Understanding our emotions is vital. For starters, as therapist Rachael Morgan said, our emotions aren’t going anywhere—and that’s a good thing. “Being human and having emotions is a package deal. And thank god! Would we really want to be robots, or efficient, non-feeling machines?”
She noted that our emotions are a gift, because they tell us how we’re doing. They give us information to protect us from harm. For instance, anger tells Morgan to pay attention to where she’s surrendering her power and withholding her truth. It encourages her to be assertive, to speak up and to advocate for herself.
“Knowing more about my emotions leads me to recognize that I can commit to caring for myself—and ultimately others—better, making choices informed by insider information.”
Understanding our emotions is how we form authentic, meaningful relationships with ourselves and with others, said Sage Rubinstein, MA, LMHC, a Miami-based therapist specializing in the treatment of eating disorders, addiction and trauma.
Our emotions point to our underlying needs and wants, and meeting those needs and wants helps us to create fulfillment.
But if you’ve spent years dismissing your emotions, how can you really understand them? How can you identify them? How do you know if you’re angry or sad? How do you know where your sadness stems from? Where do you even start?
These prompts may help.
Explore your sensations, thoughts and behaviors. Dezryelle Arcieri, LMFT, a psychotherapist, yoga instructor and meditation coach based in Seattle, suggested first writing down your physical sensations, such as tension, shaking, energy level, heart rate and temperature. “Notice what is happening in different parts of the body, particularly [your] head, heart and stomach area.”
Next write down the thoughts you’re having. For instance, maybe you’re thinking, “I want this feeling to go away,” or “I shouldn’t be feeling this way,” or “I can’t believe she said that to me!” or “This really hurts.” Then write down the behaviors you’re engaging in, such as shutting down or getting quiet, or checking out by reaching for your phone.
Lastly, reflect on what happened beforehand to trigger your emotion, and what the emotion is trying to tell you: “If these emotions had something important to say, what would they tell me?”
Make the internal external through art. “Emotional art exploration… is a rare opportunity to make the internal, external,” said Natalie Foster, LAMFT, ATR, an intuitive mentor and registered art therapist who sees families at Integrative Art Therapy in Phoenix, and adults at True Self Institute in Scottsdale. She suggested asking yourself: What do my emotions look like now?
Draw the response that comes to mind. Maybe your emotions look like a symbol or object or landscape or figure. Maybe it’s abstract. Maybe it’s more like lines, colors or shapes. Whatever arises, sit with it, without judgment.
When you’re done, Foster suggested exploring these additional questions about your art: “What do I feel in my body when I look at my art? Does one part stand out to me above the rest? Are there parts I like or dislike? Why? If my art could speak, what would it say?”
Keep a daily log of your emotions. Rubinstein recommended reflecting on your emotions every day. In addition to paying attention to what you’re feeling, focus on what happened to cause you to feel this way. “How long did the feeling last? What was it like to experience this emotion?”
Get curious about care. Morgan, an art therapist and licensed professional counselor in Asheville, N.C., encourages her clients to get curious about the message their emotions are sending them about how to better care for themselves and for others. This is also a powerful reminder that no emotion is “good” or “bad,” she said.
In other words, reflect on what your anger, sadness, anxiety or joy is trying to tell you about how to practice compassionate self-care and/or how to treat others.
You also might consider these questions from Morgan: “What do I need to walk away from or let go of in this moment? What do I need more of in this moment? What is the lesson this emotion might be here to teach me so that I see more of life’s richness?”
Journal about your anger or sadness. Pick one emotion to explore, either anger or sadness, and respond to these questions, according to Rubinstein: Do I allow myself to experience this emotion? If not, why? What do I fear might happen if I were to experience it? How would I cope with this feeling?
Explore how other sources affect your emotions. Rubinstein stressed the importance of looking at the role social media plays in how you think you’re supposed to feel. “With social media, there is this perception that people are always happy or that we should or need to be happy.” Which means you might unwittingly start telling yourself that you shouldn’t be feeling upset or angry or anxious. Which might lead you to deny your feelings and bury them. Down deep.
Explore how other sources affect how you feel (or don’t feel) your feelings. How does your parents’ view of emotions affect your view today? What did they teach you about emotions? What about other pivotal caregivers in your life? In other words, what influences how you think about emotions, and how you process them? What changes might you need to make?
Understanding our emotions can be tough, because so many of us are more used to dismissing them. And, of course, painful emotions are painful. It’s hard to sit with our discomfort, especially if you’re used to doing anything but.
But taking the time to know our emotions is critical. As Arcieri said, emotions “are a part of our human experience.” So really taking the time to know our emotions is taking the time to know ourselves. And isn’t that the foundation for everything?