Understanding emotions can help elevate your relationships and change how you relate to the world.
It’s not always easy to recognize a feeling. You might label it anger on the surface, but what is it deep down? Is it frustration, resentment, or maybe annoyance?
Emotions are rarely one-dimensional, and it’s natural to know you’re feeling something but cannot put it into words.
However, understanding your emotions can help you identify them in other people and may enhance how you interact with everyone you meet.
Emotions are complex.
- physiological responses
- subjective impressions
- personal expression
What’s “happy” for one person can be vastly different from what’s “happy” for another, even in the same situation.
What emotion is for you depends on your:
- coping mechanisms
While emotions may be conscious, individual experiences of feeling come from specialized neural activations in several regions of the brain’s cerebral cortex.
In a 2021 review on the brain’s role in emotions, researchers note these experiences occur from the amygdala constantly taking in and evaluating sensory information.
The brain assesses these sensory inputs for complexity, intensity, and other variables that help it assign an emotion.
For example, if your emotional state is “unhappy” at work, something has given your brain that sensory input, whether it’s:
- pressure from deadlines
- comments from a co-worker
- a combination of lifestyle factors like lack of sleep and not eating enough
Understanding emotions fully involves knowing why emotions are a part of life.
There’s a reason why you have both positive and negative feelings.
Experiencing an emotion is your body’s way of relaying information to your consciousness. If you’re afraid, for example, the sensory inputs around you might translate as harmful, and your brain may want you to take action.
This experience of feeling then causes a cascade of other important processes that help you grow, learn, and ultimately survive.
A 2017 review evaluated the importance of emotion from an evolutionary standpoint. The research identified emotion as essential for cognitive processes, such as:
These processes are linked to personal growth and the broader concept of learning.
You feel afraid, for example, so you:
- become focused on a threat (perception/attention)
- identify the threat for future avoidance (memory)
- brainstorm about how to escape (problem-solve)
- contemplate how the threat is dangerous (reasoning)
- understand consequences and why you’re in danger (learning)
Emotional awareness is the ability to identify emotions in yourself and in others.
“Emotional awareness is multifaceted,” explains Dr. Danielle McGraw, a clinical psychologist in Scottsdale, Arizona. “It is knowing that emotions are a physical sensation and knowing where in your body you feel specific emotions.”
She adds that most people only use a variation of “happy,” “sad,” or “mad” to describe their emotions, but actual emotions extend far beyond these basic constructs.
Part of developing emotional awareness is learning other ways emotions can present themselves.
“It’s difficult to understand our emotions when we do not have the language to describe them,” she says.
If you feel out of touch with your emotions, there are several reasons this might be the case.
Attachment theory suggests how closely you bonded to your primary caretakers in childhood can dictate your emotional availability as an adult.
“Emotionally distant, unavailable, and rejecting attachment figures throughout childhood is often a common experience for people who find identifying and discussing their emotions challenging,” says Gabrielle Montana, a licensed professional counselor in Fitchburg, Wisconsin.
If your caregivers were emotionally apathetic or withholding, it’s natural you might learn to model that in adulthood.
Roma Williams, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Houston, indicates trauma can prevent emotional awareness by causing someone to shut down emotionally.
This self-protective state can prevent you from feeling emotions or recognizing them in others.
Mental health conditions
“There are certain mental health conditions that can cause someone to be emotionally unaware,” says Williams. “For example, people with borderline personality disorder may have difficulty regulating their emotions and understanding what they are feeling.”
Other mental health conditions that might hinder you in understanding emotions include:
Emotions may have a basis in survival-oriented learning, but they also serve as an important tool for building relationships with others.
The phrase “relate to” indicates you can identify with someone else. Perhaps you recognize what they’re feeling because you’ve recognized it in yourself.
Understanding emotions can help you become more empathetic and can help you establish a sense of trust.
It’s a skill that can also benefit your own mental well-being.
Montana cautions that “When we cannot identify, attune to, or engage with our own emotions, this can lead to:
- poor self-esteem
- negative thoughts about self
- looking for outlets to find some sort of relief
“This ultimately leads to negative feedback loops and keeps us feeling stuck.”
There are a number of ways you can work toward understanding emotions.
When you’re feeling an emotion, linking it to a body sensation can help you understand it.
“Begin with noticing the sensation in your body while watching a movie or hearing a song that you know causes sadness, joy or upset,” suggests Celeste Labadie, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Boulder, Colorado.
Once you’ve identified the sensations, you can ask yourself what they’re trying to tell you.
“Then just listen for something very simple to arise,” says Labadie. “Another way to approach this is, ‘If I were a dog, what would rumbling in my belly be telling me?’ This will really simplify it and get you out of your logical thinking brain.”
Using an emotional wheel
Understanding emotions may be easier if you have a premade list of ones to pick from.
Montana recommends using an emotional wheel, created by yourself or found online, that lists different emotions and their accompanying sensations.
“It may not be that you don’t have emotional awareness, but that instead, you don’t have access to the language you need to describe your emotional experience,” she says.
Labadie notes understanding emotions can be practiced by watching others. You can do this through media, like movies, or out in public.
“I recently sat on a bus and watched a woman’s face change dramatically at hearing a crying baby in a nearby row,” she says.
“I silently tracked her thinking, ‘she’s upset, her face is red, her eyes are tearing up, she’s having an emotional response, this baby is bringing up something inside of her, there’s some pain she’s feeling. …’”
Writing it out
It’s not always easy to corner free-floating thoughts in your mind. To help work through understanding emotions, you can use a journal to articulate your thoughts.
Williams explains journaling can help get out raw emotions in several ways:
- feels safer than telling someone else
- allows you to be judgment-free
- prevents thought rumination
“If you are feeling overwhelmed or even anxious, this can be a good indicator that you need to stop and process your emotions,” she says. “I always talk with my clients about the power of writing.”
Understanding emotions isn’t always easy, especially if you don’t have words to put to what you’re feeling.
It’s natural to gravitate toward basic emotions like “happy” or “sad,” but most emotions are far more complex, and often have important foundations in everyday learning.
You can identify emotions in yourself and others by:
- observing others
- learning about emotions
If you feel as if you’re unable to get in touch with emotions, working with a mental health professional can help you identify underlying challenges like attachment style and trauma.
With professional guidance, you can cultivate new ways to identify and express your emotions that support positive relationships in your life.