From a very early age, many of us are told to not show our emotions for it is ‘considered a sign of weakness.’ We might have heard things like ‘don’t show your tears to anyone,’ ‘man up and stop crying’ ‘good girls don’t get angry’ or ‘don’t get so emotional.’ While these messages from others are usually well-intentioned, they teach us that our feelings aren’t valid, emotions can’t be trusted, and that unpleasant emotions need to be avoided at all costs. As a result, when we experience any unpleasant emotions our impulse is to hide, run, avoid, deny, or perhaps numb our feelings through alcohol, drugs, prescription medications, binging, restricting eating, over-working, gambling, compulsive sex, or distracting through over-use of social media.
The fact of the matter is that none of us can escape our emotions. Emotions are an inherently essential part of our daily lives that play the role of an internal compass. They contribute to our identities and help us understand our needs and what matters most to us. According to American psychologist, Paul Eckman, people experience six basic emotions (sadness, anger, surprise, disgust, fear, and joy) regardless of our genes, culture, or upbringing. These core emotions are innate, universal, and automatic and they are what makes all humans alike! It is hypothesized that other more complex emotions, such as contempt or nostalgia, are a blend of these core emotions.
The word emotion literally translates as energy in motion and its Latin root is the same as motivation and motion. Emotions are at the heart of our behavior as they spur us to action. They serve an evolutionary purpose by giving us information about situations and motivating us to act. For example, fear motivates us to fight, flee, or freeze in a situation that may be dangerous or life-threatening, anger makes us assert/stand up for ourselves and provides us with the drive to change a situation. Sadness is a feeling of loss of some kind that pushes us to heal ourselves from hurt, disgust alerts us of unpleasantness and makes us avoid it. Joy gets us engaged with things, and surprise is the rush of adrenaline in our body that stirs curiosity, learning and adventure.
There is nothing inherently good or bad about emotions but there are good and bad ways of expressing or acting on emotions. A common reaction to our perceived unpleasant or distressing emotions is to either suppress them or act them out. Trying to suppress our emotions is like putting a lid on a pot of boiling water; the water will boil over and come out of the pot at some point despite our efforts to stop it. Acting out our emotions by being aggressive or passive aggressive might feel good in the moment, but in the long run it leads to resentment, increased anger, shame or disappointment.
Many of us aren’t good at listening to our emotions due to unhelpful internalized messages from our culture/caregivers as well as our lack of practice of acknowledging and accepting our feelings. Often, we respond to our emotions by judging ourselves, disavowing our feelings or getting so attached to our emotions that our feelings become all-consuming and crippling. Dealing with our emotions in these ways is not only exhausting but often leads to more suffering.
The key to living a full and satisfying life is to listen to our emotions and to use them as our guide to determine what our mind, body and soul needs at every given moment. When we learn to accept that all emotions, whether it be disappointment, sadness, anxiety, frustration, joy, heartbreak, or gratitude, are a natural part of the human experience, we allow ourselves to bravely embrace the ebb and flow of life.
The mindful approach to emotions is to simply recognize and be present with our feelings. Often times it is the meanings we assign to our emotions that is a cause of distress rather than emotions themselves. By judging ourselves and trying to suppress an unpleasant emotion, we make the emotion grow in intensity and put ourselves in greater distress. When we engage in the practice of mindfulness, we non-judgmentally acknowledge and accept whatever feelings/thoughts show up and as we do this, we notice that our emotion passes and makes room for the next experience. All feelings are transient and while some thoughts/feelings might stay longer, eventually they ALL pass. Mindfulness takes practice but making a habit of tuning into our feelings, recognizing our body signals (e.g. racing heart, sweaty palms) and putting emotions into words (e.g I’m feeling anxious, I’m feeling disappointed) creates emotional awareness and makes space for healthier ways of responding to distress (e.g using techniques like listening to music, taking a walk, creating boundaries, journaling, reaching out to someone for help etc).
If you find yourself holding back your emotions tell yourself: It’s time to let them out. Give yourself permission to feel, embrace your emotions fully, identify, label and express them, and make them your ally. Use them to understand and express your authentic core and feel more in control of how you respond to yourself and the people around you.
Maria Mirza is a psychotherapist at Colliance Wellness. If you would like support in identifying, understanding and better managing your emotions, contact Colliance Wellness and see how therapy can help.