Being human means having emotions. They evolved to keep us safe in a changing and at times threatening world, and thus manifest as strong physical sensations – making them hard to ignore.
As a general rule, emotions are signposts we need to pay attention to:
Fear signals danger and the need for safety
Loneliness signals isolation and the need for connection
Sadness signals loss and a need to process and re-adjust
Anger signals the need to set a boundary against something threatening
We don’t just react to physical threats and losses, but also to events or situations that threaten our values and goals in life. Having your feelings hurt or being cut off from an important life opportunity (e.g. getting a place in the course you want, or a promotion at work) creates very similar internal sensations to being physically threatened or injured.
A safety mechanism
Emotions alert us to events that might require reactions to safeguard something we care about. Strong emotions create sensations that are hard to ignore, and that we thus feel compelled to act on – even if that action is simply to re-evaluate and re-adjust our priorities in response to a new situation.
Strong emotions can be unpleasant, and therefore it’s tempting to try to ignore or avoid them. However, paying attention internally allows you to understand what triggered a particular emotion for you, and deciding how (or if) you respond to it.
Emotions only become a problem when they’re exaggerated in terms of what they are triggered by:
Being infuriated by a new colleague when they forget your name, rather than mildly annoyed.
Being terrified that the person you have a crush on will reject you, despite the fact that they seem to like you and want to spend time with you so far.
Being intensely anxious about an upcoming interview or exam, regardless of being well prepared and having a good track record of succeeding at these in the past.
Feeling rejected by a friend not responding to your message, although you have been close for years and know they’re just busy.
In cases where the emotion you’re experiencing is out of sync with what’s really happening, further attention is required. Sometimes the meaning we’re making of what’s happening is the source of upset, rather than what’s actually happening. Sometimes, events in the present evoke unprocessed feelings from the past.
Finding The Starting Point
When you realise this is happening, it’s important to be patient with yourself, and take time to figure out your emotions. See if you can locate the physical sensations in your body, the thoughts going through your mind, and whatever impulses you’re having to react. What are they saying to you? Is there some way that they make sense, even if you wish they weren’t there?
Typically, unwanted emotions feel more unpleasant, and linger longer than the ones we would prefer to keep around. The more you tell yourself you shouldn’t feel something, the more it upsets you if the emotion is still there – because you’re adding shame, anger or fear to it.
You don’t have to mindlessly obey all emotions, but it is helpful to accept their presence, and trust that they usually have some message to you. It might be that you need time to get to terms with something, or that you need support. Research shows that the intensity of emotions is reduced significantly simply by naming them. And if you can share them with someone else, you’re not only gaining support, but also challenging shame and loneliness.