Learning from Emotions

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By UB therapist Michael Maloney, LCPC

Most of society teaches us that emotions are irrational and they get in the way of logical thinking. We believe that emotions are something to be controlled and tempered. But emotions are a source of information that we are evolutionarily built with.  If we listen to what they have to say then we might learn something.

The movie Inside Out was an enjoyable movie that anthropomorphized our emotions.  Each of these emotions were given a personality and a face that we could see. We also get to witness the different emotions talking to each other.  I often try to think of emotions as a voice that has something to tell us. They are letting us know there is somethings that needs our attention.  They might have important information to share with us. There might be something valuable in that otherwise negative feeling. If the emotion remains just an uncomfortable feeling we tend to try to push it away; the emotion then can’t tell us what it needs to say.  

It should  also be said that emotions are not always right.  Just like a well intentioned friend, they might give bad advice that might not be a good fit for a situation or us in general.  I call this Adaptive vs. Maladaptive emotions. Maladaptive does not mean that something is not useful in and of itself; it means that something is not useful at this time and place.  Something that might have helped you at one point of your life (Adaptive) may not be useful in your current situation (Maladaptive). It is good to reflect when some of these strategies may have helped, and realize that it may not be helpful now.  

But what are the things we should be listening to from our emotions.

Anxiety

Anxiety is something people are often trying to avoid.  Anxiety is that voice that tells you it is not safe in the world.  But Anxiety also helps keep you safe. I often give the analogy of crossing the street.  Anxiety is that voice that makes you look both ways before crossing the street (Adaptive).  This is healthy anxiety that keeps a lookout if things are safe. Unhealthy anxiety stops you from crossing or even looking if there is any dangers approaching.  Unhealthy anxiety may see danger everywhere and not allow us to reach our goals and push ourselves to new and/or riskier adventures.

Grief

Grief is that feeling of sadness we feel from a loss of attachment.  Grief can be cause by a death of a loved one, a break up in a relationship, or even loss of a job (even one that you didn’t like).  Adaptive grieving allows us to look back and say goodbye and recognize the importance of the social connections we have built. When people are in mourning or in transitions they often have more perspective on what is important.  Grief can be painful and we tend try to avoid it. If we isolate or are unable to move forward we can be stuck in that painful place. Healthy grief asks us to pay attention to what is important to us. Unhealthy grief tries to avoid the feeling of loss again.  

Anger

Anger is often seen as a unhelpful emotions and some people may feel that it is often inappropriate to be anger.  You might tell yourself “I shouldn’t be upset” or “shouldn’t lose my temper.” It can be difficult to understand that anger can be helpful.  Adaptive anger usually says “I’m not being treated fairly.” When we see something happening to other people that seems unfair, we typically get angry over the injustice of the scene.  When people don’t respect our boundaries or our needs we get angry that they were not respected. Your anger might be telling you that people are not taking care of you and you don’t feel like others are listening to you.  

People are far more familiar with maladaptive anger.  People often see rage, feeling anger to the point of people out of control, as the end point of anger.  Anger can also be maladaptive when we feel so unheard but then we can’t hear what others are saying. Maladaptive anger comes can also come when two angry people are both trying to have their needs listened to and are so focused on getting their point across that neither can hear what the other is saying.  A common conflict management tool is to listen and validate someone else’s emotion and/or experience to appease their anger voice and then getting your point across.

Guilt/Shame

The voice of guilt can sound like a critic in our ear over all the things that might be wrong with us.  But guilt can help us better adhere to the expectations we place on ourselves. Guilt can keep us in check if we said something inappropriate to a loved one.  If we did have that expectation to sign up for a class or go to the gym and didn’t do it, then guilt might help us be more motivated to get ourselves to do those activities.  

It should also be pointed out there is a difference between guilt and shame.  Guilt is I did something wrong and I shouldn’t do that. Shame is I did something wrong and I’m a horrible person.  Examples of guilt assessing behaviors include: Why aren’t you exercising more? Why did you do that? Examples of shame labeling yourself include: What’s wrong with you?  Why are you so lazy? I often view shame as the maladaptive version of guilt. Guilt can help us change our behaviors. However if we label ourselves as bad, then we lose the motivation to change because we will always have those labels.   

Get to know your emotions more.  Take some time to explore what they feel like and sound like.  The more you understand where they are coming from, the more you can learn to respond to them instead of reacting to them.  

Mindfulness exercises are a great way of slowing down and just noticitying the emotions that you are feeling.  Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to your attention. If you can bring your attention to what you are feeling with curiosity and compassion you might learn more about your own reactions to events.  

Pay attention to how your body responds to the different emotions.  We often have visceral reactions to emotions and feel them in different areas of our bodies.  These body sensations can help us learn when our emotions are activated. For example one person might notice when they are angry when they clench their fists while another might feel tension in their shoulders, and yet another person might feel anger when they notice different their head feels hot.  Once you notice you are angry you can choose how to respond to it by better understanding what you are angry about.

Similar to Inside Out creating a visual for your anxiety might help you put a face to voice that is trying to talk to you.  You could visualize anxiety as a person, but people have also drawn their emotions to help give a visual. By creating conversation with that new friend you might be able to build a conversation that goes two ways.  We you can learn to talk back to the what your emotions are trying to say. You could tell anger that maybe we should understand what the other person is experiencing before we start villainizing them. We can thank anxiety for trying to keep us safe, but we are still going to do the somewhat risky behavior.  We can validate grief that it is sad that something important to us is gone.

Emotions can feel overwhelming but the more we try to control them or push them away, the more they come back stronger.  If we learned to hear what they say and choose which to respond to and which to graciously ignore we can live a balanced and healthy life.