Emotions. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them. While we may think we prefer an emotionless life, and often while we try to create this through numbing behaviors, I can assure you that this is not the way to go. Our emotions are important, and within them they contain messages that are worth paying attention to.
Just like an attention-starved child, our emotions are clamoring for us to take notice. When we fail to pay attention, often it inspires a sense of invalidation, and the escalation begins. Conversely, when we give them the attention they deserve, the opposite is true, and relief is not long off.
Our experience of emotion serves three fundamental purposes:
It is on this third function of emotion that is of interest in this article. Knowing that our emotions have a message for us is not going to be effective unless we are able to decode what they’re trying to tell us.
Regarding happiness, we can think of the emotion as existing on the spectrum from joy or bliss to contentment or a sense of calm. Happiness reminds us that things are going well, that there are others we care about and things we care about. Where we find joy, is where we are reenergized, excited, and passionate.
We run into trouble when our desire for happiness causes us to overlook the risks involved with any particular activity or knowingly ignore the signs. Also, when we are unaware of areas for potential growth, and unable to see opportunities for change, we have allowed our desire for happiness too much free reign.
The feeling of sadness at its best provide us with the ability to be reflective. When it is disappointment we feel, this lets us know that our expectations weren’t met, but in the best way, shows us how much we care and what we believe is possible. When sadness takes the shape of grief or loss, we are able to honor what was lost with the full extent of our sadness.
As a shadow emotion, sadness temps us to run from connection and instead isolate. We tell ourselves the story that if we never allow ourselves to get our hopes up, or others to get close, that we do not have to again experience the same pain. However, this too keeps us from enjoying a full life.
The job description of fear is to be our protector. The fear that keeps you from driving too fast, or sharing personal details of your life with a stranger is motivated from a place of self-protection. Anxiety too can be a friend, in that it helps you to care about behaving in socially acceptable ways, and motivates quality work.
Embarrassment, and even guilt can be healthy emotions, in that they teach you who you don’t want to be, and situations you would like to avoid. As with the other emotions, the battle is not fighting your experience of fear, but rather your reaction to it, and learning to cope with discomfort.
When you become overwhelmed with fear, or fraught with anxiety to the place where you become ineffective, numb, or paranoid, you are no longer in charge of your emotions, and rather, they are in control of you. When you’ve experienced something chronic or traumatic stress in your life, out of the fear of a repeat circumstance is the potential to develop faulty beliefs about yourself, others, and the world in general. This may likely impede one’s ability to create meaningful connections with others.
Often when it comes to anger, we have difficulty understanding that it is anything other than a purely negative emotion. But of course, this is not true, as we often confuse the feeling of anger with the reaction of aggression.
The healthiest version of anger is viewing it as a message to yourself that things are not okay, that your rights are being violated, or that you’re not being treated as you should. It tells you that you’re feeling the pressure to “be strong” or tough, and belongs to the part of you that believes by fighting you’re actually protecting yourself.
The reaction of anger tells you that there has been a boundary violation, and gives you a good indication of what you believe needs to change about an interaction, a relationship, or the world. In many ways this too is where we find our passion.
It is of course not difficult to recognize that anger can be taken too far. It can give way to bitterness and resentment, although these too just show you where you still need to heal. Anger unchecked may also blind you to whatever other emotions you may be experiencing, and stand in the way of gaining an accurate understanding of yourself.
Having the knowledge to search for the deeper message that your emotions are sending is important work, not just of those in recovery, but of anyone looking to have a full and meaningful life. We’ve covered the four main emotions here, but want to hear from you, what have you learned from your emotions when you’ve taken the time to listen?