Emotions: We all have them, but we may not have been taught much about them.
Let’s put that right. Here are some basic facts about emotions that you’ll probably find it helpful to know.
1. Emotions just are
Core emotions arise outside of our conscious control, often in order to flag up a situation in which a response may be required. Emotions are designed to help us sense quickly whether to move towards something, move away from it, or even freeze or act dead.
For example, if you see a truck thundering towards you, your core emotion of fear stimulates you to run before you’ve even had time to think. Or when you accidentally take a swig of sour milk, your core emotion of disgust causes you to spit it out immediately.
2. There are seven ‘core emotions’
Seven basic ‘core emotions’ are believed to be genetically inbuilt. These are:
- Sexual Excitement
So what about all those other emotions, such as love, pride, compassion, surprise, vulnerability, despair, boredom and awe? Different researchers classify these in various ways.
One idea that I think is particularly helpful, is the notion of ‘inhibitory emotions’; these are Anxiety, Guilt, and Shame. More on this later.
3. Emotions happen in the body, not just in the brain
We learn (if we are lucky) to put names to emotions. But the experience of emotion lies mainly in the body.
Sadness, for example, might feel like a weight or sinking feeling in your chest, a constriction in your throat, trembling around your mouth and/or a tearful feeling around your eyes.
Tuning in to your body’s experience and developing your ability to find accurate words and/or images to go with what you’re feeling (particularly in your limbs, gut, chest, throat and face), is a key way to help yourself manage your emotions better.Emotions: 17 things you need to know about your feelings. Click To Tweet
4. There’s an important difference between ‘regulated’ and ‘dysregulated’
Any emotion can be experienced as dysregulated or as regulated.
When your nervous system is dysregulated, you may feel upset, stressed and overwhelmed (although if you’ve had to be very defended and cut-off from your feelings, you may even have developed the ability to be unaware of your physiologically dysregulated state).
Here’s an example: A dysregulated sadness may feel traumatic, overwhelming and unbearable.
However, when your sadness is regulated, somehow it will feel ‘right’ and within your ‘window of tolerance’, even though you feel heartfelt sadness or grief.
You can learn to get better at regulating your feelings with practice, and with the right support.
5. Experiencing a feeling is not the same as acting on it
Some people are confused by this, imagining that having an emotion is the same as acting on it. They may mistakenly think that feeling angry means they should do something, like hit out or shout at someone.
But just because you’re having a feeling, you do not have to act on it.
Instead, you can manage it by feeling it, naming it, and maybe even acting on it in fantasy or depicting it in a drawing. You can also talk about it with an appropriate person (whether that’s the person who triggered the feeling, or someone such as your therapist or good friend).
6. You can change how you respond to emotions
You can actually teach your nervous system to tolerate emotions, and to separate them out from one another. For many of us, feelings can be bound together, so that (for example) every time we feel sad, we feel anxious.
It’s possible to learn ways of changing this. How? You’ll find my book recommendation at the end of this post. And working with an experientially-oriented psychotherapist can be invaluable (more on this later).
7. You can experience more than one emotion at the same time
When you are starting to work at tuning in to your feelings, everything may seem quite muddled.
This can be for a variety of reasons, but one of them may be that you are actually experiencing a range of emotions at once. Gradually you can learn to distinguish between your different feelings, and work with them one by one.
It can also be helpful to name them using the word ‘and’ between the words. For example, ‘I’m feeling joy AND fear AND excitement’. (Don’t use ‘but’, because that can undermine and muddle the feeling that came before).
8. You can feel opposite emotions in the same moment
Have you ever tried to soothe an unwell baby who’s been screaming for half an hour? Then you’ll know how it’s perfectly possible to feel love, fear and anger, all at the same time.
Or if you’ve waved your child off to school or university, you’ll probably have experienced joy and sadness, together.
9. You can’t think your way through a Core Emotion – you have to feel it in order to process it
Core emotions come from the body in conjunction with the brain’s limbic system, which includes lower-level brain structures such as the amygdala and insula.
When we try and bypass this experiential feeling level, and jump straight to higher-level brain processes (such as conscious thinking and talking-about, avoiding the visceral body feeling), the emotion cannot be processed effectively and will remain stuck, causing problems and blocks.
10. ‘Inhibitory Emotions’ evolved to help you fit in socially
The inhibitory emotions of anxiety, shame and guilt are unpleasant, and in some cases can even place severe limits on your day-to-day life. But they developed during childhood as useful, adaptive mechanisms that helped you stay connected in some way to your caregivers.
Inhibitory emotions also help keep society civilised and running smoothly. (Can you imagine a society where no-one ever felt any shame or guilt, and just did whatever they felt like at any time?)
The trouble with the inhibitory emotions, though, is that they can go too far and may cause a lot of problems.
What was helpful and adaptive to you as a child (e.g. keeping quiet and hiding your anger) may become a growing problem in adulthood (e.g. not feeling able to speak up about unfair situation in the workplace).What's the difference between 'Core Emotions' and 'Inhibitory Emotions'? Click To Tweet
11. Emotions (even ‘negative’ ones) can eventually take you to a good place
When you can properly feel and process a core emotion, you may come out the other side sensing a profound relief. Something feels ‘true’ and ‘right’.
And as therapist Diana Fosha* explains, “No matter how scary emotions can sometimes seem, if we allow ourselves to process and metabolise them, they will invariably take us to a good place”.
She offers some examples. “Grief will lead us to eventual acceptance [….] Anger to experiences of strength, clarity and empowerment on behalf of the self and our need for what’s just and right. Fear will lead us to seek safety. Joy to exuberance, energy, and an expansion of our willingness to connect and explore with zest.”
Fosha adds, “There is a pot of adaptive gold awaiting the complete processing of each core emotion. And that pot of gold is constituted of resilience, clarity, and improved capacity to know what we need in a way that can inform our actions.”
12. Defences help us manage our emotions – but there’s a cost
Our minds are wonderfully creative. Over time, and unconsciously, we have created defences in order to protect ourselves from our emotions.
Defences help us avoid painful or awkward confrontations, interactions, feelings, and conflicts. When you are using a defence, you might know it – but it’s most likely that you’ll be completely unaware.
Defences can range from psychological processes such as denial, dissociation and projection (I plan to explain some of these terms in a future blog post) through to things like intellectualising, worrying, sarcasm, joking, vagueness, judging others, and changing the subject. (It’s often much easier to spot these defences in others, than in ourselves!)
Activities can be used as defences, too. These might include overeating, substance use, spending, self-harm, compulsions, or working too much.
Even things like tiredness, perfectionism, secretiveness or procrastination get used as defences against feelings.
We all use defences, and there are times when it will be helpful to employ a defence rather than to go into a core emotion (for example, when you need to concentrate on the task at hand rather than explore your feelings there and then).
But it’s beneficial to raise your awareness of your own use of defences, so that you can help yourself connect to core emotions when you need to.
And of course some defences, such as addictions, can be downright harmful.
13. Naming your emotions is very helpful
When we put words and labels to feelings and body sensations, we bring in parts of the brain that can help us regulate our emotions. Try and name the basic feeling (e.g. “I am feeling sad”) and then see if any other words come up to help refine the description.
For example, other words that could apply if you’re feeling sad might include empty, despairing, ashamed, or flat. Other sensations/ qualities of the sadness might include feeling weighed down, hollow, weak, or untethered.
14. Emotional memories can be changed
Strong emotion sends a signal to the brain that something important is happening, that may even be a matter of life-and-death.
Our brains are wired to take notice of emotion-laden experiences, and remember aspects of them for the future. Unfortunately this is particularly true of negative emotions.
We can’t erase memories, and obviously we can’t change the past; but with a bit of work we may be able to change how we feel about the past.
Psychotherapy can make use of a process called ‘memory reconsolidation’. This isn’t as scary or strange as it may sound.
Memory reconsolidation refers to ways of working with emotionally-charged memories that don’t remove the memories, but instead alter their emotional meaning and effects.
15. There’s a spectrum of emotional sensitivity
Emotions just are, and we don’t get to pick and choose our feelings. And there’s a spectrum.
Some of us are highly sensitive, with a tendency to feel emotions deeply and powerfully, whilst others simply don’t experience emotions with as much intensity.
There’s no good or bad, right or wrong about how emotionally sensitive you are. It’s best to try and avoid judging other people (or yourself) for being too sensitive or not sensitive enough. We’re just built differently, and that’s fine.
16. The Change Triangle is a helpful way of understanding your relationship with your emotions
I’m going to write more about The Change Triangle** in a future post. Basically, The Change Triangle is a helpful, practical way to help you understand, connect to, and manage your feelings, so you get to spend more time in an ‘openhearted’ state.
The openhearted state is characterised by seven words that all begin with ‘C’***:
This openhearted state is also called ‘The Self’ in IFS, the ‘Observing Self’ in ACT, and has parallels in other spiritual traditions and psychological theories. Some of us are often in this state, others rarely, with the rest of us falling somewhere in between. We can all learn to increase the proportion of our time spent in this state, by developing our ability to access and move through our core emotions.
17. Not all therapists work with emotions in the same way
Therapy can be a massive investment in your time, energy, and money. It’s a good idea to choose your therapist carefully in order to get the most benefit from your investment.
A therapy approach in which you just talk about things in a more distanced, vague or cognitive way, is not going to effectively access and process the deeper emotional layers.
If you are interested in listening to your body’s messages, uncovering and processing your core emotions, and connecting with your authentic self, look for a therapist who actively uses experiential methods (feeling and working directly with emotions in the room).
Such experiential psychotherapy approaches include Integrative Arts Psychotherapy (and other arts therapies), AEDP (Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy), IFS (Internal Family Systems), Focusing, Emotion-Focused Therapy, Hakomi, Gestalt therapy, Somatic Experiencing, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, and ISTDP (Intensive Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy).
If you are looking at psychoanalytic or psychodynamic psychotherapy, ask your potential therapist if they work in an experiential, relational way (some do, but not all).
It’s also important to choose a therapist who has done a lot of deep emotional work in their own therapy. I believe that a therapist can’t really take you further than they’ve been themselves, particularly when it comes to accessing and handling the full range of emotions.
Where to go next
I highly recommend that you start by reading Hilary Jacobs Hendel’s excellent 2018 book, ‘It’s Not Always Depression: A New Theory of Listening to Your Body, Discovering Core Emotions and Reconnecting with Your Authentic Self’.
This book is an interesting, practical read for anyone who is interested in personal growth and emotions. It’s also available in Audiobook form, so you can listen to it as you drive, exercise or do chores.
If you’re looking for an experiential therapist or counsellor in Essex/ Suffolk, contact me to discuss your needs and whether I can be of service. I also offer online counselling for those further afield.
I hope this blog post has provided a helpful starting point for your further explorations into your emotional world. Remember that it should not and cannot replace the advice of your doctor or other medical provider, who knows you and your unique circumstances and needs.
Do let me know your thoughts, questions and ideas in the comments below!
*Diana Fosha, in her foreword to Hilary Jacobs Hendel’s book, detailed above.
**The Change Triangle (sometimes known as ‘Malan’s Triangle of Conflict’) is the subject of Hilary Jacobs Hendel’s book.
***The seven C’s were identified by Richard Schwartz, developer of Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS)