Is this something you find yourself saying? This is something people frequently tell me. Unfortunately a lot of people think this is true. When people think it is true, they often stop trying to figure out the significance of how emotions show up in their life. People will say their emotions come out of the blue, show up for no reason, don’t make any sense, and even create problems in their lives that they wish they didn’t have to deal with.
I actually don’t think that people have no good reasons for feeling they way they feel. In fact, I think reasons are there, but people are often not aware of them. My belief is that emotions show up for a reason, and are important and critical to our existence. However, because emotions can be nebulous, hard to pinpoint, and often elusive; they are sometimes hard to understand and even identify.
All emotions have certain functions. Functions work to serve a purpose or accomplish a task. Functions of emotions include communication, validation, or action. The emotion of sadness, for instance, is an invitation to figure out what is important, grieve losses, search for what is missing, or acknowledge how important something was in our life. Without sadness we would not know what matters, who we love, or what is missing. Sadness gives us important information about all of these things.
Primary emotions are emotions that we have about certain situations, persons, or events in our lives. They are what shows up when stuff happens. They provide valuable information that, if ignored, can create even more problems. Secondary emotions when people have emotions about emotions. For instance, if you feel angry that you are sad, ashamed that you are distressed, or embarrassed that something angers you, you are experiencing a secondary emotion. Secondary emotions generally cause more problems for people because they are ways to judge (or not accept) a primary emotion. When we work really hard to inhibit, hide, minimize, or judge what we feel in the first place, we can create even more problems for ourselves. Sometimes people focus on secondary emotions as a way to avoid focusing on primary emotions. (“If I talk about how angry I am, you won’t really get how much I am hurting.”)
The key point is that people who learn to accept and even value their primary emotions generally have less distress than those who go out of their way to inhibit, hide, or suppress what they feel. If we treat our emotions as useful and valuable means to provide information about ourselves and our environment, the task of addressing emotional pain will be easier. Getting rid of emotional pain because it is uncomfortable doesn’t teach us to be open, present, and accepting of our emotions. While this may seem counter-intuitive, having less shame about how we feel helps us solve the problems of life a bit more easier. (“I am upset because something happened” vs. “Because I am upset I am ashamed, then angry at myself for being ashamed, then guilty for snapping at people because I was angry, then humiliated for how I handled this. Because I have no good reason to be upset.”)
Here are some tips to help you work on your emotions:
- Treat your emotions as useful
- Approach how you feel with curiosity, not judgment
- Assume your emotions are trying to give you important information
- Be willing to experience the intensity and painfulness of emotions
- Observe any action urges that come along with emotions
- Pay attention to how you feel about things more closely
- Be aware that low levels of distress is still stress, and that minimizing it can sometimes result in a blow up later on