Humans…we’re complex, confusing, and interesting creatures. And one of the most fascinating aspects of the human experience, in my opinion, is emotion.
Whether you like having emotions or not is irrelevant. Emotions are a part of being human, and rather than trying to “control” or avoid our emotions, the key is to learn how to better understand and manage those emotions. Unmanaged emotions can wreak havoc internally and can create discord in relationships.
Many people unconsciously ascribe to a basic understanding:
positive emotions = good,
negative emotions = bad.
Maintaining this perspective about emotions is not only shortsighted, but it can also prevent us from accessing or utilizing important information from within.
A new understanding
Emotions are one source of knowing that many people might ignore. Empathy and intuition are two examples of knowledge that rely on emotions. Most emotions we experience can offer information about how we are perceiving a situation or what we might need from others for support. In order to access this information, we need to allow ourselves to acknowledge and identify the emotion.
In addition to believing that negative emotions are bad, most of us have indirectly learned that sharing negative emotions makes others uncomfortable and leads to more negative emotions (e.g., embarrassment). Thus, people often avoid expressing negative emotion in front of others.
Learning to manage emotion in therapy
As a therapist in Colorado Springs, CO, a common part of therapy is helping people learn to better understand and manage their emotions. I have observed many clients actively avoiding emotion or feeling bad about showing emotion in therapy. In addition, many clients directly request help with expressing emotion more effectively. This is likely because they were never encouraged to express their emotions, did not have a good model for effectively expressing emotion, or have internalized society’s lesson that we shouldn’t express our feelings.
I bet you can guess what the first thing someone says to me if they are in my office and start crying…
This reaction, which I’ve observed to be extremely consistent across time, reflects our societal learning that we shouldn’t express our negative emotions. Some people have concluded that crying is a sign of weakness. Others have been told that their feelings are not valid or reasonable and have thus learned that they cannot trust their own emotions. I disagree with those lessons or conclusions.
Can crying be a sign of strength?
I tend to think that expressing difficult emotions effectively is a sign of intelligence, showing that you are able to accurately identify and label your feelings. In addition, expressing emotion can be a sign of strength and trust, as it suggests you can be vulnerable in front of someone else and know that you will ultimately be okay. Even if someone else doesn’t want you to feel the way you are feeling, your emotions are your own and you can trust your emotions for what they are.
In fact, expressing emotion effectively is healthy. Unacknowledged and unexpressed emotion can lead to dis-ease in the body and an amplification of anxiety or depression. For people to apologize for crying (expressing one of many possible emotions that come out through tears) in a therapist’s office who is well trained and well-stocked with tissues, I can only imagine how avoidant people are of expressing negative emotions in front of others. Many people struggle to express emotion effectively even in their closest relationships and unfortunately, NOT expressing emotion can potentially lead to a build-up with unintended consequences.
I think of our emotional capacity like a glass of water. When the glass if full, what happens when you add more water? It spills over the edge. This of often what happens when people report that they are crying a lot and don’t know why. Or when anger and frustration get misdirected toward the people with whom we are closest.
Emotions play a powerful role in romantic relationships
As a full-time therapist specializing in marriage counseling, couples and married partners make up roughly 50% of my caseload. I’ve witnessed first-hand that unacknowledged, unexpressed, or misunderstood emotions can create distance and even lead to resentment in relationships. Avoiding sharing your emotions mean others are left to interpret how you feel, which can lead to further misunderstanding or unintentional hurt.
Some people might say that the level of emotional expression in their relationship is too high. “We are arguing and angry at each other all the time.” In such cases, I would suggest that it is not necessarily that the level of emotional expression is too high, rather that emotions are not being identified and expressed effectively. Anger is often a secondary emotion; there are almost always other feelings underlying and driving the anger. Consider the following example:
Anger as a secondary emotion
Imagine you are driving in your car. It’s been a great day and you are feeling pretty good. Suddenly, someone cuts you off in traffic; it is a really close call!
What is the first thing you would feel in such a situation? Often people say “anger,” although some people more accurately identify that the first thing felt would be fear. What is the next thing you would feel in that situation? Most everyone would say “anger”.
When I ask people why they would feel anger in that situation, most people will offer some rationalization – “That person almost hit me and damaged my car.”
I would argue that people feel anger in that situation because something happened that caused them to feel fear when they didn’t want or were not expecting to feel fear. Unfortunately, even when people can acknowledge that they would feel some version of fear in that situation, people end up expressing the anger instead of the fear.
I think there are a couple of reasons for this. First, if you were to come up with a list of ways to express anger in that situation, you could come up with a fairly long list including choice words, gestures, or actions (e.g., laying on your horn, squealing tires as you speed away). If you were to come up with a list of ways to express fear in that situation, the list would be much, much shorter.
A second reason I believe people express the anger rather than the fear is the belief that we are doing something productive if we express anger. No one is going to stick their head out the window and yell to the other driver, “you just scared me.”
Of course, expressing anger typically leads to two potential outcomes, either the other person comes back at you with their own anger, or the other person moves away from you.
Regardless, when you only express the anger, you are neglecting to acknowledge or express the primary or underlying emotion of fear. So, what happens to that fear? You either swallow it down or bottle it up and are not really acknowledging your full or true feelings. You might then carry that negative feeling or energy with you, and it might later come out in some other, ineffective way toward someone who was not involved in the first place.
All of this serves to highlight the notion that learning how to understand, manage, and effectively express emotions is a central task of human beings that can lead to improved mental health and relationships.
Ways to effectively handle emotion
So, what are some ways to better handle emotions, you might ask?
Understanding and managing emotion begins with working to identify and label the emotions as accurately as you can. While that might sound easy, there are many reasons identifying and labeling emotions can be a challenge. One reason is that for you to accurately identify what you are feeling, you need to allow yourself to actually feel the feelings. Some people worry that allowing themselves to feel or acknowledge their feelings will result in those feelings becoming “more real” and lasting forever. While you might initially and momentarily experience an increase the intensity of the emotions when you allow yourself to feel them, the feelings will not last forever. Think about it, every feeling you’ve ever experienced has either dissipated or gone away. If you were feeling angry last week, I bet you aren’t feeling anger to the same level, if at all, right now.
Acknowledge the emotion
Allow yourself to feel the emotion and resist the impulse to act on the physical urges that come along with the feelings. I’ve learned that slamming the door or throwing something when I’m feeling angry, frustrated, or misunderstood is not helpful. While it might feel good to “let off steam” in that moment, actions driven by intense negative emotions are often simply not effective and can have lasting negative consequences. I had to learn this lesson the hard way when I broke a very expensive tennis racket in a fit of anger.
Identify and label the emotion
Once you’ve felt the emotion, the next step is to put a name to it. Again, this is often easier said than done. People are usually familiar with words to describe some of the more common and more general emotions, such as happy, sad, angry, or scared. While those are sometimes the most accurate words to describe how you are feeling, they are often not specific enough to effectively express emotion. For example, I could say I’m feeling scared when in fact I’m feeling insecure and jealous. I might say I’m feeling hurt when it would be more accurate to say I’m feeling betrayed. To give you a sense of how many potential feeling words there are, I have put together a list of feelings words for you:
Express yo’ self (effectively)
Once you’ve identified and put a name to your emotion, the last step is to effectively express your feeling(s). There are many ways to express feelings. Usually, the most effective is to verbalize those feelings to another person. Research on intense negative emotions suggests that simply saying the name of the emotion aloud can begin to reduce the intensity of the emotion. If you are not calm enough or are otherwise unable to verbalize your feelings effectively to someone else, you might write down what you are feeling or create artwork that expresses your feelings.
If you do choose to verbalize your feelings aloud, be aware that many people fall into the trap of expressing a thought rather than a feeling. For example, if there is a moment when you’re feeling uncared for, you might think you are expressing that feeling effectively by saying, “I feel like you don’t care about me.” The problem with this is that what you’ve actually expressed is a thought, not a feeling. When people say, “I feel like…,” they are usually expressing a thought. In this case, the thought is in fact an interpretation of the other person’s behavior. And, when you offer an interpretation of someone else’s behavior, very rarely are they simply going to agree with or accept what you are saying. More often they will argue with you about why your interpretation is not accurate.
Instead, saying “I’m feeling uncared for right now,” is more accurate and more effective. The change in language might seem subtle, although it can be powerful. While someone will likely argue with your thought and interpretation of their behavior, when you own your feelings and express them as such, hopefully you will illicit more curiosity than rebuttal. An easy way to think about expressing your emotions is to use the following sentence stem:
“I feel _________ (insert emotion word).”
You can even take it a step further to express the reason(s) you might be feeling what you are feeling.
“I feel __________ (insert emotion word) because ____________ (insert non-blaming reason, if possible).”
Stay away from directly blaming the other person if you can. If you think of the example from earlier about being cut off in traffic, rather than saying, “I’m angry because you weren’t paying attention,” you might say, “I felt nervous because I thought my car was about to be damaged.” Or perhaps, “I felt scared because that was nearly an accident.”
Expressing your emotions is not something you need to do to everyone all the time. Life is not a 12-step meeting; “Hi, I’m Mike, I’m feeling ignored today because no one said hello when I walked in the door.” Expressing emotions is important in close relationships however and is important in order to periodically ‘empty your cup.’
In addition to verbalizing our emotions to another human, we can also express our emotion in writing. Writing in a journal or drafting a letter that you never intend to send can give you an opportunity to go through the process of identifying, labeling, and expressing your emotion without having to deal with someone else’s reaction or response.
Using artistic avenues can also be helpful in expressing emotion. I sometimes benefit from writing songs to understand and express my feelings. Other people might create poems, drawings, paintings, or other works of art that reflect how they feel. As long as you are identifying, labeling, and expressing your emotion, these can be effective ways of understanding and managing your emotions.
Some people list “going to the gym” or “getting a workout” as a way that they express their emotions. While this can be useful to burn off some of the negative energy that might be attached to negative emotion, be careful to not confuse exercise with effective emotional expression. I don’t know about you, but when I work out, I’m not usually going through the process of identifying, labeling, and expressing the emotion I’m experiencing. The identifying, labeling, and expressing process is the most important part of effectively managing emotion. It can be helpful to burn off some of the energy that can come with emotion, just make sure to engage in the process of effectively expressing the emotion too, in addition to burning off the energy.
Anticipate some undesired reactions
Keep in mind that expressing your emotions to others, even when done effectively and respectfully, might not always garner the response you hope for from others. Most people have picked up on the same message from society as you have – expressing negative emotion is a bad thing. In addition, someone who cares about you probably struggles to hear that you are hurting, so they might do something to try and “make you feel better.” Such efforts, while other people might intend as good deeds, can leave little space for your emotions and leave you feeling unheard, misunderstood, or invalidated.
The hope is that once you and those you care about begin to realize that expressing how you feel can help increase understanding, closeness, and allows you to move through emotions more quickly or efficiently, it will become easier, more familiar, and more comfortable. You can potentially help that process along by expressing to the other person what you need before you share your feelings. Are you hoping they will simply listen without offering much feedback? Are you looking for them to validate your perspective and feelings? Are you hoping they will offer a different perspective for you to consider?
While asking for what you need will not guarantee that you will get your needs met, it can increase the chances that your needs get met because others’ will not have to guess what you need. Perhaps I’ll share more about how to identify and ask for what we need in a future blog. For now, I encourage you to practice, practice, practice. If you were discouraged from sharing your emotions, chances are you have not learned the most effective ways to do so. And, as I like to say, the only way to get good at anything is to practice.
If you find that you need or want professional support in learning to understand and manage emotions more effectively, do not hesitate to reach out to get started in individual or couples therapy. If you struggle to understand and manage emotion, that struggle is not unique to you. I can help. Therapy can help. Learn more at www.inctherapy.org.
Dr. Mike Ghali, owner of Individual and Couples Therapy, has been practicing therapy for over 20 years. He recently moved to Colorado Springs, CO with his family. While physically located in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he holds in-person sessions, you can also schedule telehealth sessions with Dr. Mike from anywhere in Colorado or Florida.
If you’d like to schedule a free 15-minute consultation call INC Therapy, please click here., then click Schedule, and choose the available time that works best for you and your partner. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact Dr. Mike at email@example.com. Please do not include sensitive clinical information in emails.