Having control of your emotions helps you interact with others, overcome life’s challenges, and chase after your goals.
Let’s face it: we did not grow up in a society with a healthy outlook on emotions. If you ever heard the phrase, “boys don’t cry,” “stop being so dramatic,” or “I’ll give you something to cry about,” you know what I mean.
The Importance Of Emotions
That being said, your emotions are important. Positive emotions tell you when your goals and needs are being met. Negative emotions tell you that something is wrong and your needs and goals are being threatened. These are important cues for you to be aware of.
Researchers have found that emotional intelligence (eq) is a better predictor of success than iq. Having control of your emotions helps you interact with others, overcome life’s challenges, and chase after your goals.
But because emotions, especially negative ones, are often inconvenient and difficult to navigate, we learned as children from the adults in our lives that it was better to hide and suppress our emotions. This is why as adults, emotions — our own or others’ — can be overwhelming and even terrifying.
My Own Journey With Emotions
It wasn’t until I started therapy for my postpartum depression that I realized how inadequate I was when it came to emotions. The only acceptable emotions in my home growing up were “happy” and “positive.” Occasionally we were allowed to be “disgusted,” but that was pretty much it. When other emotions began to surface, we were expected to sweep those emotions (and the problems that sparked them) under the rug and move on. Look on the bright side. Be the bigger person.
And that’s what I did.
But my depression became so severe that I knew it would hospitalize me if I didn’t get appropriate help. So I started attending therapy.
A recurring theme throughout the first year of my weekly therapy visits was that I needed to learn how to process my emotions.
Having grown up in an emotionally illiterate home like mine, I had no idea what “processing my emotions” actually looked like. It was a concept I struggled with for years. I was so afraid that experiencing my emotions would cause me to lose control. I was afraid that if I started crying, I would never be able to stop. If I got angry, I would do something I would regret. Because I felt so unequipped to face my feelings, it was “safer” for me to just shove my emotions deep, deep down inside.
How to Face Your Emotions
If you grew up in a home where emotions were hushed, ridiculed or even punished, it’s likely that you also don’t know how to process your emotions. If that’s the case, follow these five steps.
When an experience triggers you, like heavy traffic, family dinners, or painful memories, this is your cue to start processing your emotions.
What it feels like to be “triggered” varies from person to person. But some ways being triggered might feel to you include:
— pit in your stomach
— lump in your throat
— hair on your arms/back/neck standing up
— muscle weakness
— muscle tension
— butterflies in your stomach
— shortness of breath
— increased heart rate
— heart palpitations
— tunnel vision
When you feel this way, your body’s nervous system is switching to “fight, flight, or freeze.” When you’re in this state, it is difficult to think clearly because the thinking part of your brain is shut down. This can lead to poor decisions like yelling or violence.
In order to shift your nervous system back to “rest and digest,” start by taking several deep breaths. Try to make your belly expand as you breathe. You may find it helpful to count to five as you inhale and count again as you exhale.
Once you’ve begun to calm down your nervous system, put your hands on your heart. Listen to your body and your emotions. Try to feel them, both with your hands and with your body.
This step can actually be quite difficult to do. Especially if you’ve spent years suppressing your feelings and pushing them down, like I have. If you consistently shut your emotions down, this step may take a while. Sit with it. Or take a break and try again in a few minutes.
If you find that your feelings are “blocked” or you “don’t feel anything,” try using a healthy emotional outlet to allow them to surface. Some examples of healthy emotional outlets include:
— marking art, like painting or drawing
— listening to music or playing an instrument
Avoid unhealthy coping mechanisms that numb your feelings. These include:
— emotional eating
— substance abuse
— impulse buying
— busy work
— binge watching/scrolling
Once your emotions start to surface, it’s time to experience them. You can cry, scream, shake, rock, squeeze, etc.. Emotions are powerful. And they bring a lot of energy with them. So experiencing them through tears or yells or whatever allows that energy to dissipate is an important step in processing your emotions.
**Disclaimer: it’s important to note that taking your emotions out on others is not experiencing them. That is actually called “projecting.” Projecting is an unhealthy coping mechanism used to discharge your emotions onto others instead of processing them yourself. So when you “experience” your emotions, do not yell at someone, shake someone, or hit someone. This is you trying to avoid processing your emotions and it can be quite damaging to others.**
As you experience your emotions, try to witness them as well. Your emotions can be overwhelming and you can experience multiple emotions at once. Witnessing your emotions allows you to distance yourself from the chaos and begin to identify what you are feeling.
You can do this by saying, “I am feeling…” or “This experience upset me because…” or “These boundaries have been crossed.”
Witnessing your emotions can help you organize them into something more manageable. It can help you verbalize and understand what you are experiencing. It’s a way to translate the raw materials of your emotions into something concrete.
One of the most important steps when processing your emotions is self soothing. Self-soothing is much like what your parents used to do (or what you wish they had done) to help you calm down when you were little. But now, you can do it for yourself.
One important self-soothing technique is self-compassion.
As you experience emotions, especially negative ones, you may judge yourself for feeling a certain way. Your self-talk can become harsh as you say things like, “Don’t be such a baby,” “Why am I so messed up?” or “I’m so stupid.” This negative self-talk leaves you feeling worse and more resistant to your emotions.
Instead, try practicing self-compassion as you validate your feelings to yourself. Try using phrases like, “Of course I feel this way. It’s been a hard week,” or “It makes sense that I’m upset. My father just said something really insensitive,” or “Of course I feel inadequate. This is my first day at this job.” Validating your experiences and practicing self-compassion is an important self-soothing technique.
Other examples of self-soothing include:
— stroking your arm
— writing in your journal
— taking a bath
— giving yourself a hug
— going for a walk
— taking deep breaths
— massaging your muscles
— yoga or stretching
— singing a song
— playing an instrument
One of the most important skills you can develop is to process your emotions. Remember, emotions are energy. And by keeping them bottled up inside, they are likely to burst out at the wrong time or in an unhealthy way. Learning to process your emotions in healthy ways will positively impact your relationships, your health, your work, and more.