All of our emotions and feelings serve important functions for our mental health and overall wellbeing. Yes, all of our emotions. Yet, sociocultural influences bombard us with overt and covert messages that only some of our feelings are okay to have and express—namely, happiness, joy, excitement, peace, contentment, amusement, etc. As humans, we are socialized to reject, disown, or avoid a whole slew of really critical feelings, which are both uncomfortable and vital for the development of emotional resiliency. In two recent episodes of Dr. Brene Brown’s podcast, Dare to Lead, she interviewed Dr. Susan David, who underscored the imperatives of emotional truth, and stated beautifully, “Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.”
Difference Between Emotions and Feelings
First, let’s examine the difference between emotions and feelings, which are often used interchangeably, but, in fact, have important distinctions. Emotions are automatic and instantaneous neurological events that occur in our bodies in response to stimuli. Emotions are involuntary cycles that manifest within the entire nervous system—which extends from the top of our heads to the tip of our toes. The physiological emotion cycle in the body has a beginning, middle, and end—which typically lasts about 120 seconds. Feelings, however, are our cognitive perception of the physical sensations and thought processes sparked as a result of the underlying emotional experience. Rumination about our emotions can continue for indefinite lengths of time. For many, it can take practice to become connected to their feelings and put accurate labels on their emotions.
Dangers in Avoiding our Emotions
Although emotions, such as fear, sadness, anger, guilt, disgust, shame, etc., can be difficult and painful to feel—simply put, we have to feel them. When we engage in efforts to avoid them—whether conscious or unconscious—the feelings do not simply disappear. Unprocessed or unexpressed feelings remain within us, influencing our behavior in oftentimes unproductive ways and possibly leading us to deeply destructive habits, like patterns of relationship distress, substance abuse, self-harm, eating disturbance, addictive behaviors, suicidal ideation, and many other mental health issues.
Gifts of Emotions
Each of our emotions contains a gift. Namely, these emotions signal to us something about our needs or our value system. For example, a person who is feeling lonely most likely is needing greater intimacy and emotional connection in their lives. The experiencing of loneliness—although painful—can prompt the person to pursue more meaningful connection, but they can only do so if they are attuned to and accepting of that emotion. Similarly, anger may signal an injustice in our personal life or our larger community. Sadness may indicate a need for comfort, like a hug. Guilt can underscore the need to make amends for a behavior that was not in line with our values.
Exploring Emotions with Self-Compassion
So how do we do all of this? It can be difficult to fully embrace one’s emotional experience. Learning the skills to accept the discomfort of all of our feelings can take time and practice to develop—particularly if you grew up constantly hearing things like, “just look on the bright side” or “just be happy,” when you attempted to communicate a distressing emotion. Self-compassion and curiosity are key to owning our emotions. When judgment arises because you feel a certain way, shifting to a place of curiosity and non-judgment allows for important contemplation to occur. We can then assess what the emotion is telling us about our needs and values. Crucially, we can use that information to inform our behavior in a way that leads us to our most authentic and fulfilling lives.