• Suzanne Taluy

Understanding Emotions

Updated: Sep 28

Emotions are a part of the human experience and help us form connections and attachments. Feelings like empathy and compassion allow us to relate to one another and consider other perspectives. While emotions are completely normal, there seems to be some shame around allowing oneself to experience and express emotion; coping behaviors like crying and verbally expressing one’s feelings are often interpreted as weaknesses. A large part of mental health treatment involves getting people to understand and feel their emotions as well as learn how to express them in healthy and effective ways. Many people get into the habit of suppressing their emotions whether its mental suppression or by engaging in unhealthy habits. When you suppress, avoid, or don’t allow yourself to experience emotions they come out in unhealthy ways and can take a toll on you physically and mentally. Helping people understand the importance of identifying and expressing emotions can be challenging because some people grew up in environments that may have taught them that it’s not ok experience, express, and openly talk about emotions and it’s hard for them to let go of that programming.


Emotions can be a little complicated and sometimes hard to understand. They are a product of our thoughts, beliefs, morals, values, experiences, and environment. We have experienced emotions long before we were able to understand and identify them. Emotions seem like a mental experience but oftentimes they manifest as physical sensations or feelings. For example, we experience hot flashes with anger, “butterflies” when we are nervous, or tightness in the chest and throat with fear or anxiety; many times, we experience emotions and act on them (or engage in a behavior) before we know what we are feeling. Behaviors are influenced by our emotions, but they are completely our choice. When you experience an emotion, you get the urge to behave in a certain way; these urges often turn into our behaviors and can lead to some undesirable consequences. Our behaviors are learned and become a part of our personality which makes changing how we act on our emotions difficult. The process of a thought turning into an emotion, and an emotion turning into an urge which then becomes a behavior is automatic and happens so fast that it seems we are not in control of this process. Sometimes it’s hard to control what we experience emotionally, our reactions, and our behaviors but it is still a choice. Noticing the pattern of behaviors and developing an awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, physical feelings, and urges can help you self-regulate and develop better self-control.


One barrier to learning and practicing self-control is the habit of suppressing emotions. There are times when emotions can feel overwhelming and hard to sit with. This motivates us to engage in behaviors that will suppress or numb the feeling. Sitting with emotion even when they are intense and overwhelming helps to build tolerance. With tolerance, we are able to practice self-control and use healthy coping skills that distract us and allow the emotion to pass. Without tolerance, we simply won’t be able to tolerate negative emotions.

We often fall victim to the cycle of a negative emotion where a thought sparks emotion and the emotion reinforces a negative thought; the cycle causes the negative emotion to linger longer then what it has to, making it feel like the emotion will never pass. When we learn to better tolerate our emotions, we can identify the cycle and intervene. Negative thought patterns can be difficult to change because we often believe them. Negative thoughts are the product of our conscious and subconscious mind that is coming from an “inner critic” part of us stemming from messages we have received throughout our life. Understanding what we believe isn’t always true as well as being able to identify when the inner critic is talking can help with being able to challenge negative thoughts.


Common misconceptions:


1. Emotions and feelings are the same.


Emotions are based on our interpretations and beliefs. Our environment and society also influence our emotions. Feelings are the result of emotion; its the physical effect of that emotion or where you feel the emotion in your body. When you are angry you may feel hot flashes, tightness in your chest, rapid heartbeat, or heavy breathing. Feelings help us identify what emotions we are experiencing; however, you can feel all of those same symptoms but not necessarily be angry.


2. Other people are responsible for how you feel.


You are responsible for how you feel because no one else can control how you choose to receive information. Often you may hear someone say “you made me feel…”, and no one has that power. However, you can very well give someone the power to influence how you feel; this happens when you allow the information they give you to affect you. Taking back the power can be extremely difficult because some people can not simply ignore when they feel disrespected or mistreated. Just understand that you have a choice in what you choose to do with the information other people give you.


3. Expressing my emotions are a sign of weakness.

Knowing how to express emotions effectively can have a positive effect on your relationships and the overall quality of your life. When we hold things in, our emotions will find a way to come out; often in a way that we don’t like, or they will stay inside and weigh us down causing feelings like depression. Everyone has different ways of expressing their emotions but when you hold back you are not allowing yourself to cope and build tolerance for dealing with difficult situations.

4. I don’t need to express my emotions.


If you believe this then I find it hard to believe that you are truly happy. There may be many reasons why someone believes that they don’t need to express their emotion but learning how to express your emotion helps you process and build strength to deal with a similar or more difficult situation. Everyone needs an outlet; we are not built to keep our intense emotions inside and when we do it can have some devastating consequences. Maybe talking to someone about what you may be feeling is not for you; there are many other ways you can express yourself. Some people use art such as music, drawing, or writing to express themselves. Others engage in physical activity.


5. “I will always feel this way”.


This thought is a little complicated because it has a lot to do with a person’s perspective and their ability to see the positive and negative side of things, and it has to do with their interpretation of their emotions. We all have highs and lows, even people who struggle with Dysthymia (Persistent Depressive Disorder) which is a type of depression that stays consistent unlike MDD (major depressive disorder) which is episodic. If you are struggling with a mood disorder there may be days that life doesn’t seem as bad, and there are days that you struggle to find the motivation to do anything. You are in control of how you feel, but you may not have the coping skills or support to deal with the days you struggle the most. If you feel that you will always feel a certain way then ask yourself “what am I doing to change it?”

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