Understanding and Regulating Emotions
Emotions are an important part of the human experience. They play a powerful role in how we see and interact with the world. For all their importance, they can be some of the most misunderstood aspects of our being. Many of us walk through life with a limited understanding of the full scope of emotions, often with beliefs that emotions are good or bad or wild and chaotic.
As humans we experience a variety of feelings, not only emotional but physical. Some of those feelings are pleasant, like a warm blanket on a cold winter night. Some feelings are unpleasant, like the pain of stepping on broken glass. As unpleasant as the pain of stepping on broken glass is, it is extremely important. Imagine if we felt no pain when we injured ourselves. We could do irreparable damage to our bodies by not noticing wounds and injuries. So as much as we may not like the experience of pain, we recognize that it is important to our health and wellbeing. Emotions work on the same principle, instead of letting us know about our physical state of being, they let us know about our mental state of being.
Imagine you have an internal balloon. The balloon exists as a way to hold emotions for you until you have the time and space to address them. When we acknowledge our emotions, that balloon stays small and is easy to hold onto. When we repress or ignore an emotion, we blow air into that balloon. The bigger it gets the tighter you have to hold onto it to keep all that air inside. As the balloon gets bigger and bigger, we risk the balloon bursting. Have you ever experienced a rush of emotions in response to a small inconvenience? You may feel angry, sad, afraid, overwhelmed, and maybe even out of control? This is what happens when your balloon bursts. All those emotions that we ignored, suppressed and chose not to address come rushing out at once.
Understanding the Four Basic Human Emotions
Happiness is the emotion that lets us know something positive has happened to us or the feeling of contentment with one’s life. This could be getting a promotion, a good grade on a test, receiving praise from friends or family, or feeling content with one’s life.
Sadness is an emotional pain that is often associated with loss, disappointment, sorrow, and grief. This could be a physical loss, like the death of a loved one, or a more abstract one like the loss of a job or friendship. Knowing that we’ve lost something tells us that we need to do a few things depending on the loss. We may need to start grieving and mourning the loss, learn from the situation so we do not experience similar loss, or that we need work at getting what we’ve lost back.
Anger is the emotion that is often associated with hostility, annoyance, and displeasure. There are things that can cause us to feel disrespected when we cannot do anything about it, a teacher saying something rude or a boss at work. In these instances, it is simply enough to acknowledge that we feel angry and why we feel angry.
Fear is the emotion that is associated with not feeling safe. The most obvious of these is a threat to physical safety, fear of snakes or spiders. There are other ways we can feel unsafe though, including emotional safety, mental safety, our self-esteem, or self-worth. Relationships can at times feel unsafe, if you get into a fight with someone that you care about. We recognize this emotion and it lets us know that we need to do something to help us feel safe again.
What You Can Do
Acknowledging our emotions is the first step towards being able to regulate them. When you find yourself feeling an emotion, stop and ask yourself, “What am I feeling?” Once you are able to label the emotion, decide what you want to do with it. Is it something you need to address or accept? Is it something you want to feel more of or less of? Or is this a feeling or emotion that simply needs to be acknowledged and felt.
Why does simply acknowledging the emotion work? Well, emotions are sort of like small children in a way, sometimes they just want to be heard. When we acknowledge those feelings, they don’t go away but rather become more manageable simply because we are no longer expending energy trying to avoid or suppress them.
The goal is not to eliminate unpleasant emotions, there will always be things that lead us to feel sad, angry, and afraid. That does not mean we have to live in fear of those emotions. We can embrace those emotions without losing control. We can let the emotions out of the balloon without bursting it.
It might seem easy to say all this, but hard to put into practice. If you are struggling with emotions like anger, sadness or fear, you are not alone. We all struggle with things, so be kind to yourself and if you need help please reach out to one of the trained therapists at Counseling Works.