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Recognizing Your Emotions (Kyle Purcell, LAC)

What did you feel?”

This is probably the most common question counselors ask…so much so that it is part of the comedy of being a counselor. Many times, after I tell someone I am a counselor, they ask me, “how does that make you feel?” But we as counselors ask this question because it is uniquely important.

We rarely consider our emotions.

Emotions are not something the average person spends time considering during the day. We have a feeling arise and we react to it. Little thought is involved. We get mad, we yell. We get sad, we cry or withdraw. We get happy, we laugh or hug someone. Much of the time we react to our emotions without much thought. When we do this, we use a very small part of our brain (amygdala) that is adept at doing things the way we always have done them. But what if the way you have always done them is causing you problems?  Often times in counseling, I’ll also ask people why they did something. People struggle to answer this question. When you are operating on autopilot, you don’t worry about the “why” of things. You just react. When we react, we are using some of the same parts of our brain that house our fight or flight responses. While this may be a great way to escape danger, it is a terrible way to navigate relationships. Fight and flight are all about protecting yourself from danger by running away or defending yourself. Relationships necessitate us being vulnerable and that is unsafe. These great, life-saving reactions actually work against our true values when we use them in relationships. So, instead of reacting to an emotional trigger, we must first ask ourselves what emotion we are feeling. That simple question takes us from using a small, relatively unintelligent part of our brain to using the most logical and intelligent part of our brain (prefrontal cortex).

We don’t have a language for emotions.

A second roadblock we run into is being able to identify the emotion we are feeling. This can happen for two reasons.

  • We don’t consider our emotions enough, which makes identifying them difficult. This is a skill that must be built over time. Keep asking yourself “what emotion am I feeling?”

  • We don’t have the correct vocabulary to express what emotion we are feeling. When asking what someone is feeling, often times the response will begin with “I think….” This is immediately a thought and not a feeling. (Later we will discuss the 8 core emotions to begin helping you grow your emotional vocabulary.) Again, using feeling words is a skill that must be cultivated.

By simply focusing on naming the emotion you are feeling, you will begin to better decipher the feelings you are having. Identification is the first step in deciding on appropriate next actions for your emotions.

So, what are the different emotions?

This could be a long series of posts in itself. However, I will limit this post to a basic description of 8 core emotions.

  • Anger has many faces, but it is some degree of intense negative feelings toward someone or something. Anger focuses on our needs being unmet, brings some form of strength with it, and usually drives us to some kind of action.

  • Fear is closely related to anger and is focused on the anticipation that needs won’t be met in the future. Fear can be good in our lives and foster things like wisdom and preservation when managed in healthy ways.

  • Pain is the emotional bucket for things like sadness, hopelessness, and loneliness. Tears, isolating, or grief are all contained in the Pain emotion. Pain can bring healing through grieving properly. It also fosters personal growth and awareness after experiencing something harmful.

  • Joy is another big bucket that includes things like happiness, joy, excitement, etc. Joy can foster things like hope and gratitude.

  • Passion. While the first four emotions are usually thought of as good or bad, passion can be seen on neutral with equal potential for negative and positive responses. Passion is all about energy and excitement toward accomplishing a goal. It can be fueled by another emotion, but in itself, passion is all about energy and movement towards something.

  • Love encompasses belonging, selflessness, and compassion. Love is a big category and can mean different things to different people. In the most basic sense, it is a positive feeling toward someone or something that usually involves some kind of willingness to sacrifice.

  • Guilt is a negative emotion tied to our actions. It is the belief that someone has done something bad, so they deserve punishment.

  • Shame is often confused with guilt. It is the belief that there is something inherently wrong with me, so I do not deserve anything good. Shame is deceptive and pervasive. Everyone feels this emotion at some time in their life. A significant amount of the counseling I do is dealing with this single emotion.

Keep in mind, this is a basic framework to understand emotions and covers most emotional experiences someone will have in their lifetime, but it by no means includes everything. For example, I can say emotions of pride would likely fall under passion (for self), but you might think there is a better place for it. Remember, this is a tool to increase your understanding of your emotions and your ability to communicate about them.

Why is this important?

Is it really worth the work to understand your emotions? Say you put in all this work and really try to get a handle on what you’re feeling from moment to moment, then what? You stand to gain more than you might realize. What are are really talking about, emotional intelligence (EI), is used in almost every moment of your day. It will help you:

  • enjoy life more by understanding your own emotional needs and how to meet them,

  • have deeper friendships because increasing your personal EI will help you better empathize (understand how they are feeling) with friends and family,

  • and perform better at work by understanding relationships better!

These are just a few of the benefits I have seen in people as they gain a better understanding of emotions and how they affect us. Be sure, it will be work to grow your EI. However, I promise it is worth it. Being able to understand why you are down instead of wallowing in your negative feeling can be a game changer for people struggling with depression. Understanding why you are still hurt from what your friend said to you at that party will keep you from stewing over a misunderstanding and allow you to get back to enjoying a deep friendship. Everyone struggles to understand themselves, and emotions often get put on autopilot. You can begin to change this by being more mindful of your feelings and asking yourself, “What’s going on here?” You will be surprised by the rapid change in your life and relationships!

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