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Those Funny Feelings

Understanding emotions within a social context and how to make use of them.

There's a cliché question that most people know therapists often use: "How does that make you feel?" It's a stereotype that exists for a reason, though, and does much more than keep you talking in therapy. A therapist's role is to help you articulate your thoughts and feelings, and emotions play a key role in putting your narrative into words. Therapists also encourage patients to take note of their emotions because they can be so valuable outside of the therapeutic space.

Unfortunately, emotions often get a bad rap. They can be confusing and overwhelming, and as a result, we try to push them away and deny them completely. But that's like trying to sleep through the night with the smoke detector alarm going off. When we begin to see emotions as working with us instead of against us, we can channel them into shifting our thought processes and even behaviors.

Emotions don't happen in a vacuum. They arise in the context of interpersonal relationships or external situations and, therefore, have utility in them. Below are four ways in which emotions can be useful and reasons to own them rather than disavow them.

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1. Emotions as Instinct

We like to go into situations as prepared as possible. Reading the menu for a restaurant before going out to dinner, rehearsing conversations before having them with a friend, or making three different kinds of to-do lists that keep you going are examples of this. But sometimes we find ourselves faced with situations we can't actively prepare for or predict.

Emotions work in telling us something in the same way that physical pain does. When we have a strong relationship with ourselves and our feelings, we can use emotions as instincts. Emotions are usually an internal reaction to something, whether that's a situation, thought, or another feeling. Because they are rooted within us, they naturally have significance in understanding our own unique experiences.

For instance, many might find themselves in romantic relationships that they feel conflicted about. While there might be a history of a positive past and even an enjoyable present, people find themselves constantly questioning if this is the right decision for them. Since it's impossible to predict the future, especially in these types of situations, instincts can help in clearing up feelings.

Start to pay attention to feelings like discomfort, fear, and anxiety, and work backward to identify the reasons why you feel that way. Also, pay attention to feelings that aren't felt or haven't been felt for quite some time. Together with logic, emotions serve as valuable information in telling us exactly what we feel and why.

2. Emotions as Moving

The Latin root word for the word "emotion" is "mot," meaning move. While this can refer to the fluidity of an emotional experience within us, it also implicates emotions' roles in how we act.

Think about emotions as motivating behavior. Getting in touch with emotions can inspire taking steps forward. Ignoring emotions that can actually be motivating can result in feeling stuck.

When feeling stuck, consider what emotions are being avoided. Many times, these emotions are not very pleasant to feel, but without feeling them fully, we don't do anything different. Change happens from discomfort. Learning to tolerate the discomfort in order to gain from it can be empowering.

For example, anger is an emotion that, for some, is difficult to express because of social norms and negative connotations. Instead, anger is suppressed and likely plays out in unwanted ways elsewhere, such as passive aggression. If we become more mindful of our inner experiences of anger, we can begin to detect patterns as to what prompts this feeling. Perhaps we feel most angry when others make assumptions about us.

Deny anger, and that behavior continues. Embrace anger and channel it into effective communication, and we've managed to both identify and implement boundaries in our relationships. Anger then becomes a signal that tells us what's important to us and how to stand up for ourselves.

3. Emotions for Communication

It's not uncommon for people in any type of relationship to look to examples or details to make a point. We sometimes think that if we compile just the right amount of evidence, we can build a strong enough case to convince someone of something or make them understand. But oftentimes, the other person can get defensive, fight details with other details, or miss the point. When we keep coming back to facts in communicating our thoughts, we ourselves can actually get lost in what underlies our own argument.

Emotions are a lot harder to debate. If you feel disrespected, for example, that's what the discussion comes down to. Even if the circumstances around which you feel that way can be explained or reframed, feelings cannot be wrong.

Expressing our feelings can help diffuse tension and help tie together all the instances in which they arise, allowing for clearer communication of what makes us feel a certain way and what we need from the other in order to alleviate those feelings. Given that emotions are also universal in nature, they provide a common language for people to relate to and understand one another.

4. Emotions for Closeness

Perhaps one of the most important functions of emotions is the role they play in intimacy. Actually, when we employ emotions for instinct, movement, and communication, the result can be feeling closer to someone else. Sharing our feelings with someone is one of the most vulnerable things we can do in relationships. Doing so with someone we trust and feeling heard in return can create a stronger foundation for that relationship and create the space for more disclosure in the future.

People are also very adept at recognizing if someone is real or not. Authenticity to ourselves and others is a result of being close to our emotions and expressing them appropriately. We aren't likely to feel close to someone who is consistently happy or joyful and never shows us another not-so-pretty side. On some level, we know that we aren't being given the whole story, and it might make it harder to open up to that person.

Asking someone else to listen to us and let us express difficult emotions to them also gives them a way to be there for us. You've undoubtedly heard time and time again that relationships are about give-and-take. Humans naturally want to be there for others and move toward closeness rather than isolation. Giving others opportunities to give to us is crucial in forming mutually rewarding and balanced relationships.

More from Afshan Mohamedali Ph.D.
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