Why it’s Important to Listen to Our Emotions
Amy Jones is a certified couples and family therapist and a licensed social worker with over 10 years of experience working with individuals, families, and communities in the Philadelphia area.
“I have been feeling really irritable and angry lately,” I admitted to a clinical supervisor a few years ago. “I don’t like that part of myself. I like the part of me that is kind and compassionate.” Instead of letting me vent about what I was angry about, or helping me figure out how to be less angry, she patiently walked me through an exercise that I found to be transformative. The exercise helped me grow towards understanding the purposes of our emotions, valuing each emotion as a part of me, and consequently valuing my whole self, not just one part of me. This is the gift that she shared with me, and that I have passed on to many of my clients:
Depending on your preference, you may also call this mindfulness, paying attention, or taking a deep breath. The idea is to notice what is going on inside of you, and to acknowledge it rather than react to it. Sometimes it is difficult to separate our thoughts from our emotions. Having a list of common emotions can sometimes be helpful to put feelings into words. For me, I noticed what was going on in my body, sat with this feeling for a minute, and accepted that I was feeling angry (an emotion that I was not comfortable feeling).
Name the purpose of the emotion.
Once you notice the emotion(s), take additional time to think about how this emotion has served you in the past. What purpose does it serve? How has it helped you? What is it communicating to you? When asked these questions, I was able to reflect that anger protected me. It told me when I felt overwhelmed, or that an injustice was occurring.
Ask what you need.
Emotions communicate to us what we need:
- Sadness signals to you that something important has been lost. The need is for healing.
- Anger is about unfairness, a need not being met, or getting taken advantage of. The need is to protect and to create boundaries.
- Fear/anxiety is about threat; it tells you that you are in danger. The need is for safety.
- Guilt is about doing something wrong, or disappointment in oneself for violating an important internal value or code of behavior. The need is to make amends, self-respect, and to learn that it is ok to make mistakes.
- Shame is about something being wrong about yourself. The need is for social acceptance, approval, self-compassion, and to learn that is okay to be who we are.
- Joy is about a desirable goal being reached. The need is for satisfaction.
In this step, I was able to separate the emotion from a character label and a value judgement. I was not “an angry person” and it was not “bad to be angry.” Rather, the anger I felt was serving the purpose of either protecting me or informing me of something being unfair.
Think about how you can get this need met.
Emotions motivate action impulses. Sometimes what gets us in trouble, is when we don’t slow down enough to figure out what emotion we’re feeling, sort out what it is that we need, and find a way to make decisions about how to meet this need without hurting, blaming or shaming ourselves or others. Without this process, we can end up on autopilot reacting to our emotions. With this process, we can make conscious choices on what behaviors we want to use to move forward. For me, the kind and compassionate part of me wasn’t great at protecting me. This process helped me to shift from “I hate that I’m angry” to appreciating my anger for protecting me. I was then able to start identifying areas in my life where I needed more boundaries, and to find ways to communicate my boundaries and expectations to others.
It is one thing to read a list like this, and it is quite another to try to apply these processes to real life. Therapy can be a helpful place to sit with an “emotional guide.” This space can be helpful in sorting through our emotions, the values that we give to them, and to figure out how to use emotions to inform our behaviors in our day-to-day lives. It can also be a supportive space if one emotion is feeling particularly overwhelming.