Getting to Know your Emotions
The following is an excerpt from Unconditional: Learning to Love Your Authentic Self by Annalisa Smithson, LPC (currently in press; please email us if you are interested in being a beta-reader for this publication!)
I love talking about emotions, but I didn’t always love it. In fact, I remember walking into one of my clinical courses years ago coiled like a watch spring, wound tight by practicum, journaling, supervision, and personal therapy. I dropped my books on the table with a dramatic thud and announced at the top of my lungs, “I’m SO SICK of talking about my feelings!” That was one week into the course. Luckily, I was surrounded by counselors-in-training and received empathy rather than rolled eyes. At first, I thought I was barking up the wrong tree, but after the course was finished, I knew that more bark and less bite was the key. I had experienced the freedom of embracing all my feelings, “good” and “bad.” I went inward to explore my emotional landscape and came out fulfilled. I even took the risk of talking about my feelings to several important people in my life, which served to strengthen those relationships. I grew to love talking about emotions.
Hollywood has created an annoying, sometimes damaging trope we think of as “The Therapist”: sitting behind the couch while the client stares at the ceiling, scribbling furiously in a notebook, asking, “And how does that make you feel?” Most real therapists prefer authentic eye contact, and we tend to avoid writing while you’re talking for that reason. But asking about your feelings—that’s a staple of good therapy. How can you improve your emotional health if you don’t talk about your emotions? If you can’t even identify your emotions?
Clients often tell me they feel “stuck,” “numb,” or just unable to feel. This is especially common for people who have experienced trauma and for the addicted population. Benji and I spend a lot of time helping people experience their emotions in real time. Identifying our emotions is an advanced skill in the Human Handbook; and communicating about our feelings to a loved one takes up an entire chapter. It makes sense. Who likes to talk about being sad, let alone actually feeling and facing the sadness? This even happens to folks who are typically pretty good at articulating their feelings.
I was painfully reminded of the human desire for emotional armor very recently—when I sat down to write this chapter, in fact. My sister, who is also my best friend, came home from California for a week. It was a brilliant visit. We never laugh so much apart as we do together. We enjoyed several days in the sunshine, slugging iced coffee, cracking bad jokes, and belly laughing until our faces hurt. On Monday, it was time for her to leave. The plan was to write for two hours, wake my sister up for a last cup of coffee, and then depart separately for work and to the airport. I sat and stared at a blank page for two full hours. Type, backspace, type, backspace, type, backspace. I had a bad case of writer’s block and no idea what was causing it. I felt like I was chasing my own tail. Finally, I switched off the computer and got my sister out of bed. We said our goodbyes and parted ways. It wasn’t until I was sitting in the car, zoning out on my morning commute, that it hit me. I was sad. I missed my sister. The tears started flowing and an annoying little voice in the back of my head pointed out that my writer’s block came from the same place that my feelings blocker came from. I had cut myself off from the sadness and had effectively shut down my creativity. I called my sister and told her how I felt. She admitted that she had also started crying on the way to the airport. I think we both would have been better off had we been willing to share those tears with each other before saying goodbye. Live and learn.
If you’re like me, you prefer taking action over processing feelings. Despite all the work I’ve done over the years to embrace my emotions and communicate them in a healthy way, I still backslide on occasion. It’s just more pleasant to let joy take the lead.
Taking Stock of Your Emotions
Remember the 2015 Disney-Pixar movie, Inside Out? It’s a kid’s movie, but it’s worth watching no matter your age. It’s about an eleven-year-old girl who experiences a major life-change when she and her family move halfway across the country. Riley isn’t the main character, though. This story is about her core emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. Joy has been making all the major decisions so far, rarely letting any other emotion touch the control console inside Riley’s head. But Joy and Sadness are swept into the recesses of Riley’s mind, leaving Anger, Fear, and Disgust in charge. Riley steals her mom’s credit card and tries to run away (back to her old home). During their adventure, Joy learns that Sadness has an important job in Riley’s life. Sadness tells her, “Crying helps me slow down and obsess over the weight of life’s problems.” She helps Riley process the loss of her old friends which, in turn, leads Riley to hop off the bus at the last minute and return to her parents. Believe it or not, Anger, Fear, and Disgust have important jobs, too. In the end, the single-panel console that was formerly Joy’s exclusive domain expands so that all the core emotions have a place to work. They work together to keep Riley healthy, safe, balanced, and yes, joyful (just not all the time).
Riley is a lovable, relatable example of the average human. Just like Riley, we have to make space for other emotions if we want to experience joy (a rare and intense form of happiness). And in order to process loss and grief, we have to make space for our tears, for our sadness. We must embrace all of our emotions, in a relatively even balance.
Explore Your Core Emotions
Take out your journal and list the five core emotions explored above: joy, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust. Think about recent moments in your life when you experienced each emotion. Next to each word, write a sentence or two about that moment. Where were you? What were you doing? Who were you with? Here’s an example:
Recently I experienced pure joy when I took my daughter to the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire and she met a mermaid. I stood next to her, watching not the mermaid somersaulting inside her sun-dappled tank, but my daughter. Her face was enraptured, lit up from within. She had one hand placed on the tank and the mermaid had pressed her palm to the same spot on the other side of the glass, as though they were touching. I was so happy in that moment, watching my daughter’s magical experience.
Write a recent, personal example next to each emotion. Following the example, I want you to write the cues that let you know you were feeling this way. What did it feel like in your body? What thoughts went through your mind? How did you know you were experiencing that emotion? For example:
I was smiling as I watched my daughter. At first, I had no specific thoughts, as I was just enjoying the moment. Then I realized we had been standing there for a long time. I thought about her fascination and her innocence. I felt nostalgic for my own childhood, a feeling that settles itself in my belly, like a warm meal. I also felt delight in her delight, a feeling that starts in my heart, swells my chest, and spreads through my upper body. Most of all, I felt the tightness in my cheeks from smiling so broadly. I heard my own laughter and knew I was experiencing joy.
Be Aware of Your Feelings
Today’s exercise is simple: Notice what you’re feeling. As you move through your day, interacting with coworkers, family-members, and pets; taking phone calls and reading messages; making decisions big and small, just notice what you’re feeling. Remember that “bad” is not a feeling. Neither is “okay,” “fine,” or “good.” Use descriptive emotion-words: happy, sad, angry, scared, disgusted, surprised, etc. Or look for nuanced words that give more information than the primary emotion. For example, happy may be a straightforward, accurate description of how you feel as you describe your ideal life, but hopeful, optimistic, and fulfilled might fill out the description. I was sad when my sister left for California, but I was also feeling nostalgic, loved, and lonely. When I noticed those feelings and communicated them to my sister—who returned the sentiment—I was able to get unstuck.
As you write about these intense, emotional moments in your life, you’ll become more practiced at feeling and acknowledging emotions in real-time. Many people, especially folks who have experienced trauma, abandon the skill of articulating their feelings. We do this for good reason, as a defense against extreme pain and loss. But cutting ourselves off from emotion is an all-or-nothing endeavor. If we can’t feel feelings, that means we avoid fear and sadness, but it also means we avoid joy and serenity. So practice writing about recent emotional experiences, articulating both the physical sensations and mental observations. This will help you explore your emotional landscape and learn to embrace your emotions in the moment.
Today’s Act of Relentless Self-Love
Call or visit someone close to your heart. Tell them how you feel about them, even if they already know. Use descriptive emotion words.
Today’s Journaling Prompts
How am I feeling today?
What physical sensations helped me realize what I’m feeling?
What specific thoughts came into my mind to help me understand what I’m feeling?
What circumstances led me to feel this way?
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