People often come to therapy wanting help with getting rid of unwanted emotions. Sadness, guilt, grief, fear, and anger are often labelled as “bad” emotions. Many only want to experience “good” feelings, namely happiness.
However, all emotions are fundamentally adaptive. They are little helpers sending us messages about what is happening in our environment, like an internal GPS system. They are universal, we all have them and recognise them in others regardless of culture or language. They are a natural part of the human experience.
At times, we find our emotions overwhelming, fear that they will drive us to act impulsively, or are distressed by them. We want to gain better “control” of our emotions. But before we can regulate these feelings, we need to first understand rather than reject them. Trying to fragment and deny parts of ourselves is exhausting and often futile. It may also lead to poor self-worth, explosions of intense emotions, anxiety, unhelpful coping behaviours, addictions, etc.
So, why do we have emotions? What are their functions?
1. Emotions communicate to self. This internal GPS system, or gut intuition, alerts us to physical danger, gives us information about social interactions, highlights when our boundaries have been violated, and signals when we have had an important loss. Emotions are a source of information about our experiences and environment. For example, anger tells us that there has been an attack on self or important others, a blocking of goals, or a crossing of boundaries. Sadness indicates a loss of someone or something important, focusing us on what we value.
2. Emotions organise and motivate action. When a particular emotion is triggered, our whole body goes on alert to prepare us for specific actions. The action urge of each emotion is hard-wired in our biology. Strong emotions can help us overcome obstacles. For example, when faced with threat, fear organises us to get ready to defend ourselves or flee. This way, we can quickly act even if we do not have time to think things through, to keep ourselves safe.
3. Emotions communicate to others. Through facial expressions, tone of voice, or gestures, emotions efficiently communicate to others what we are feeling – quickly and without words. For example, when you see someone looking sad (with shoulders drooping and crying), a natural instinct is to speak gently and put an arm around them. Their sadness communicates to us that they need comfort.
Every emotion has a different function. Instead of rejecting our emotions, we can learn to understand the messages they are sending, harness them to take meaningful action, and care for this feeling part of ourselves. This is a necessary first step towards emotion regulation.
The next time you experience a difficult emotion, try this:
- Become aware of your emotion and identify where you feel it in your body. Is it in a heavy feeling in your chest, nausea in the tummy, tightness in the shoulders, or quickened breathing or heart rate? Do you feel more or less energy?
- Identify and label the emotion. Say to yourself, “This is anger” or “This is sadness”. If you are unable to find the right words, refer to The Feeling Wheel as a guide.
- Be curious and investigate the emotion. Why do I feel this way? What was the trigger? What is my emotion trying to tell me? What are my action urges?
- Remind yourself of the impermanence of emotions. Even if it feels unpleasant and overwhelming, it will pass.
Your emotions are not troublesome, weak, or too much. They embody the richness of humanity. They are what connects us to each other.
If understanding and experiencing your emotions is difficult, or if you need support with emotion regulation, you are not alone. (It is a pity that we are not taught this in school!) Therapy can help create a safe, containing space, with gentle guidance on getting to know your own internal GPS.
To meet with a professional psychologist or counsellor, call The Other Clinic at 8809 0659 or email us firstname.lastname@example.org.
Information adapted from:
Linehan, M., M. (2015). DBT skills training manual (2nd ed.). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Willcox, G. The feeling wheel. The Gottman Institute. https://cdn.gottman.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/The-Gottman-Institute_The-Feeling-Wheel_v2.pdf