When I entered graduate school, I thought I was in touch with my emotions and generally knew about emotion. I was in graduate school to be a therapist, and I had worked in mental health for several years, so I believed that I inherently knew about emotion. However, I remember during my first semester, realizing that I apparently knew almost nothing about emotion. I was doing some required reading, and the things I was learning blew me away.
Men Vs. Women
If we are speaking stereotypically, men tend to know less than women about emotion. There is a reason for this. Parents tend to award and encourage emotional language in women and tend not to engage with boys in the same way. Again, this is stereotypically, and this does seem to be changing, but I think it still holds true. That being said, I think plenty of women don’t know much about their emotions either. My experience growing up did not include talking about feelings in the garage with my father. My dad would teach me about fixing or building things, but emotions didn’t really enter the picture. If someone asked me how I felt, I would tend to simply say that I was good. Granted, many people ask how we are feeling and actually mean to ask how we are doing, but this doesn’t really answer the question, though. At least this doesn’t really answer that question when it counts. I remember when I was dating a girl, and she asked what I felt, and I had no idea how to actually answer that question. I could say whether I thought the relationship was going well or not, but I didn’t understand the emotion behind these thoughts.
Why Do We Have Emotions?
Why have emotions and not just thoughts? I’ll give an example to explain.
A caveman walking around sees a lion. Does he have time to think about the last few times that he saw a lion?One time a lion was mauling a deer… another time it was mauling my friend… another time I saw it eating a freshly killed carcass… Those are all dangerous scenarios, so I should either grab a club or start running away right now…
This scenario would likely not end well as that thought process takes far too long. Instead, we have an emotion of fear (or fight, flight, or freeze response), which increases our stress hormone, sends blood to our muscles to run or fight, takes blood away from unnecessary bodily functions like digestion to facilitate the increased vascularity in our muscles, increases our heart rate to oxygenate our blood, and does a variety of other things to instantly prepare us for danger because we don’t have time to engage in all of that cognition. Essentially, emotion instantly takes past experiences and immediately gives us a reaction based on those past experiences.
**Interesting fact - Fear can be inherited as well. This is why people who have never seen a dangerous snake are afraid of them.**
Apparently, the people with a fear of snakes lived and passed their genes on. Those with curiosity versus fear toward those dangerous snakes didn’t live to pass on their genes.
Anxiety and fear are designed to:
- Help us avoid things that are dangerous
- Motivate us to do things we need to do
- Generally, avoid negative events from occurring.
These could be anything from anxiety preventing us from eating whatever we want to anxiety making us buy a gift for a loved one on their birthday because we want to make sure that they know we care about them.
What’s the Purpose of Other Emotions
So, other than anxiety, what are other emotions trying to tell us? What is sadness trying to tell us? Let’s start by looking at the action urge of the emotion. In other words, what does that emotion make us want to do?
- Anxiety: we tend to want to avoid, take action, and attempt to control.
- Sadness: is telling us that something in our life isn’t fitting our values or that we are not experiencing fulfillment and meaning in our lives. Often the action urge of sadness is to isolate. This can make sadness more chronic and long-lasting, but I believe it also fills the function of allowing ourselves to take a step back and evaluate what is lacking or missing in our lives.
- Loneliness: is perhaps the simplest to interpret- loneliness is telling us to be around people and socialize.
- Anger: tends to mean that one of our boundaries has been crossed. The action urge for anger is often to confront someone else, and, when done correctly, this allows us to assertively set a boundary with others so that our boundary is not crossed again. I have frequently found that underneath, anger is often the emotion of being hurt. To find more about Anger, Click here.
What if I Don’t know how I feel?
Perhaps this section should have been at the top of this article, but I wanted to first build some rationale for why feelings matter and how they are important. When I worked at Rogers in residential programs, patients were asked multiple times a day to report what feelings they were experiencing, and I found myself asking similar questions. At times patients would respond with frustration to this question, other times they would say something generic, and other times patients would use a non-feeling word or explain a thought rather than an emotion (more on this later). I realized that we were asking this question assuming that folks knew how to identify what they were feeling and oftentimes, people simply hadn’t learned that skill.
How to Figure Out What You Are Feeling
One of the most common ways that folks start to identify what they are feeling is that they associate physical sensations with each emotion. Many folks experience rapid heart rate, sweaty palms, racing thoughts, shaking hands, etc, when they experience anxiety. When folks feel anger, they might feel racing thoughts, but they often also feel warm, energized, and heavy breathing. Different people experience different physical symptoms, but it is helpful to begin making the connection between physical symptoms and emotions as it helps folks begin figuring out what emotions they are feeling.
“Trying Feelings On” Technique
The other technique that I have come up with to begin understanding our emotions is to go through some basic emotions and ask ourselves a series of questions-
- Do I feel sad?
- What might I be sad about right now?
- Does that emotion seem to fit for me right now?
I usually have folks go through the following emotions each day: sad, hurt, lonely, happy, angry, fear/anxiety, or guilt. I have people ask themselves the aforementioned questions and see which emotions seem “to fit.” I often use the metaphor of trying on clothes when trying each emotion on- does this feel right, does it fit in some ways and not others, etc.
You can feel multiple emotions at the same time. Someone who is in the middle of a painful breakup may feel happy that they ended a relationship that they knew wasn’t right for them and sad that they might be losing someone they love. It is important to notice and name your emotion to be able to practice listening to emotion rather than simply trying to avoid emotion.
Emotion helps us connect with who we are and what we want. It motivates us to engage in things that we care about and value. It connects us to others and allows us to express ourselves and our experiences to others. Emotion tries to keep us from making the same mistakes and being hurt again. We often prefer to engage in rational thinking to counteract emotion as we believe that emotions are irrational, but there are many questions that there are no perfect rational criteria with which to evaluate decisions and reactions. In other words, there are no perfect answers, and we just have to respond in a way that is most genuine to who we are. Our emotion is what makes us unique and simply who we are.
If you are struggling with your emotions, doing therapy can be a good way to have someone help you with this process and explore what your emotions are trying to tell you.
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Garrett Wilk, LPC, SAC
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