Experiencing and expressing emotions are integral parts of life. Yet, for many people, emotions remain mysterious, confusing, and difficult to express . No one is given an emotional rule book, yet society, community, culture, and context all have unwritten rules about how and when you are allowed to feel your feelings. For example:
- Tears don’t belong at the office.
- Don’t go to bed angry.
- Put on a happy face.
What if, instead of trying to feel what you are supposed to feel, you allowed whatever you are feeling to be felt? After all, emotions serve a purpose, don’t they?
The Purpose of Emotions
Famous naturalist and biologist Charles Darwin was one of the first people to explore the topic of emotions. He noted that emotions of cultures around the world were expressed in similar ways. For example, the facial expression of anger in Austria, Australia, and Argentina looks just like anger in the United States. This finding suggested a heritable component.
Another theory comes from neuroscience, the basic emotions idea, and proposes specific circuits for different basic emotions. Emotions, like fear, that are part of the fight/flight/flee response are on one circuit. (This is the name commonly given to the cascade of hormones that are triggered by things your brain interprets as threatening). On a separate circuit, you would find love and physical attraction (these shared emotions bond people socially to those in their tribe and this significantly increases their chance of surviving threats like wars, famine, and rough weather). The basic emotions idea theory gives specific purposes to different emotions rather than painting them all with the same brush.1
Thinking of emotions in similar terms of the experience of physical hunger—your body’s way of signaling that it needs something—is often helpful. Feelings are like signs on the map of your internal guidance system that help you get to where you want to go. You may sometimes think that humans are the only animals that experience emotion; however; studies of rats have shown that a rat seeing another rat in pain causes more distress than if it experienced the pain itself. This study serves as a reminder of the biological nature of emotion: it’s not just a human experience! What seems to be unique in humans is our efforts to suppress emotional responses.
Why Did Emotions Become Something to Be Controlled Rather than Experienced?
If emotions are natural responses, why do we suppress them? Or why do we judge some emotions as negative and others as positive? Thinking of the process from start to finish, it looks a bit like this:
- Stimulus is detected. For this example, let’s say the stimulus is two friends whispering and laughing when one of them glances in your direction then looks away quickly when they see that you are watching them.
- Your internal communication system sends a situation-specific signal like an emergency flare. You brain remembers a time where you were laughed at and felt embarrassed.
- An emotion your brain sees as adaptive occurs and is interpreted. Your cheeks flare red, your heart rate and blood pressure increase, your breathing slows, and you start to feel a bit ill. You label this shame, embarrassment, or humiliation based on your previous history in similar situations.
- Information continues to be fed back into the emotion program from other programs and systems that assess body states, which may govern the intensity, trajectory, or termination of the emotion. You may have had this response many times before and rumination on that (“why do they always laugh behind my back?” or “I knew they didn’t really like me”) increases the severity of the physiological symptoms or if this is not an experience that has an emotionally charged history for you, you may quickly return to your normal state perhaps wondering if you had interpreted the laughter correctly- after all, these are your friends.
Research has shown that sociocultural contexts affect emotion regulation according to a team of researchers from Berkeley and Stanford. Because cultural norms and practices are habits learned early in life, they have a powerful automatic component. Implicit norms about “the right or normal way to be” are transmitted to individuals by social models, religion, and by individuals’ engagement with cultural practices and polite behavior. You educate yourself out of your ability to feel a full range of feelings by continually pushing emotions down until you lose the ability to feel them at all.
How to Feel Your Emotions Without Getting Overwhelmed
The goal is to discover the sweet spot of feeling but without being overwhelmed or lost in rumination.
To begin finding this sweet spot, try the following:
- Feel it. Note the physical sensations of the emotion.
- Name it. Sometimes multiple feelings are similar. Anxiety, excitement, and stage fright can all present as butterflies in your stomach. Pick the name that feels most accurate. Putting a name to the emotion can help to lessen the overwhelm brought on by uncertainty.
- Breathe through it. If you are overwhelmed at all by the feeling, I recommend a simple breath technique I learned by Australian award-winning skin diver Michael Cheeseman. He recommends inhaling through the nose for a count on three and exhaling through the nose for a count of six. Repeat as necessary.
- Practice gratitude. Being grateful can help you acknowledge your ability to name, feel, and notice your feelings. Your gratitude can also be a powerful celebration of not being pulled under by the wave of emotion.
3 Tips for When Emotions Take the Driver’s Seat
If you feel that the sensations from your emotions have overpowered you, don’t despair! In fact, anxiety about emotional overwhelm can compound your emotional experience. However, there are ways to help you manage and navigate through it. Try these tips from a few pros:
- Mel Robbins, author of The 5 Second Rule, recommends action as an antidote to emotional overwhelm. By counting down, 5-4-3-2-1, you create the opportunity to get out of your rote patterns and change.
- According to Martha Beck, Oprah’s life coach, people who are trapped by their own emotional patterns, called emotional prisoners, are similar to prisoners of war. She tells the story of Khet from Cambodia. Khet was told by his captors that he would be shot at sunrise. At this point, he felt completely free. As he explained, things could not have been worse, so he felt all his burdens lift and the freedom to take any chance at survival. He ran and escaped—ultimately, something he would not have tried had he not thought it was his last chance. In Khet’s words, “… if your heart is free, you are free.” Sometimes imagining today as your last day can empower you to act and feel differently.
- Susan David, author of Emotional Agility, recommends the following:
- Showing Up: Instead of ignoring difficult emotions, feel them willingly—with curiosity and kindness.
- Stepping Out: Detach from and observe your emotions to see them for what they are—just thoughts, just emotions.
- Walking Your Why: Your core values provide the compass that keeps you moving in the right direction, and the emotions are markers along your path.
- Moving On: Find the balance between challenge and competence, so that you’re neither complacent nor overwhelmed.
Having a framework to understand the purpose of emotions can provide more insight into your personal experiences with them. Reflecting on whether you experience more or less emotion than others, whether you tend toward anger and fear or contentment and joy, or if you grew up with beliefs about certain emotions that may lead you to supress them are all ways to begin the process of understanding and managing your unique way of experiencing the world.
Always remember, your feelings are not wrong. Helen Keller may have said it best: “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.”
1. Panksepp J. Hypothalamic integration of behavior: rewards, punishments, and related psychological processes. In: Morgane PJ, Panksepp J, editors. Handbook of the Hypothalamus. Vol. 3, Behavioral Studies of the Hypothalamus. New York: Marcel Dekker; 1980. pp. 289–431.