Emotions are something we constantly feel. They can happen when certain actions or feelings stir a certain response within us. We may feel emotions due to a situation, an experience, or from memories. They help us understand the things we are experiencing and express the way those things make us feel, whether good or bad.
As a general rule, there are seven basic primary emotions: joy, surprise, fear, disgust, anger, contempt, and sadness. Based on these, we build more complex secondary emotions like fear, guilt, shame and remorse.
In simple terms, emotions motivate us. They make us want to do things. Joy can motivate us to join in, participate or share while fear can motivate us to withdraw or run away.
‘The world around us (and the thoughts in our heads) trigger emotional reactions all the time. Much of what we do is motivated by a desire to change or maintain a feeling-state – to hold on to good feelings or to avoid bad feelings.’
Experiencing emotions is completely normal. They’re often a useful guide to what we need to do. For example, feeling nervous encourages us to take care and feeling guilty can make us repair any damage we may have caused. But emotions can also cause distress.
Emotional distress is impossible to get rid of. It is an inevitable part of being human. Learning how to tolerate emotional discomfort is an important skill for everyone to learn.
If we let them, emotions come and go like waves. Riding the wave is better than fighting against it. Feeling our feelings helps us process the emotion so we can move through it while fighting our feelings often makes us feel worse. If we regularly avoid our feelings, it means we also miss out on experiencing the full potential of pleasant emotions such as joy and happiness.
Unfortunately, as a society we tend to try and avoid or get rid of unpleasant feelings, usually through things that have a numbing effect like drugs, alcohol and food. It’s much healthier not to do this. As well as processing the emotion, you’ll also dodge the negative side-effects of the things you usually use to numb your feelings.
Mindfulness is a good place to start if you need help recognising and labelling your feelings. It helps you stay present and acknowledge your feelings in the moment without judging them. The practice can also help you identify any physiological symptoms that may indicate you’re carrying extra tension in the form of unresolved feelings.
Mindfulness can also draw your attention to any numbing strategies. If you can recognise when these are happening, you can use it as a cue to tune in to how you’re feeling. For example, if you notice yourself binge eating, you can ask yourself, ‘what’s going on, how am I doing, is there anything I need, how can I best take care of myself right now?’
It’s important to note some people really struggle to feel their feelings, more so than the average person. Distress intolerance, the perceived inability to fully experience unpleasant, aversive or uncomfortable emotions, is usually accompanied by a desperate need to escape the uncomfortable emotions.
But as I’ve already explained, escaping from distress only works in the short-term. In the long-term, the distress gets worse, creating bigger life problems. The good news is you can learn to tolerate distress, you might just need a little more help than others to develop this important skill, like in therapy for example.
For more on mental health maintenance, read Why Everyone Needs Therapy. I also share tools and resources via my fortnightly newsletters and you’ll find masses of information on my Instagram page, the.perfectionism.therapist. And if you’re looking for a therapist, please use my therapy enquiry form to get in touch.