Listening to our emotions is vital. Emotions “seek to serve and empower us to explore the world safely and make meaning of our experience in it,” said Deb Hannaford, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Pasadena and Monrovia, Calif. Emotions are valuable sources of information. “[T]hey give us direction and help us know what we need.”
But many of us aren’t very familiar with listening to our emotions. Maybe we weren’t taught to process our emotions as kids. Maybe instead we avoid or dismiss our emotions. Maybe we’ve convinced ourselves that our emotions are inconvenient or useless at best and wrong at worst.
So how do we explore our emotions and know what they’re trying to tell us?
First, we identify what we’re experiencing and then we stay with the emotion. We sit with it. We don’t judge what we’re feeling. Instead, we simply observe it. And we accept it — whether it’s sadness or anxiety or any other “negative” emotion. Because, again, emotions are crucial.
Hannaford likened emotions to a tailor-made internal GPS. It works “hard to help us navigate our way through life’s journey.” The key is to become familiar with the system and respond in a timely manner, she said.
Listening to our emotions is a skill. Which means that if you don’t have that much experience with processing your feelings or understanding them, you can learn. You can practice. Hannaford shared these suggestions.
Identify physical sensations associated with your emotions.
Pay attention to how different emotions feel in your body. Our physical sensations are actually often the first signal, said Hannaford, who specializes in anxiety, depression, grief, trauma and relationships. For instance, she noted that people commonly experience anxiety in their chest because their heart rate increases and their breathing gets shallower.
Use a scale to measure intensity.
Use a scale from 1 to 10 to pinpoint the intensity of the emotion you’re experiencing. Doing so puts you back in the driver’s seat of your emotions, and helps you determine an appropriate course of action, Hannaford said. “By being present to our physical bodies, we can learn to identify feelings quickly and intervene more appropriately.”
Use a grounding technique.
If your emotion feels too big, use a technique that grounds and centers you. Hannaford teaches her anxious clients this exercise, which they can do at any time: Stand with your feet firmly planted on the ground. Push the weight through your feet and into the floor. Become aware of how this feels physically. Take three to four longer, deeper breaths as you count up to four and then back to zero. Pick a color and scan your surroundings to find as many items in this color as you can. Then say aloud the items you can remember.
Assign characters to your emotions.
This is a technique that helps kids, but adults can use, as well. According to Hannaford, “assigning characters to emotions can help us understand the real message these feelings seek to convey.” For instance, anger tries to alert us that something is wrong and we need to take action, she said. Its function is to protect us.
Hannaford imagines anger as an awkward, misunderstood little guy. He carries a big red flag to defend our rights. “When our stress response system is working well, anger’s early warning signs turn up as agitation, and the little guy begins to show protest.” He raises his red flag. If he’s dismissed, he waves the flag more vigorously. If he’s ignored even more, he transforms into the Hulk. This is why it’s so important to pay attention to our emotions, because if we ignore them, they only build and build. (Here’s more on navigating and expressing anger effectively.)
Stay with your emotions to explore them.
When we try to get rid of our emotions or ignore them, we miss out on their meaningful messages. We naturally do this with “negative” emotions, such as sadness. However, giving sadness a voice is an invaluable step in helping us heal, Hannaford said. “Sadness reminds us we’re human and we need to make meaning out of the mess.” She further noted that it tells us that we matter and we’re wired for love.
Like other emotions, sadness tells us what we need. Maybe your sadness is telling you that you need to meet new people because your current friends only upset you. Maybe your sadness reveals that your job has some challenges, which need fixing. Maybe your sadness is showing you a wound that’s yet to heal, which needs processing in therapy.
Our emotions can seem big and confusing. But once we pause, tune into our physical sensations, name what we’re feeling and accept how we’re feeling, the intensity decreases. We can start exploring the important message. Again, if this sounds exhausting or intimidating or impossible, that’s OK. Like anything else, it takes practice. Remember that respecting and honoring your emotions is really about respecting and honoring yourself.
Boy with flag image available from Shutterstock