For many people emotions are something uncomfortable that we have to deal with because we are human beings. They seem to be unnecessary , sometimes annoying and standing in the way of clear thinking.
Moreover most people divide emotions into positive emotions and negative ones.
Happiness, joy, awe, hope, pleasure etc are all emotions everyone enjoys to experience but many other emotions like anger, sadness, fear, shame etc are emotions most people wish they wouldn’t experience and these emotions are often labeled as “negative”.
And it is ok to express your “positive” emotions because you are enjoying them and most of the time others can enjoy it with you. And obviously it is in general nicer to be around a happy person than to be with a sad person.
But: is this really true? Are there “positive” and “negative” emotions? And should we always focus on the “positive” ones and try to avoid “ negative” emotions? And moreover: is it really so nice to be with someone who is always “positive”?
The necessity of being able to feel all emotions
A simple answer is: no, no, no and no
All emotions are useful and important. We need to be able to experience all of them and learn to express all of them.
And it is extremely unhealthy to avoid the so-called negative emotions because- if you like it or not- the more you suppress an emotion the harder it will pop back up one day.
This is an uncomfortable fact since it is not easy as a grown-up person to get your emotions out in a proper way so that others don’t reject you.
As a kid you could just cry or scream or laugh and jump but as an adult this is a whole different story. You can’t just start crying when your boss criticizes you. You can’t just start yelling in the middle of the supermarket when it is all just getting too much for you..
To express your emotions in a healthy and constructive way is an art form that most people are working on for the most part of their adult life.
Why do we have emotions?
But first things first: why do we actually have emotions?
Emotions are actually essential for our survival. Emotions are signals from out our body to give us information about what we need. And it pushes us to get what we need so that the emotion can ease down again and our needs are satisfied. Emotions like fear, anger or disgust are protecting us from objects, people or situations that might be dangerous for our wellbeing.
Joy, interest and excitement motivate us to engage more with the specific object, person or situation because it is beneficial for our well-being.
Besides providing us with essential information, emotions also have a communicative aspect. Since we as human beings are in essence social beings and depending on one another, emotions communicate our needs to the other person.
Babies for example have very basic emotional modes in the very beginning: comfort or discomfort. And by expressing those emotions the caretaker understands what the baby needs. If the baby cries it needs something and the caretaker will check: is the baby hungry? Dirty diapers? Too much noise?
If the baby is content the caretaker can relax.
Later on, as we engage more with our environment, our emotional experiences and sensations become more complex. The older a child gets, the more differentiated the emotions become and it is important to learn to recognize the different emotions and to know how to express them so that the other person understands them.
How do we express emotions?
The more a child learns to speak, the better it can express the different emotional states as they become more complex.
But at the same time it is extremely important that the primal caretakers teach the child to recognize an emotion and to give a word to it so that others can understand this emotion and can empathize with it and respond.
If a person doesn’t learn to recognize the different emotional states correctly, he or she will have major problems in this area for the rest of their adult life. Many adults still now have major problems recognizing their emotions and finding a word for it. This is called “alexithymia” or emotion blindness.
Besides recognizing an emotion and knowing the correct word for it, it is also important that the facial expression is congruent with the emotional state. Saying “I am so sad” with a plain face will not give us the response we might need from the other person.
So once we can recognize our own emotions we want to express them in the right way so that the other person might react to us in an emotional responsive way. But again it is important what we learn as children about what we can say and how we can say it. Because this will teach the child basic social-emotional and communication skills. When I cry does my mum come and comfort me or does she say “ Don’t be a baby. Boys don’t cry”? When I am angry does my father listen to what bothers me or is it forbidden to express any form of anger at home?
The way we learn how and what we can express and in which way our surrounding responds, lays the foundation of out emotional coping for our adult life.
What is healthy emotional coping?
Healthy emotional coping (dealing with the emotions) is the base of a positive mental health and a stable personality.
In order to process emotions in a healthy way it is first of all important to recognize the emotion. There are 4 basic emotions: Happiness, Sadness, Fear and Anger. Most emotions are connected to one of these basic emotional domains. Some people talk about 5 basic emotions and they add Shame as another basic emotional state.
Once you realize tour emotional state, it is important to not judge yourself in regards to your emotion but to just accept that you are experience this specific emotions.
You can try to understand why you are feeling like this by analyzing what happened and which event lead to this emotion but sometimes it is an accumulation of events and it can get complicated to point out a specific reason for your current feeling.
Very important is to understand which need is connected to this emotion: if you are happy you want to express your joy; if you are sad you need comfort; if you are scared you are in need of safety; if you are angry you need to protect your boundaries.
Most emotional states are connected to social interaction or the lack of it. So in order to cope with those emotions, you might need to express them and communicate them.
And in general it helps to express them as soon as they come up so that they won’t built up and explode.
If you are alone you can express your emotions in different ways: you can cry, scream, laugh out loud or find a different way to express them for example by writing, making music, boxing etc.
If your emotions are connected to another person it might we helpful to communicate this to this specific person. Of course this is often the difficult part.
Communicate your feelings
There is a simple formula for communicating your emotions correctly and decrease the risk of a conflict.
It works as follows:
- I feel …..(emotion) -> Speak about YOUR feeling
- Because …….(specific and concrete situation)-> explain exactly what happened so that the other understands what made you feel like this
- I would prefer if you / I wish you would ….(specific behavior) -> explain which kind of behavior you would like to see from the other person
- How do you feel about this? (Ask for feedback so the other person can be heard as well)
This is a correct and respectful way to communicate even unpleasant emotions without offending the other person.
If the other person is not open for your feedback just leave it like that. You said what you feel, want and need. If the other person can’t take this feedback right now, give him or her time to think about it. If they really care about you they will think about it and take it in account. Otherwise at least they know now what your boundaries are.
How to improve our emotional coping
There are different ways of improving our emotional coping depending on the area that you experience problems.
Recognizing emotions: MBT (Mentalization Based Therapy); different forms of Emotional skills training
Being overwhelmed by emotions: Stress and tension regulation techniques; ERT (Emotion Regulation Therapy)..
Understanding emotional needs: Schema-Focus-Therapy; Emotion Focused Therapy…
Dealing with specific emotions: Aggression-Regulation-Training; Anger-management training; different training and therapy methods for anxiety, panic, grief etc
Expressing your emotions: social-emotional training; communication-skills training; etc..
And many more…
Emotions guide us towards what we want and what we need
Emotions belong to our very essence of human being. They help us and guide us. They make us social beings and feel connected with each other. Emotions are neutral in itself and it is important to accept them and to listen to them as they tell us what we need and desire.
Emotion come and they go as long as we just recognize them and deal with them in a healthy way without getting overwhelmed or stuck.
To be able to cope with emotions in a healthy way is the base of out mental health and an important aspect of our personal and social being.
From being a little child until we are old and wise we will have to learn to deal with them in a way that we and our surrounding benefit and grow.