Many of us dismiss our emotions. We think of them as capricious and inconvenient. We think they stall problem-solving. We think they take too much time to process, and we don’t have the luxury of simply sitting and stewing.
If we grew up in a home where emotions were vilified or regularly suppressed, where good girls didn’t get angry and good boys didn’t cry, we might’ve adopted the same views and habits of repressing ourselves.
But “emotions communicate invaluable insights to us,” said Katie Kmiecik, LCPC, a psychotherapist at Postpartum Wellness Center in Hoffman Estates, Ill. She thinks of emotions as signs on the highway of life. “People who pay attention to these ‘signs’ lead happier lives. People who ignore their emotional signs may end up ‘lost.’”
According to Sheri Van Dijk, MSW, RSW, a psychotherapist in Sharon, Ontario, Canada, “emotions always serve a function.” They give us information about a situation, and motivate us to act, she said.
For example, “anger motivates us to try to change a situation to make it more to our liking.” Fear motives us to fight, flee or freeze in a situation that may be dangerous or life-threatening, she said.
The best approach to take with our emotions is to “acknowledge, accept, and learn from them,” Kmiecik said.
Below are other lessons emotions can teach us, along with insight into what to do when emotions lead us astray and how to listen to our emotions.
Anger actually isn’t one emotion, Kmiecik said. Instead, it’s a symptom of other emotions, such as sadness, insecurity and fear, she said.
“For example, a parent who is waiting on a teen who is out past curfew will experience anger with underlying fear [and] betrayal.”
When we understand that other emotions accompany anger, we can handle situations authentically, Kmiecik said. “We can express and acknowledge the fear, sadness, or betrayal in a more productive way.”
Frustration may communicate that you’re being stifled or unheard or you’re internalizing your feelings, said Tracy Tucker, LCSW, a psychotherapist at Clinical Care Consultants in Arlington Heights, Ill. For instance, you become frustrated as you’re trying to express your thoughts to someone, and they keep cutting you off, she said.
In addition to motivating us to navigate potentially risky situations, fear communicates we’re unprepared for something and what we need to do in order to handle it, Kmiecik said.
“For example, a woman about to become a mother may be fearful about the unknown [of] childbirth. This may lead her to do proactive things to minimize her fear, such as to do research, ask her doctor questions, and get emotional support from people around her.”
According to Van Dijk, “the original function of envy was to motivate us in our pursuit of resources to help us survive, as well as in terms of reproduction.” While it doesn’t serve the same survival functions today, she said, envy still motivates us. It drives us to set goals and to strive for them.
Inherently, envy isn’t a comfortable or pleasant emotion, she said. But we often deepen our discomfort with our own judgments, such as: “It’s not fair that I’ve worked so hard and don’t have what he has.”
What helps is to acknowledge the situation as it is so you can see what your envy is trying to tell you without experiencing the same level of anger or letting it stop you from acting effectively. As Van Dijk said, you might adjust the previous thought to: “I don’t like the fact that I’ve had to work so hard and I don’t feel I’ve gotten as far as I could have.”
“We acknowledge the emotion of envy is there, we recognize what it is that we want that we don’t currently have, and we can think about how we can get closer to that goal.”
Happiness might communicate that you’re in the present savoring the moment, Tucker said. “If one wins an award, they are able to be present in the moment and … be proud of their accomplishment instead of immediately switching focus to what’s next.”
“If one is able to be aware of and in the now, positive experiences and events such as a promotion at work or the reaching of a milestone can be enjoyed and celebrated,” she said.
Sadness may tell us that we’ve experienced a loss and are experiencing some grief, Tucker said. This may mean “the loss or death of anyone or anything, tangible or otherwise,” she said.
For instance, she shared the example of getting a new car. You may be very excited about the new car but also sad because of the special memories associated with your old car.
When Emotions Lead Us Astray
Sometimes our emotions can lead us astray. For instance, you might feel guilty about taking care of yourself or feel anxious at a party.
“The thing is, with emotional problems, our ‘thermostat,’ so to speak, often becomes too sensitive, meaning that we start to feel these emotions when they’re not warranted,” said Van Dijk.
Our thoughts and judgments contribute to this, she said. For instance, we judge ourselves for carving out time for self-care (e.g., “I should be cleaning right now”).
Because we judge ourselves we might assume that others are judging us, too, which may contribute to our anxiety at social events, she said.
Listening to Our Emotions
Many of us aren’t very good at listening to our emotions. We simply might not have the practice or we might’ve internalized unhelpful messages from our family or society. For instance, our culture teaches us that sadness is a bad emotion. Because it’s undesirable or uncomfortable, many people repress it, Kmiecik said.
We also might not listen because we’re consumed with judging ourselves. This triggers “all sorts of secondary emotions,” Van Dijk said. For instance, we get angry with ourselves for feeling anxious or sad or angry.
“[T]hese emotions then get in the way of our being able to even think straight, never mind do something about it!”
Van Dijk shared this exercise – called “The Gatekeeper” – from her book Calming the Emotional Storm: Using Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills to Manage Your Emotions and Balance Your Life. It helps you be more accepting of your emotions, she said.
Practice this mindfulness exercise regularly in order to become more aware of your judgmental thoughts, as well as of your thoughts and emotions in a more general sense.
Sitting or lying down in a comfortable position, start by just noticing your breath. Breathing in, breathing out; slowly, deeply, and comfortably. Just notice the sensations you experience as you breathe — the feeling of the air as it enters your nostrils, passes down your throat and fills your lungs; and then as you exhale, notice the feeling of your lungs deflating, as the air passes back out through your nose or mouth.
After a few moments of focusing on your breathing, start to draw your attention to your thoughts and emotions. Imagine that you are standing at the door of a castle wall. You are in charge of who comes and goes through that door — you are the gatekeeper. What comes through that door isn’t people, though, but your thoughts and feelings.
Now, the idea here isn’t that you’re going to decide which thoughts and feelings get to come in — if they come to the door, they need to be let in, or they’ll just make camp outside that door and continue to bang on the door harder and harder. Instead, the idea is that you greet each thought and feeling as it enters, just acknowledging its presence before the next thought or feeling arrives.
In other words, you accept each experience as it comes — “Anger is at the door,” “Here is sadness,” “Here is a thought about the past,” “And here comes anger again,” and so on. By just noting each experience, just acknowledging what has come up for you, that thought or emotion will pass through the door rather than hanging around. The thought or emotion might come back again and again, but you will see that it doesn’t stay long; it just passes through, and then the next experience arises.
(This piece has more on accepting your emotions.)
When we accept our emotions, without judgment, we open ourselves up to listening to them and really to ourselves.