Many of us have an uncomfortable relationship with our feelings. We might stuff down our sadness or sweep away our anger. We might even have trouble identifying what we’re feeling in the first place.
This isn’t surprising. According to psychotherapist Joyce Marter, LCPC, we’re socialized to mask our feelings. We learn that we must cover up our emotions “in order to behave appropriately, professionally, and to avoid conflict and navigate relationships.”
People also worry their emotions are wrong, bad or even crazy, she said. They fear being rejected or perceived as needy or foolish.
People may believe they’re weak if they feel sad or scared, so they avoid these emotions. Or they may ignore other emotions, believing they shouldn’t be feeling that way.
While feelings may be tricky and we may view them with unease or even suspicion, they’re actually important and valuable.
Clinical psychologist Jennifer Taitz, PsyD, defines an emotion as “a response that includes an interpretation, physical sensations and a pull to act.”
She gave this example: “When you feel afraid, you might think, ‘I’m in danger!’ you may feel your heart rate race and find yourself sweating, and you may feel yourself pulled to escape.”
Below, Taitz and Marter clarify three important facts about feelings to help us cope more effectively.
1. Feelings have function.
Feelings provide insight. “All emotions can serve important functions,” said Taitz, author of the book End Emotional Eating: using Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills to Cope with Difficult Emotions and Develop a Healthy Relationship to Food.
Yes, even negative emotions, such as sadness, anxiety and anger, can be illuminating.
For instance, you might think you need to stifle your sadness, she said. However, wallowing in or shunning sadness may mean missing an important message: your job just doesn’t feel rewarding.
If you notice your sadness, you may realize “you need a job where you feel more stimulated. This may motivate you to think about career changes,” and if you share your feelings, the people around you may step in to help.
Feeling your feelings gives you the “opportunity to follow your inner wisdom.”
“Our feelings clue us into what relationships, roles, choices and decisions are best for us,” said Marter, also the founder and owner of Urban Balance, a counseling practice in the Chicago area.
They can tell us when we need to create healthier boundaries. For instance, Marter’s friend, a massage therapist, asked for help marketing her business. Instead of saying yes to her — and other requests she receives on a weekly basis — and feeling resentful and depleted, Marter told her that she’d be happy to help but felt better if they bartered services, “hour per hour.”
“It was uncomfortable to do this, but she thanked me for my honesty and said she would happily barter services. This was the win-win and our positive relationship was preserved.”
2. You don’t have to act on your feelings.
Sometimes, acting on our emotions doesn’t serve us, and the thoughts wrapped up in these feelings are inaccurate. For instance, after being rejected romantically, you feel unlovable. You may even interpret this as a cold, hard fact. If you let this feeling rule your behavior, you might stop taking care of yourself or seeking supportive relationships.
What’s more helpful is to acknowledge how you’re feeling and explore the accuracy of your thoughts. In the above example, while “this emotion may feel understandable,” it’s also not true, Taitz said.
In other words, you can choose whether you’re going to act on your emotions. When acting is unhelpful, you can notice your emotions (and thoughts) “with distance and perspective.”
In other examples, you acknowledge that you feel anxious about taking a test or taking a trip, but you do both, anyway. You acknowledge feeling angry, because you had a bad day, but you decide to act with kindness to your spouse. You’re upset with yourself for making a mistake, but you don’t punish yourself by declining a dinner date with a loved one.
3. It’s important to process your feelings.
“We store our feelings in the body, which can result in stress and physical symptoms such as hypertension, muscle tension, gastrointestinal problems [and] headaches,” Marter said.
Processing our feelings provides cathartic release and honors our experience, she said.
In fact, many addictive behaviors, such as substance abuse and problematic spending, “stem from believing emotions are too overwhelming and trying to run from them,” Taitz said.
Running from our emotions can keep us stuck, she said. Sitting with them opens us up to growth and learning.
Sitting with your emotions and coping healthfully with them can be hard. Below, are a few articles to get you started on processing your feelings.
- Journaling to process your emotions.
- Identifying and coping with emotions.
- Using your senses to cope with distressing emotions.
It’s also tremendously helpful to work with a therapist.
As Marter said, “Because we all have defense mechanisms [such as denial, rationalization and projection], we may not be conscious of all of our emotional responses as they may be denied. Developing awareness or consciousness of our emotions is a process of taking ownership and responsibility. Therapy can help chip away at defense mechanisms and increase ability to connect with real emotion.”