How To Understand Your Emotions, by Sally Falwell, Psy. D.
Editor’s Note: Today, I am thrilled to introduce Sally H. Falwell, Psy.D. She is a phenomenal licensed clinical psychologist and professional counselor that has graciously volunteered to share her expertise on emotions. Over my years of attending counseling, I spent lots of money paying for the knowledge that is in this article, and I’m SO HAPPY to be able to deliver it to you all for free. Sally writes professionally at legacyacc.com and I highly recommend browsing her site. She is a wealth of wisdom. – Lauren
What are emotions and why do they seem to get in the way of good things I am trying to do?
Simply put, emotions are a normal part of being human, but they require something from us and help us grow, change, and mature.
A Few Things About Emotions
– Emotions are educators. They point me to what I need to learn and pay attention to.
– There is usually a reason I am acting a certain way with certain emotions.
– Ignoring my emotions causes them to magnify and multiply.
– My body is impacted by the emotions I experience.
– When I deal with my emotions, I work toward my goals, not away from them.
Climate vs. Weather
Is there a difference in an emotion and a feeling? For a bit of a guide, I often describe emotions as the experience (“I am sad”) and feelings as how this is expressed (downcast face, tears).
Also, you can make a weather comparison, using mood and emotions as the climate (78 degrees, 20% humidity, partly cloudy) and feelings as how the climate is experienced through weather (warm breeze, putting on a sweater because I got a chill, wearing sunglasses to avoid a glare).
– A chilly person (climate) is experienced as cool, aloof, disinterested (weather).
– If I have a regular mood of irritation (climate), I am likely experienced as a sharp, critical person (weather).
Emotions = Educators
Emotions are educators. They tell us what is going on with us, inside and out. How I feel on a given day might could be related to an element of my life that needs attention.
One important part about distinguishing between emotions and feelings comes when looking at your own mood and behaviors, considering how you treat yourself and others, and how they might experience you, determining why I am acting a certain way, why certain things scare me or rub me the wrong way.
I am NOT Angry!
Emotions are like weeds – feed them and they grow, ignore them and they grow. Emotions get bad rap sometimes, especially in a culture that prizes self-controlled, agreeable, well-put-together women. We hurt ourselves and others by denying emotions as good, natural, and healthy.
– “I shouldn’t feel this way.” (e.g. It is wrong to be angry.)
This indicates that some emotions are okay and some are not. In fact, all emotions are equal. Some do not feel as good as others, some are harder to deal with, but they all show up for a reason.
– “I am sorry you feel that way.”
This is denying someone their instinct to respond to their emotions, basically saying, “You shouldn’t feel that way based on my evaluation.” and indicates that the person is off-base in what they feel, even though they are entitled to experience something in their own individual way. This statement basically says, “I do not want you to feel that way because I do not want to know that part of you and how it might relate to me.”
– Choosing one emotion over another (e.g. sadness over anger)
– Labeling emotions as acceptable (happy) or unacceptable (anger)
– Ignoring or dismissing an emotion
This is accomplished through distraction and denial
– going onto something else
– substance use or abuse
– food use or abuse
– cutting or harming yourself
– managing or controlling other people
– cutting an emotional situation/person out of your life
– denial (telling or yelling), “I am not angry!”
– putting on a mask of happiness when actually down/depressed inside
– stuff an emotion down, willing it away
Emotions and My Body
Emotions have an impact on us physically. Simply put, when we experience more negative or positive emotions, our body responds too. Some common responses to the stress that emotions can cause are:
– raised blood pressure
– stomach aches
– clinching teeth
– tight muscles
When our bodies experience stress, including emotional stress, certain hormones are dumped into our systems to help us deal with an anticipated threat to our safety. If not dealt with, my body will carry stress with it, stress hormones pumping through my blood, affecting my health in many different ways. Over time, these results compound.
Do You Smell Smoke?
I use a lot of phrases and word pictures in my practice. Where emotions are concerned, I use the phrase: Where there is smoke, there is ﬁre.
Emotions can ﬁll the air like smoke, offering evidence that something is wonderful, peaceful, amiss, concerning, heartbreaking, maddening. Following the emotions to the source is a bit like being willing to ﬁnd out “what is behind door #3” and often takes a fair amount of courage and vulnerability.
Handling Myself: Dealing & Balance
Is controlling emotions the best way to handle this part of being human? Not necessarily. Dealing with emotions and seeking balance are two great ways to tackle emotions and feelings as they arise.
This is a whopper and takes some practice. Maturing emotionally is hard but rewarding. To deal with an emotion when it presents itself can be painful and time-consuming. Feelings that emerge out of emotions are often linked to other people, both in the past and the present. There is usually a reason why I act the way I do when I am emotional.
There is a reason that as an adult woman, when I don’t get my way, I do not throw myself on the ﬂoor and have a temper tantrum. That is expected behavior for a three-year-old. As we mature, we learn how to “control” ourselves, and sometimes to our own detriment. If I have not learned to deal with my emotions, I may not throw a temper tantrum, but I might resort to higher-order responses like giving the cold-shoulder, talking down to someone, transferring my anger from the person I am mad at ( my husband) to an undeserving party (my assistant at work) – this is also known as “kick the dog”.
When emotions are treated on an extreme, they magnify and multiply. When we lash out from emotions, we create additional problems, usually with other people. If we ignore emotions, we begin creating an emotional lifestyle (e.g. living depressed, anxious, insecure, unhappy)
Giving emotions the attention they deserve makes a way for balance. We can use emotions as guides and educators of what inside of us has been hurt or wounded. Not letting emotions dictate me and not squishing emotions down when they beg for attention pulls me out of extremes and into emotional balance.
Emotions and Other People
If it weren’t for other people, I would be perfectly ﬁne! I could act how I want, when I want. I would not need to listen, pay attention, or make room for new and different information in how I think about the world around me. I would also enjoy a tremendous amount of loneliness, a lack of intimacy, and a limited understanding of what it is like to actually love or care for another person.
Part of dealing with and balancing my own emotions includes respecting the others’ emotions. This can be particularly difficult, and stir up additional emotions that threaten my feeling loved, appreciated, noticed, valuable, and acceptable. Dealing with emotions definitely requires a cup full of courage!
Keep in mind, not all people represent the same amount of safety when it comes to dealing with your emotions. Some relationships will be more challenging than others to work through emotions with, some people safer and more gracious than others.
What’s In It For Me?
The very best part of dealing with and resolving emotions when they present themselves is that you reap the benefits of being true to yourself, growing personally, and learning to be respectful of yourself and others. When seen for what they are, emotions lose some of their scariness and it can be easier to handle the “yucky” emotions and create a bigger space for peace, joy, happiness, hope, excitement, contentment – some of the emotions we enjoy feeling.
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