How Do You See Your Emotions?
Dealing with emotions is hard.
They can be uncomfortable, and even cause physical pain. So it can feel pretty inconvenient and irritating that we even have to experience emotions at all!
Have you ever felt like your feelings just get in your way? Maybe you feel like they make it difficult for you to be the person you want to be, or live the life you want to lead.
This is an understandable feeling(!) but trying to avoid our emotions can mean that we miss out on the wealth of information that they provide us.
This post is about how to give your emotions just the right amount of attention. It’s about how to make the most of the messages they give us, without letting them take over.
Emotions in our Culture
We live in a culture which can be pretty dismissive of emotions (except happiness, which it is obsessed with).
Have you noticed how feeling gets pitted against thinking, as if we can only do one or the other?
In fact I would say that our culture doesn’t just write emotions off as touchy-feely, but actively vilifies them.
It’s generally accepted in some quarters that they get in the way of our ability to be reasonable, or rational.
And this can be true, if we allow ourselves to get totally overwhelmed by them. (And we’ll come back to this.)
But, for the most part, people who accept and understand their emotions are calmer, more relaxed, and more reasonable than those who dismiss them or try to ignore them.
Dealing With Your Emotions
Emotions can be scary and we all try to avoid them sometimes. But when this becomes a habit, it’s counterproductive.
It is more effective to develop a skilful way of being with your feelings. This means paying attention to them, working to understand them, and treating them as data to inform your decision-making.
When you do this, the intensity and frequency of difficult emotions often diminishes naturally.
Of course you still get scared, angry, and sad. But you’ll feel empowered to learn from and act on the information the feelings are giving you.
This will free you to move through your emotions with ease, and to respond rather than react to whatever caused them.
What are Emotions?
Feelings happen whether we like it or not. They’re part of the human experience. But what exactly are they?
Emotions are just data. They are information in action. They’re how we know what we want and need, and what we don’t.
In evolutionary terms they are there to move us towards what is life sustaining, and away from any danger or perceived danger. It’s a pretty simple approach/avoid system at its core.
You might think that you’re best off ignoring or trying to control them, but when we do this we only make problems for ourselves and the people around us.
Have you ever felt like there are two options: control your emotions or be controlled by them?
This post is about another way. It’s about how you can:
- Be aware of your emotions
- Relate to them in a balanced way (neither repressing nor becoming overwhelmed by them)
- Make sense of them
- Respond to them and act appropriately to the messages they’re giving you, as necessary
Learning to accept, understand, and use our emotions emotions can help us to feel good, stay calm, avoid conflict and more.
It’s such a valuable skill.
Being able to handle your emotions and express them appropriately helps you to feel balanced and grounded.
It makes you better able to handle everything life throws at you.
A Balanced Approach to Feeling
Struggling with our emotions – whether it’s trying not to feel them or being overwhelmed by them – is one of the main things that causes us to suffer in life.
When we’re aware of and comfortable with our emotions, life gets a lot easier.
The people you know who are the easiest to be around are the ones who don’t resist or fear their emotions. They don’t fight or try to run away from them. But they also don’t wallow in them, sink into them, or get overwhelmed by them.
The goals is to know, allow, and make space for your feelings, without letting them run your life.
So how do we develop this relationship with our emotions?
Before you lean into something, it’s useful to have an idea of how to lean out of it. So let’s start with a plan for what to do if your emotions overwhelm you.
When Feelings Become Overwhelming
Learning to be with your emotions is really useful, but there are times when we all feel overwhelmed by our feelings.
It’s healthier and more useful when this happens to distract ourselves than to try to force ourselves to keep sitting with them, because it’s not useful to be overwhelmed. When we’re overwhelmed, we can’t think straight.
Learning to recognise your limits and know how to take care of yourself when you’re reaching them is a powerful thing.
How can you tell that you are becoming overwhelmed by your emotions? Do you know what to do about it when you see it happening?
It’s helpful if you become overwhelmed by an emotion to take a break and go and do something else. You might go and speak to someone, call a friend, or do something you find calming, like exercising or read a book.
Healthy, enjoyable activities can help you to calm yourself down when emotions get too intense or overwhelming.
This is not the same as quashing our emotions because it is a conscious choice based on what’s going to be helpful in that moment, not a long-term strategy.
A healthy, balanced approach to your emotions means being aware of your feelings and how you relate to them. It means being curious about them. But it also means knowing when it’s better to put your focus elsewhere.
Leaning into your emotions is not always the healthiest option in any given moment. If you start to feel overwhelmed by a feeling, try this activity.
Exercise for Calming Yourself Down When You Feel Overwhelmed
If an emotion is too intense to handle, a great way to calm yourself down is to simply turn your attention somewhere else, away from the emotion.
You can practise this at any time.
We mostly experience our emotions in our torsos, so bringing your attention to your extremities can help you to feel more settled.
Bring your attention to your hands or feet and notice what you feel.
- What sensations can you feel there?
- Do they feel they warm or cool?
- Are they heavy or light?
- Do they feel clammy or dry?
- Are they tingling or vibrating?
- Do the sensations change or move as you sit with them?
This can be grounding if you get overwhelmed by an emotion. It takes your attention into something concrete, tangible and neutral.
If even this feels too intense, you can widen your attention even further, out of your body.
- What can you see around you that you hadn’t noticed?
- Can you smell anything?
- How about taste?
- What can you hear?
- What can you touch? How does it feel?
So now you have a plan in place for how to deal with it if your emotions become overwhelming, let’s have a look at how to develop your relationship with them.
The goal here is to become more aware of your emotions and to relate to them in a balanced way so that you can use them as information to help you make good decisions.
Recognising and Naming Your Emotions
The first step to making the most of the information your feelings provide is to develop your awareness of your emotions.
This can be as simple as asking yourself “how am I feeling right now?” a few times a day.
Then, name the emotion. Put a label on it, making the label as specific as possible. You might find this list helpful.
Research has found that even just naming your feelings can help them to feel more manageable. They seem to shrink as we start to make sense of them.
Have you ever experienced this? It can take you from feeling overwhelmed by your feelings (as if they are us) to a bit more separate from them.
Once you label it “oh, it’s apprehension”, it becomes a phenomenon that is separate from you.
You can have a relationship with a thing with a name, and create some distance between you.
(This is why it’s helpful to say “I’m feeling apprehensive” rather than “I’m apprehensive”, by the way. That way it’s something that’s happening rather than something that you are.)
Your Most Common Feelings
We experience a huge variety of emotions, but most of us could count on one hand the ones that we keep coming back to day after day.
As a general rule, women in our society have been socialised to shut down angry feelings, so usually experience more worry and hurt.
Men, on the other hand, have generally been socialised to shut down their anxiety and sadness, so usually experience more anger and frustration.
Do you have a top three most commonly felt emotions? What might they be?
The Strength of Your Emotions
Another technique which can help you to feel a healthy distance from your emotions is rating them for strength. Rather than thinking, “I’m so angry”, it can be helpful to be more specific, e.g. “I feel resentful… and it’s strong right now, probably an 8/10”.
Discomfort with Feelings
You might not enjoy noticing all of this stuff, especially at first! But the more we become aware of our feelings, the less hard they have to work to get our attention, so they naturally settle down.
Another thing that can happen is that we feel less identified with them. So rather than thinking of yourself as “an anxious person”, you start to realise that you are just a person who experiences patterns of emotions, including feeling anxious.
When you practice these skills, the idea that your feelings say something about you diminishes.
You are less swayed by your emotions, and gradually become more of an observer, watching them.
It’s isn’t always easy, but the first step to changing any pattern is noticing it.
Relating to Your Emotions in a Healthy, Balanced Way
The most useful way to be with your emotions is to use them as data in your decision-making processes.
In order to do this, you need to be willing to feel them.
But you also need to relate them in a balanced way. This means that you find the middle way. You don’t try to get away from your emotions, and you don’t caught up in them.
This is a skill that takes practice. When you feel an emotion coming, see it as an opportunity to develop your skill. Can you let yourself feel it, even just briefly?
It might help to take a deep breath, close your eyes and really focus on it. But what matters most is that you don’t push it away, don’t try to solve it, or even to understand it at this point. Just feel it.
How You Relate to Your Emotions
The next step is to notice how you are relating to the emotion.
How do you feel about the emotion? Are you disappointed that you’re feeling it? Are you angry with yourself? Do you feel ashamed? Are you feeling sorry for yourself?
We tend to relate to our emotions in one of two main ways:
1. Repressing or Trying Not to Feel the Emotion
Deliberately or not, you might try to avoid or ignore your emotions. You might resist them or push them away, suppress them or pretend they’re not there at all. You might distract yourself, or turn on yourself, becoming self-critical. Or perhaps you find yourself saying things like “Why am I so emotional?” “I shouldn’t be like this!” “When am I going to learn?” “I should know better by now!”
(When we do this with ourselves, we tend to do it with others too. When you dismiss other people (such as your partner or children)’s feelings as unimportant, they are less likely to share their feelings with you in future, whether this is your intention or not. This can be part of the story of what leads couples to grow apart.)
2. Getting Overwhelmed by the Emotion
Sometimes we get completely overtaken by our emotions. If it’s a low feeling like sadness or hurt, you might wallow in it, or feel overwhelmed by it. If it’s an a more fiery feeling like jealousy, anger, frustration or impatience, you might lash out at someone.
(People who let their emotions take over often overreact to other people’s feelings too, such as those of their partners or children. Again this can lead your loved ones to keep quiet about how they feel. They might feel like they or their feelings are too much for you, or feel invaded by you as you inadvertently appear to make their struggles “all about you”. This can eventually result in your turning away from one another too.)
3. So What’s the Third Way?
The third way – the healthiest way of being – is when we make space for our emotions, recognise that they’re just feelings, let them be, then learn from them.
When we do this for ourselves and others, it is sometimes known as containing and validating your feelings.
This isn’t always easy, especially when it wasn’t modelled for us from a young age, and/or when we’re around people who aren’t doing it now.
But it’s a skill, so it gets better with practice.
I’ll be back soon with more about how you can develop that skill.
In the meantime if you would like some support in learning to give your emotions just the right amount of attention, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. You can give me a call on 07428 396671 or use the online form.
You can also join my mailing list here.