Like many commentators on mental health, I think as a society we do a pretty lousy job educating folks about their feelings. Consider that in the context of their elementary, middle and high school education, my three kids have received essentially no direct instructions about emotions in general or their emotions in particular (e.g., what they are, why we humans have them and the most adaptive approach to feeling them). My kids’ experiences are not unusual, and I see many college kids and even full grown adults who are quite confused when it comes to even basic knowledge about their feelings (see here and here for some examples). This fact is especially clear to me now because my research team is in the midst of doing a study on developing a workable mental health checkup, part of which explores how the individual is relating to their feelings. Some of the quotes and kinds of statements we have encountered include:
“I try not to feel my negative feelings."
“I always thought it would make me depressed, so I tried not to think about it.” (i.e., they felt sad about being lonely)
“I don’t know what my (negative) feelings are for."
“Yeah, I am pretty clueless when it comes to dealing with my feelings on this issue.” (i.e., an important family conflict in her history)
“You mean to say that my feelings are a sort of signal? That my bad feelings aren’t bad, but are just telling me something bad is going on? That is a new way of thinking about it. I need to write that down.”
We have not had to comb through thousands of interviews to find these kinds of comments. Indeed, we have only completed about 20 mental health checkups, and so far about 40% to 50% of the people we've spoken to have had notable problems functioning in the emotional domain. By that I mean they were confused about their emotions, they tended to have heightened negative emotional states that they feared, and they had maladaptive ways of coping, usually by attempting to suppress and avoid.
In the context of the feedback of the checkup, we teach individuals about what emotions are, how they have been dealing with them, and how they might deal with them differently in the future. I often explain the basic idea in terms of finding one’s “emotional sweet spot," which is the central theme of this blog. The sweet spot is the dialectical tension between being aware of and attuned to one’s emotions on the one hand and adaptively regulating them in the context of one's identity and long-term goals on the other.
In contrast to operating from the emotional sweet spot between attunement and regulation, many individuals err on one side of the dialectic or the other. Some under-regulate their emotions, which means they become overwhelmed and have difficulty managing their fears, rageful feelings, and impulsive behaviors that stem from their strong feelings. In contrast, other individuals tend to avoid or over-regulate their emotions, wherein they do not allow themselves to feel difficult emotions, believe their emotional experience would be too painful, that it would not be accepted by others, or that they would lose control. Finally, many folks, especially with anxiety and depressive disorders, engage in both over- and under-regulation at various times, and find themselves in vicious emotional cycles of trying to avoid emotions only to be overwhelmed with a flood of them at a later point, which then results in much discouragement and self-blame.
Because of there is so much confusion about emotions, my goal here is to address the issue of what is the best way to feel your feelings via a general “Do’s” and “Don’ts” approach, so that it is as straightforward and easy to follow as possible.
The “Do” List for Relating to Your Emotions in a Healthy Way
1. Understand what emotions are. Emotions are a crucial part of your mental system. They respond to what it is that you value at your experiential core. (Note your experiential system is the nonverbal system that guides your actions, it is one of the five systems of character adaptation; see here for how perceptions, motivations and emotions make up the experiential system). In other words, emotions are information about what you (or at least a part of you) values and they orient you to take action accordingly. For example, when someone cuts in front of you, your anger is information that your rights were violated and your surge to retaliate is your body preparing to take action. Or, if a romantic partner rejects you, you feel grief as a signal that you have loss a valuable connection and need to recalibrate your actions and investments.
2. Be mindful of what you are feeling in the moment—and notice your moods in general. As a living human being, you are constantly having emotional reactions to the things around you. Be mindful of those reactions, especially as you become aroused and excited or anxious and defensive. Also, to foster awareness, pay close attention to moods. Moods (good, bad, anxious) are often activated because of a series of emotionally laden events. Every time I find myself in a bad mood, I retrace my day, and almost always find three or more unexpected negatives that have activated my negative mood.
3. Increase Your Emotional Vocabulary. Mad, sad, glad, and scared are the most basic emotion words. Teach them to your young children and then grow the list. Every functioning adult should have fluid access to words like shame, pride, guilt, frustration, surprise, disgust, contempt, rage, irritation, love and joy. We should also have a working understanding of why we get depressed (see here). Practice applying them to yourself and others.
4. Be attuned to what you are really feeling, and recognize emotions can be layered. A good emotional vocabulary sets the stage for attunement, which is the capacity to hone in on what it is that you are feeling. This can be complicated and takes practice because there are often many layers to our feelings. For example, we might first feel that we are angry, but greater attunement allows us to realize that under the anger is feeling hurt and rejected. Or we might feel guilt, but realize that underneath that is fear of abandonment or disapproval. See here for how we can filter or defend against our feelings.
5. Be accepting of feelings as feelings. If feelings are information, then open yourself to the information they are telling you and let the feeling arrive in your consciousness. As you become attuned to the feeling, the wave of emotion will flow through you and then will leave.
6. Consider your emotions in light of the need for relational value. Most of our important emotions are social in nature, and they thus relate in some way to the experience of relational value. Relational value is being known and valued by yourself and important others. Consider emotions as they relate to changes in relational value. Thus, if you are frustrated with yourself it is likely because you are judging your performance as lowering your relational value; if you are sad it is likely you have experienced loss of relational value (this can be via rejection or death); if you are anxious about others feelings, the fear signals your sense that you might lose relational value in the future.
7. Regulate your feelings as is adaptive in terms of your long term goals. Feelings can be powerful and they orient individuals toward action. Anger orients us toward aggression, panic toward escape, and sadness toward giving up in despair. Emotions are evolutionarily old, and related to this strong emotions create strong urges toward rather impulsive action. In modern society, where we need to regulate our actions across a much longer span of time than we did in the past, these impulses toward action are indeed often not very adaptive. Thus individuals do need to learn when and how to feel their feelings and to integrate their feelings with their idenity and regulate them in accordance with long term adaptive plans, rather than become completely overwhelmed in the moment and act on them. It is worth noting that the need to regulate one's emotions, while adaptive, is also what get folks in trouble in dealing with their feelings (see the Don'ts list around avoidance).
8. Integrate your feelings into the narrative of self (i.e., your identity). Your feelings are not all that you are, but they are a central part of who you are. And they function to energize and orient you toward key, core values and ways of being. This is true of both positive and negative emotions. One of the keys to good emotional intelligence is to integrate your passions with the conscious narrative of self that defines who you are.
9. When necessary, talk them through with someone safe and trustworthy. Sometimes your feelings and your narrative and your desires for your future are so intensely muddled that you are going to be confused. That is when it is very helpful to have someone you trust (a friend, counselor, etc.) that can be a sounding board and ask questions about what happened, why it was so emotionally provoking, and help you narrate all the implications of the strong feelings and possible good and bad things that might result in the future. For example, if your boss just laid into you about your performance and you thought he was being a total jackass, you will likely have many conflicting feelings, including defensive anger or even rage, shame, disappointment, and fear. Knowing what to do in that intense kind of situation is tricky, and thus finding someone who can be a sounding board about how to move forward might be essential in integrating this powerfully painful feedback into an adaptive game plan.
The “Don’t” List
1. Avoid or ignore your feelings. Probably the number one unhealthy way folks deal with their emotions, especially strong negative ones, is to avoid them. They experience the feeling itself as bad, they don’t like it, nor do they want to act in a way that the emotion is driving them (i.e., retaliate or cry or run away or whatever). Because of this, they distract, pretend, suppress, compartmentalize or do whatever it is that allows them to drive the emotion from their experience in the short term.
2. Fear your feelings. Deeply related to avoiding feelings is the belief that the feelings themselves are bad and/or intolerable. So many individuals who start avoiding some feelings end up with what some clinicians have called an "affect phobia." This blog details more on this particular emotional hang-up.
3. Minimize your feelings. Minimizing emotions are when we acknowledge what we are feeling, but rather than staying attuned to them, we quickly dismiss them as “no big deal” or “It doesn’t really bother me” or “Why should I care what they think?” But minimizing emotions prevents genuine attunement.
4. Become the feeling and let all of it equal all of you. Many folks, especially with anxiety or depressive disorders or powerful anger issues experience the emotion so strongly that it overloads everything else and all they see, think, feel and act on is the emotion. Thus, panicky individual KNOWS he is going to die, the enraged individual cares only about the destruction of the other, and the depressed individual experiences his WHOLE life as one black hole of despair. When the feelings "suck" in your self-reflective consciousness such that you lose all sense of time and perspective and you catastrophize your situation, then you have let all of the feeling equal all of you.
6. Split on your emotions. Ironically, many folks both minimize and avoid their feelings and are vulnerable to becoming their feelings simultaneously. The reason is they try to minimize them precisely because deep down they fear what their feelings really mean and fear having the feeling become all of them. This creates an interesting and quite unhealthy relationship with one’s feelings. First the individual is telling themselves it is “no big deal” and that they should not feel the way they are feeling and just push it out of their mind. But when/if that strategy is not successful, they can then fall into their feelings and become completely overwhelmed. The combination of both minimizing and fearing one’s emotions can be referred to as “splitting on one’s emotions” and it is the exact opposite of finding one’s emotional sweet spot between deep attunement and healthy regulation.
7. Impulsively act on or out your feelings. I often try to help folks become responsive rather than reactive. A reactive position is when one immediately acts on one's emotional impulses without processing them. Thus, the man literally punches his boss in anger, or a depressed individual tries to kill himself because of the despair. A responsive position is when we mindfully reflect on all that is happening, both with us and others in the moment, and consider the appropriate course of action moving forward. That is, action should be the function of both head and heart and done with an adaptive outcome in mind.
8. Blame yourself for your feelings. Many people, especially those with particularly active negative emotional systems (i.e., high levels of trait neuroticism) wish very strongly that they did not feel negative feelings so strongly. So they start blaming themselves for their feelings, with self-attacks like, “What is wrong with me?” “Why can’t I deal with this?” or “I am such a loser for being so upset." Unfortunately, blaming one’s own character only creates a vicious cycle, where the emotional system is now not only responding to the original problem but now there is a lowering of relational value via the self-criticism, which in turn creates more feelings of being upset, only to create more self-blame, completing the cycle.
9. Ruminate on old feelings in an unproductive way. Feelings are information. They orient you to respond. However, sometimes folks have a hard time leaving an "old" feeling. That is, they keep coming back to the time they screwed up or the time they were rejected or the time they lost a loved one. Now, each of these kinds of powerful events do require time and returning to the event on more than one occasion and perhaps on many, many occasions for major events or losses. But sometimes folks can be stuck in unhelpful loops, and keep reactivating themselves. Normally, for me this is a signal that the individual has not been fully attuned to all they felt, but sometimes it has to do with the way they are consciously thinking about the feeling and, usually, the event. If that is the case, I sometimes advise folks to tell themselves that yes, they are returning to this feeling, but it is also the case that this is “old news”, that is we know what happened, we know why they felt the way they did, we figured out a way forward and the healthy thing is now to move on.
Extant data suggests that there is an emerging College Student Mental Health Crisis, and probably a larger crisis in mental health in general. Although there are many facets to this, I believe one of the most central is the failure of so many to understand what their feelings are and how best to relate to them. I hope this blog helps folks realize that that, generally speaking, the best way to relate to one’s feelings is by finding the emotional sweet spot between awareness and attunement on the one hand and adaptive regulation with one’s identity and long-term adaptive goals on the other. Related to this blog on developing a healthy perspective and relationship to one's feelings, here is a blog on mindfulness and another on developing a "CALM MO" on the inner workings of one's psychology, especially one's emotions.
Also, please note that I realize that being healthy with one's emotions is often a lot easier said than done, especially for folks who have experienced trauma or have a long history of trouble figuring out how to adaptively relate to their emotions and get their relational needs met. Thus, please consider this a guide for reflection rather than a performance list everyone should live up to. If you find it very difficult to have a healthy relationship with your feelings, then it might be time to seek professional guidance.