Emotions can seem very inconvenient sometimes. They can be distressing and overwhelming, and they often appear to get in our way.
Of course, it feels wonderful to experience happiness or excitement or love – so called, ‘positive’ emotions – but other emotions like sadness, anger, or fear are quite unpleasant. We often think of them as bad or frightening. They seem to cloud our judgment or just make us feel bad. No wonder we often want to run away from them or find ways to make them go away as quickly as possible!
However, what many people don’t realize is that the meaning we assign to our emotions (that they are bad or scary) and the reactions we have to them (trying to resist or escape from them) are actually responsible for much of our distress. We tell ourselves that we can’t handle these feelings or that they will never go away – or that they mean something terrible about us or about other people.
On the other hand, if we try to approach our emotions as helpful, (albeit sometimes unpleasant) messengers giving us important information about our own needs, we can begin to have a different relationship with our own internal experience.
Rather than resisting them and pushing them away, we can begin to cultivate a curiosity and acceptance about our emotions that often makes them less overwhelming.
A Different Perspective: Approaching Emotions as Helpful Messengers
Consider this: our emotions (even the so-called ‘negative’ ones) actually give us a lot of very useful information about our emotional needs. If we learn to —
(1) listen carefully to these messages with curiosity and without judgment,
(2) consider which aspects of a situation we may be able to influence and which are outside of our control,
(3) respond with intention (as opposed to reactively or in a knee-jerk sort of way),
— we can discover how to get these needs met more effectively and to feel more satisfied in our lives and relationships with others.
Our emotions — even the so-called ‘negative’ ones — actually give us a lot of very useful information about our emotional needs.
A helpful analogy for this comes from our sensory nerves. We have these nerves throughout our bodies that can sense different types of physical sensations: pressure, temperature, pain. These nerves send messages to our brains that keep us safe and help us take care of our bodies — although the way they do this doesn’t always feel pleasant or comfortable.
For example, if you were to place your hand on a hot stove, you would feel not only heat but also a great deal of pain. This hurts, but it serves the important purpose of making you quickly pull your hand away so that it doesn’t get burned (and damaged) even more. And while it may even continue to hurt for several hours or days to come, this experience teaches you to be more careful around hot stoves – a very important lesson! If we didn’t have the mechanisms for identifying danger in this way (or safety, on the other hand), we probably wouldn’t make it very far in this world.
The same is true of emotions, although the needs are often more complex and the messages are sometimes more difficult to interpret.
For example, you might feel hurt when your friend is not there for you in the way you would like her to be during a difficult time. This feeling of hurt tells you something important about how well your needs are getting met in this relationship. It suggests that something needs to change.
However, it’s probably not as simple as your friend not being a good friend or not doing what she should to support you. It might also be that you haven’t let her know how you’re feeling or what you need. Or, it might be that your expectations for the friend exceed what she is capable of giving at the moment, given her own current circumstances – maybe she is in need of some extra support herself.
In this situation, communicating openly with your friend about your feelings in a non-accusatory way might clarify things for both of you. She might learn more about how you would like to be supported, and you might learn how to communicate your needs more clearly.
After this conversation, you might feel a very different emotion – feeling understood or closer to your friend – and this new, more pleasant feeling may help to reinforce your choice to openly communicate your needs in the future.
Alternatively, you might learn that you and your friend have different expectations for the friendship. In that case, you don’t have control over your friend’s behavior, but you do have a choice in how much and in what ways you want to continue to invest in the relationship. You might decide to rely on another friend for this type of support in the future and to reconsider your own expectations for this particular friendship.
Practice, Practice, Practice…
Learning to approach our emotions in this way often requires a significant shift — and takes a lot of practice. However, a number of research studies1 have demonstrated that, with such regular practice, approaching emotions in this way can lead to decreased emotional reactivity and increased distress tolerance.
As you practice, remember to be gentle and kind with yourself. The shift won’t happen overnight.
So next time you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by a difficult emotion, take a deep breath and try to gently remind yourself:
This feeling is temporary.
It is just an emotion. It may be unpleasant and distressing, but it is not going to harm me.
There is a helpful lesson for me somewhere in this experience, if I just listen.
I could choose to resist it as I have in the past, but this time instead I choose to be curious and see what I can learn.
p.s. As always, I would love to hear from you — your thoughts, reactions, or questions about this post. However, if you choose to share your thoughts below, please keep in mind that these comments are visible to anyone who visits the blog. Therefore, I would encourage you to use a pseudonym (not use your real name) to protect your own privacy. If you would like to get in touch but would prefer to contact me privately, you can do so here.