What do you do with your emotions? A lot of us bottle them up and pretend they don’t exist because we’ve grown up thinking it’s not okay to express problematic feelings like anger, or that strong people don’t cry, or that being too happy makes you look ridiculous. There are also people who swing to the opposite extreme and give all their emotions free reign, but that’s a different issue than the one we’re talking about in this article.
Emotions are a complicated subject. We all have them, but what are they really? And what’s the best way to deal with them? Those are questions typically answered by trial and error or by whatever messages regarding emotion we were targeted with as children. As such, we can make several mistakes when approaching emotions. We might see them as something that’s pesky and distracting rather than a core part of being human. We could make the mistake of thinking everyone has (or should have) the same emotional temperament as us. Or we might decide all emotions are negative and it’s better to hide our feelings than to process them.
As someone struggling with anxiety and depression, I often find myself stuck in negative emotions instead of working through them. In many cases, I also react to situations that could be positive in a negative way. But even people with great mental health can still struggle to process emotions effectively. And the more we bottle up emotions (particularly negative ones) without processing them, the greater the risk that we’ll reach a point where they’re released by something like a burst of out-of-place anger or by collapsing into tears for no apparent reason. So how do we avoid such problems and learn to process our emotions in a healthy way?
Tip 1) Learn About Your Emotions
Knowing what emotions are and how they work is a foundation for healthy emotional processing, but unless you study psychology you probably were never taught much about them. In his article “Understanding Emotions and How to Process Them,” psychologist Gregg Henriques, Ph.D. shares the following key things that everyone needs to understand about emotions:
- Emotions are a central part of core consciousness.
- Emotions provide information about one’s core goals and needs.
- There are two broad systems of emotions, negative and positive. Negative emotions signal threat to needs and goals and energize avoidance. Positive emotions signal the opportunity to meet needs and goals and energize approach.
- Emotions prepare an individual for action.
- There are differences in emotional temperaments. Some mice (and people) will have negative emotional systems that are easily triggered, generate more intense reactions, and are harder to sooth. This is called trait neuroticism.
Dr. Henriques says that finding adaptive (as opposed to maladaptive) ways to handle our emotions relies (in part) on “the effective education and awareness about what emotions are and the domains of human consciousness that result in conflict.” We first need to learn how to define emotions and how they work in our minds before we can process them in a purposeful, healthy way. I highly recommend reading his article as a starting point for this.
Tip 2) Recognize What You’re Feeling
So long as we don’t give ourselves permission to feel things we won’t be able to process our emotions. Yes, there are some emotions that it is not a good idea to display in certain circumstances. For example, it’s not appropriate to fly into a rage if your boss corrects you. However, it is appropriate to recognize what you’re feeling in that moment and to take steps to process that anger in a healthy way.
We want to reach “Awareness and attunement to one’s feelings on the one hand” and “The adaptive regulation of strong feelings on the other” (to quote Dr. Henriques again). The first part of that involves being aware of what it is you’re feeling, giving yourself permission to feel that emotion, and recognizing what this emotion is telling you about your needs and goals.
The “adaptive regulation” part happens with practice. It might involve un-learning less than ideal habits you’ve picked up for handling your emotions. For example, someone who was shamed as a child into “not looking like a wimp” may need to learn a different way to process feelings of weakness. Being tough can be a good trait, but it’s not nearly as helpful if you get there motivated by shame and fear. We need to find better ways of processing complicated emotions, which is one reason I highly recommend talking with a therapist. My counselor helped me so much with building new thought patterns and figuring out healthier ways to process things.
Tip 3) Take Time To Process
One reason why we bottle up emotions “for later” instead of processing them now is that it takes time and we’re all busy people. But if you don’t process them now (or soon after they come up), then you’ll have to deal with the emotions later after they’ve weighed you down for weeks/months/years or bubbled over in an explosion. It does take time to process emotion but it’s time that’s well spent. Processing may actually save time (and a lot of misery) in the long run.
Talking and writing are two of the best ways to start processing emotions. Write out your feelings, as well as your thoughts on those emotions, in a journal. Discuss them with a friend whom you trust to listen without judgement and without spreading your confessions around. Make an appointment with a counselor or therapist and get advice from someone trained to help other people process their emotions.
Tip 4) Do Something Else
It may seem counterproductive to work on processing your feelings by doing something other than processing them. However, it’s easy to get caught-up in your own feelings and start to lose sight of other things that are important. You might also hit a point where you’re just thinking about your emotions in circles and not getting anywhere.
It’s important to take a step back at times from intense personal growth work so we don’t get burned out. Eat something healthy. Go for a run. Read a book. Take a nap. Play with your pet. Reorganize something in your house. Go see a movie. Meet a friend for lunch. Just do something you’ll enjoy and which will give you a break from being occupied with the stuff inside your head.
You may find that once you’ve taken a step back from processing your emotions you have more clarity regarding them when you come back. I know personally that I can journal and talk about something for a couple hours without it making things clear, only to walk away and come back a couple days later with a much better picture of what I was feeling and how to deal with it. Just make sure you don’t leave things unprocessed — there’s a difference between taking a break and distracting yourself from ever coming back to the emotion you decided you needed to process.
Tip 5) Learn, Then Let Go
Your emotional responses teach you something about yourself. Your irritation at someone infringing on your time might tell you you need to establish clearer boundaries or that you could loosen up about your schedule. Your anger or fear at hearing someone express a contradictory viewpoint could teach you about your own biases or unresolved issues surrounding this idea. When you feel a strong emotion that you’re tempted to ignore, bottle up, or express in an unhealthy way, part of processing that emotion is asking questions such as, “Why has this upset me so much?” and “What can I learn from why I felt this way?”
As you process emotions, make sure you don’t fall into the trap of thinking other people caused your feelings. We are each responsible for our own emotional reaction. Our feelings arise because of how our brains deal with different kinds of situations and behaviors. To take control of our own emotional processing, we need to let go of blame narratives that cast ourselves as victims and the people who trigger the emotions as attackers. We each have the power to control and choose our responses.
Let yourself feel your emotions. Process them, discuss them, and learn from them. Seek support from others. Make a plan for acting on your emotions, if appropriate. And then let it go.
What are your favorite times for processing difficult emotions? Please share in the comments!
Featured image credit: Antonios Ntoumas via Pixabay