People who have difficulty acknowledging their emotions, processing them or dealing with them could find themselves feeling very anxious, depressed, disconnected, dissociative, or upset without understanding why. One of the keys to recognizing that there is an emotion unprocessed is confusion. If you can’t understand why you were so angry, or why you were so hurt, or why you felt intense jealousy from a particular situation, then there usually is something else that can explain it. It could very well be that it wasn’t the particular event or person that made you react, but it could be that it had triggered a past unprocessed emotion. Why was it so evocative? What about the particular situation caused the emotion? Was the emotion on a similar intensity as the situation? We’ll come back to these questions once we’ve understood emotions a little more.
Emotions are to mental health as physical sensations are to the body. Through the physical realm, we understand our environments through our senses. The sense of smell let’s us know if there are any pleasant or unpleasant things around us, or if we are safe or not. Touch helps us understand if something is smooth or rough, if it’s hot or cold. Each of our senses has its job in keeping us out of danger and closer to things we need. We don’t get annoyed at their presence. We don’t blame our skin for burning in 97 degree weather, or at our fingertips for burning from hot pans, or at our noses for smelling gas. We don’t get annoyed because all of these sensations are helpful. They help us navigate information for the betterment of our lives and our basic survival.
Our emotions are similar. Emotions let us know if something feels right or wrong. They help us build bonds with people or stay away from those that harm us. They help us practice empathy because we also understand pain and hurt. They help us move through life and achieve our goals and learn from mistakes. They tell us when we’ve done too much or put ourselves in negative spaces. Emotions help us navigate the feeling world; the world of our identities, purposes and futures. But we don’t see emotions, nor do we physically interact with them in any way (sometimes we actually do when our bodies begin feeling pain or tension in challenging moments). And so it is challenging to understand them, especially as we are not taught how to interact with them and are often taught to ignore them. It gets more challenging if one has grown up in an abusive environment or is gaslit in adult relationships or just punished at any age for showing them.
It’s important to take a step back when a very strong emotion is experienced. Let’s return to the introductory questions. Why was it so evocative? What about the particular situation caused the emotion? Was the emotion on a similar intensity as the situation? While there are some people who can answer these questions by themselves, all of us could benefit from getting some feedback from someone else. Hence therapy.
Even when we do understand why we are feeling the way we are, we may experience frustration at the emotion. “Why am I still feeling this emotion? Why is it still in my life? What can I do to stop feeling this emotion?” That frustration could be the result of an inner conflict in which there is denial or even a sort of self-berating that happens. “Because I am feeling upset, I am not, a good person/a forgiving person/a rational person.” And so, as one is attempting to feel the emotion, the inner voice comes in to express disapproval. And feeling the emotion becomes almost a triggering event.
If feeling the emotion leads to avoidance, confusion, frustration or another complex emotion, it is important to express curiosity as I did earlier in this post; asking non-judgemental questions that allow for free expression. We ask these questions to ourselves as our dearest friends would ask them of us. We want to understand why so that we can feel. There will be times in which an emotion can be felt and it will no longer have a strong hold, and some times when it will keep coming back. In both scenarios, you are learning about yourself, building trust with your emotions, and allowing yourself healing whether it feels like it or not.
The only way to let an emotion go is to go through it. It is normal to feel. It is okay to feel. It is important to feel. It is necessary to feel. Feeling and expressing curiosity allows us to go through the emotions. It allows us to heal, and it allows us to become more intentional with our lives and others.
To get to the point in which one can embrace their emotions and use them to help navigate the world, there are a couple things that can be done. Journaling about these emotions in a dialogue-style where one is conversing with the emotion is a helpful way to make something abstract and hard to grasp very apparent and clear on paper. Drawing out emotions allows us to not intellectualize the emotion but to see how it feels. Taking walks, breathing exercises, yoga sessions are all great ways to calm the body down when it’s felt a strong emotion. Being able to talk to a therapist to understand these emotions can also be very helpful in keeping one consistent with this inner work.
About the author: Ayah Issa is a therapist who works with trauma, spirituality issues, identity issues, depression, anxiety, and relationship conflict. She received her social work degree from the Columbia University School of Social Work with a concentration on international affairs and community work. She works through a trauma lens with an understanding of community, spirituality, intersectional identities and a holistic view of the self. She can be contacted at [email protected].