time, but increased emotional self-awareness is a fundamental key to building inner strengths and moving toward having the life you really want.

A qualified therapist can guide you through this process to help you experience, identify, and understand your emotional patterns and empower you to befriend your feelings.