Most therapists emphasize being in touch with our emotions. Depending on the school of thought your therapist practices, they will have diverse ways of incorporating emotion into the therapeutic setting. Despite the different approaches, all therapists can agree that emotions help individuals function in everyday life.
Where do emotions come from?
Emotions come from the way individuals perceive the world around them. Before an individual experience any sort of emotion, they will process an event in their mind to give it meaning. It is crucial to have an understanding of what is happening before registering a feeling about it. Or, as David Burns writes in Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, it’s not the actual event that results in emotional changes but one’s perception of the actual event. For instance, when an individual expresses sadness, their thoughts represent a realistic interpretation of negative events.
Resistance to feeling feelings
It’s common for people to feel apprehension towards expressing emotion. There’s a stigma that feelings are messy, confusing, inconvenient, and even addictive. Emotions can also provoke feelings of vulnerability with being exposed to others, the world, and, more deeply, to ourselves. Emotions can convince us to do things we might regret, because they feel like accurate assessments of the “truth,” when they are, in fact, reflections of our worldview. Emotions can also feel out of control when external stressors become overwhelming. As a result, it’s sometimes more convenient to deny or hide our emotions, rather than face them honestly.
When contending with fundamental and instinctual parts of ourselves, larger factors come into play: Intergenerational beliefs, culture, customs, societal norms, trauma, and social environment can all play a part in keeping our feelings restrained.
Emotions and social development
Children experience emotions from morning to night, and even while they’re asleep. They learn how to recognize, verbalize, and manage feelings as they develop and grow. The same flow of feelings is present in adults, as well. The difference is that children have yet to learn how to manage their emotions, while adults generally have. Children also can struggle to channel their feelings.
Each individual child comes into the world with a different threshold for feeling and experiencing provocation, activation, arousal, or feeling startled. Some experience feelings in different intensities and will recover at different rates. Yet, as Marc Brackett writes in Permission to Feel, even highly reactive kids, if raised in a nurturing familial environment, can turn out stable. The home in which we grow gives insight into how our emotional lives will form.
As they grow, children learn how to interact with themselves, others, and the world through their parents’ responses to stimuli. When infants are faced with stimuli from their surrounding environment, they react with what they learn from their primary caregivers. When parents seem ambivalent to a child’s internal world, it’s difficult for the child to feel safe to acknowledge their own internal world and autonomously regulate their emotions. Emotional attunement is a prerequisite for emotional regulation. If a child grows up unattuned to their emotion, or not registering the influence emotion has on their behaviors and thoughts, they may grow into an adult that also cannot safely manage and interpret emotions. This, in turn, will hurt their ability to navigate complex situations, and could eventually inhibit their ability to recognize their own children’s emotions.
Emotions motivate you to act
Emotions give people insight into what they care about at any given moment. For example, one experience I often feel is a preoccupation with the laundry list of tasks that coincide with an upcoming work week. Because emotions become heightened by the anticipation of my workload, I might become more fearful of constraints on my time and energy. I become motivated to act early and plan out weekly tasks to better manage my emotional response and stress so that I don’t panic. Joy is an emotion I feel when daydreaming about the exciting events of the coming weekend. Although I care deeply about my job, when Friday rolls around I find myself focused on what I must do to prepare for the events to follow that weekend. My big emotions of joy and excitement may motivate me to plan a fun itinerary for friends and family.
Different emotions can lead us toward all sorts of actions. There are even times when emotions guide us toward actions that help us have a higher quality of life or protect our livelihood in crisis situations. Under no circumstances are our emotions a perfect guide for action, of course. There are disadvantages to correcting feelings or avoiding situations that elicit emotions, as opposed to listening to them. Some people will avoid situations that bring on anxiety or fear when the feared stimulus may turn out to be harmless.
Emotions help you avoid danger
People have a built-in system designed to protect them from threats or danger. This system is commonly known as the “fight-flight-freeze” response, and it’s critical to our survival. It activates in response to our interpretation of our feelings regarding a specific event. The response of fight means to take action to eliminate the danger; the response of fleeing involves escaping danger, and the response of freeze refers to becoming immobile. For example, when encountering a situation such as escaping a large animal, anxiety (the feeling of fear, dread, and uneasiness) may seep in to avoid the dangerous stimulus by fleeing or outrunning the feared animal.
Outrunning a large, carnivorous animal may not be the most likely scenario in everyday life, but think about another situation where it wouldn’t be beneficial to stay put. Your emotions often help you come to a decision to find safe haven instead of staying in the current environment. An example that may ring true to many is protecting yourself from scrutiny or judgment during the holiday season. There will always be those family members that know how to push buttons, regardless of their reasoning, and this button-pushing may result in unwanted conflict. Emotions can be helpful in this scenario to initiate your fight-flight-freeze response or a response that could help you navigate what may be the most beneficial way to act in the moment.
Emotions help you make decisions
Whether or not you acknowledge them, emotions are continuous. We’re always feeling something. Emotions can be raging and overflowing or contained and collected. Think about when you wake up in the morning and are slowly regaining consciousness: In my experience, I am either desperate for another hour of sleep or feeling ready to start the day. Some may feel the dread of an upcoming two-hour commute to work or a flood of anxiety with what fires they may need to put out on the job. Others may feel relief upon receiving a snow day email, or great anticipation for the project they must present to a client.
Either way, how you feel in the moment may change quickly based on the information provided. Being tuned in with your emotions allows you to retain a record of the benefits and risks of behaviors set off by emotions. An emotion, elicited from a given event, is followed up by the mind processing through a catalog of helpful responses that will yield benefits. This could be based on previous experiences, or experiences learned from others. In simpler terms, acknowledging emotions and how these emotions influence behavior, in combination with logic, can help play a key role in our decision-making process. Our emotions often influence even the smallest decisions, whether we prioritize certain tasks over others, or if we stay calm when confronting a friend with hard truths.
Emotions help others understand you better
Spending every moment focused on our emotions is not conducive to living our lives to the highest quality. If we did, we wouldn’t have time or attention to do much else. I often tell my clients to care about the events in their lives, but also take breaks from caring. This does not mean to stop feeling, but to take a moment to care for yourself so you can enjoy the benefits of your emotions without feeling consumed by them.
On the other hand, totally ignoring what we feel, or reducing the meaning of how we feel, can make life much more difficult. Emotions are significant sources of information about what is going on inside of us. For both children and adults alike, identifying emotions can be an extremely daunting task, especially with little to no practice listening to those emotions. With the help of our emotions, we can become more self-aware and have a better understanding of what makes us act the way we do. We can learn to manage our emotional states to best suit the environment we are in. Just as it is easier to gain empathy for others when getting to know the way their mind works, so it is for ourselves.
Emotions allow you to understand others better
When practicing feeling your own emotions, it becomes easier to infer how others feel about their behaviors. Practicing personal emotional insight enables an individual to better understand how they believe they would feel in a situation, a practice of empathy. The question of why someone else may be feeling a certain way may be harder to answer but becomes easier if it can be related to our own experiences of feeling. Having a sense of how others may feel in each situation can trigger helpful impulses of what we may need to hear in moments of suffering or difficulty. It is possible that, in moments of their own suffering, they need compassion and to feel understood, so that is how we can be there for other people.