What Are My Emotions Trying to Tell Me?
Let’s take a moment to read some popular beliefs on emotions:
Anger, guilt, shame, fear, sadness, embarrassment, and anxiety are negative emotions
Negative emotions are bad, dangerous, irrational, and signs of weakness
Having negative emotions means I am psychologically damaged
Strong emotions mean I am out of control
Expressing my feelings is a sign of weakness
If others don’t approve of my feelings, I obviously should not feel the way that I do
If I don’t control my emotions something bad will happen to me
Women should not be angry
Men should not be afraid
People should hide their feelings
If any of these resonant as true, you may have developed unhelpful judgements about emotions. Don't worry, you are not alone.
Nowadays it is common to hear that we should get rid of our “negative” emotions. There seems to be a stigma and judgement attached to them. This creates an unhelpful relationship with emotions, which not only brings us harm, but also delays personal growth and fulfillment. Most of the time we learn from our families, cultures, and experiences that certain emotions are “bad” because they create uncomfortable sensations in our bodies. We don't want to experience these sensations so we try and get rid of them through judgments, distractions, rules, and control. However, the more we judge, control, and try to get rid of these natural messengers, the more we struggle. So what would it take to help you drop the struggle and allow yourself to open up to what your “good” and “bad” emotions are trying to tell you?
Emotions serve many purposes. Back in the cavemen days our emotions were crucial for our survival. We had to stay alert, provide, and belong in order to stay safe, reproduce, and live. Therefore, emotions were developed to be powerful messengers that try to tell us when something is important. They motivate us to take action and allow us to communicate with others and ourselves. They color our world and help us create meaning.
Being in touch with our emotions gives us the ability to make responsive decisions. We can learn from emotions and grow instead of hiding and being frightened of them. Im here to tell you that there is no such things as a good or bad emotion.
Let’s take a look at what some common “negative” emotions are trying to say, and how we can interact with them in a helpful way that promotes growth!
Someone or something has treated me unfairly
Anger arises when we believe that someone (or something) has intentionally violated our rights or set out to harm us. It can develop when something makes us feel like we have lost power, respect, or status. When we are treated unfairly, kept from reaching our goals, or an inanimate object wrongs us - anger can then show up.
So when you get mad ask yourself...
How have I been wronged?
Did this person or thing intentionally set out to harm me?
What steps can I take to deal with this in an effective manner?
Is this anger grounded in something important?
Could I use this anger to fuel a passion?
I have lost something important to me
Sadness is brought on by the belief that we have lost something. This loss can be real like a relationship, job, or someone in your life. It can also be intangible like self worth. Sadness exists to help facilitate the adjustment to abandonment. When we withdraw and get introspective it acts as an opportunity to give us space to search for meaning and develop future plans. Sadness slows us down, helps connect us with others, and gives us a change to process loss.
So when you get sad ask yourself...
What have I lost?
Can I give myself the time and patience to recover from this sense of abandonment?
What meaning could I make of this?
How can I take this sadness and use it to plan for the future?
Do I need to connect and allow others to support me?
Anxiety / Fear
I am in danger or there is a future threat
Anxiety and fear arise when we believe that we are in danger. This danger can be real or imagined such as losing something valuable, failure, or rejection. Fear develops as a means to protect us from predators and keep us safe and alive.
Ask yourself when you feel fearful....
What am I worried about?
Am I really in danger?
Is this fear inside or outside of me?
Is it helpful to be anxious at this time?
What would happen in I took small steps to face my fear?
I have done something bad or have failed to do a good thing
This emotion arises when we feel we have violated another persons ( or our own) rights. Ultimately, there is a breakdown in self control. We may have not followed through on a commitment, exhibited poor self regulation, or ignored the needs of people who are important to us. We might procrastinate, fail to exercise, or not spend enough time with family/friends. Guilt helps us change our course of action and make amends to anyone we may have wrongfully harmed. The feeling of guilt provides an opportunity to regain self control.
When you feel guilty ask yourself...
What do I think I did wrong?
Am I hurting someone or myself?
Do I need to take a step back and see if I am going to hurt myself or others with my actions?
Do I need take action to change course or apologize to someone else or myself?
Others will have a negative opinion of me
Embarrassment arises in front of an audience when we believe that we are being negatively compared to others. We feel a loss to our self esteem because we think that our behaviors have been seen and evaluated by others. We have no proof of this. This emotion was developed to keep us close to our kin and tribe.
Ask yourself when you feel embarrassed...
What would I tell a friend who feels embarrassed?
What proof do I have that people are evaluating me?
If people were judging me does that really matter?
Is this feeling getting in the way of doing something that is important to me?
Emotions are simply messengers trying to protect and guide us to act in ways that are congruent with our wellbeing. It is up to us to take the time to understand emotions, instead of getting lost or avoiding them all together. Emotions are not permanent: they come and go. Try tuning into your emotions, regardless of how painful they are because they can allow you to gain perspective. Allow them to empower you to identify your values and live a life that is rich and meaningful. Use them as an ally and not an enemy. So what are your emotions telling you?
Sarit Fassazadeh is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker based in Los Angeles. She takes an ACT approach and specializes in childhood anxiety, panic, and body focused repetitive behaviors. She strives to help her clients develop helpful tools that enable them to take action toward living a life of value and meaning. If you are interested in her services check out her website Healingwithpurposetherapy.com