So often we underestimate the impact that our emotions can have on our everyday lives. Here, expert columnist Andy Gill dives into the topic of emotions, and shares a practical exercise to help you tune-in to yours
What if we could see our emotions as an important part of ourselves? How would it be if we could see them as key resources to living more authentic and connected lives?
I believe that emotions are poorly understood, and often undervalued. Emotions are always present whether we are aware of them or not. They represent our reaction to what is going on in the world around us. They influence our behaviours, moods, and the quality of our mental health.
But did you also know that they are crucial to decision making? Emotions tell us what is important and what to pay attention to. Researchers found that people with damage to the emotional centres of their brain struggle to make decisions.
Whatever your level of awareness of your emotions, they are there influencing every decision you make!
Researchers have also found that naming emotions reduces emotional reactivity. As neuroscientist Dan Siegel says: “Name it to tame it.”
But if emotions are so important, why are many of us unable to fully feel or express them? When asked how we feel, people often say things like ‘I feel good,’ ‘I feel OK,’ or ‘I’m not bad.’ But none of these are actually emotions. They represent a safe, non-specific description that avoids confronting or even revealing what’s going on for us emotionally.
If you use words like these to describe your emotions, this could indicate that you are either:
Not really in touch with your feelings.
You don’t know how to express them.
You are uncomfortable expressing your emotions.
You hold negative beliefs about emotions and expressing them.
Some or all of the above.
If any of this is true for you, then you are not alone. Many of us learned as children to control or suppress our emotions.
This was true for me, and I would like to give you an example from my own childhood: my dad rarely expressed how he felt – the key exception being the explosion of rage that came when he lost his temper. My father never hit me, but when you are a young child, raw anger feels like a threat to your very existence. I came to believe that anger was a dangerous emotion, something to be feared and avoided. So I avoided anger and any situation or confrontations where it might be present.
But the truth is that feelings are neither good nor bad, and that includes anger. Anger tells you when you are threatened. It gives you the energy to stand up for yourself, and to find solutions.
Your own childhood experiences might have left you with similarly dysfunctional approaches to feeling emotion. For me it was anger, but for you it might be sadness, or even joy.
I invite you to think of emotions as neither good nor bad. As we have already learned, all our emotions serve a useful function, even those that you might have learned to believe are ‘bad’.
How would it be if you could consider all emotions to be positive? If we can view all emotions as positive, even anger, sadness, or fear, then we can learn to allow ourselves to fully feel and express them.
Let’s take a look at the eight basic emotions as defined in the Plutchik model. These are:
Explore the following questions:
What is the positive purpose of this emotion? What can it do for you?
Are you able to experience this emotion?
If you can experience this emotion, what is your level of comfort with it?
There are no rights or wrongs. But if you are unable to feel any of these emotions, or they are unbearable, then you may benefit from working with a professional.
I hope this article helps you to see your emotions as positive and valuable. The exercise is a starting point, and I would encourage you to practise this daily.
Once you can feel and name the eight basic emotions, you can begin working on describing the different emotions to further develop your emotional vocabulary. Sadness, for example, might be despair, melancholy, hopeless, or wretched. And, likewise, joy might be hope, contentment, or excitement.