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Exploring Emotions

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"Peace cannot be kept by force, It can only be achieved by understanding"-Albert Einstein

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We all have emotions; it is what makes us such unique beings. It is our emotions-sadness, happiness, fear, joy, passion, that allow us to experience life in all its richness and fullness. If we cherish some of these emotions yet deny or suppress others, we are not balanced and whole. You may know someone who suppresses his or her anger; there is a tension within the individual that is uncomfortable for everyone around them. When you own and honor all your emotions, there is a deep inner peace that arises within you. The soul loves the truth; when you are honest about your feelings, you will experience inner peace.

Emotions are part of our everyday lives. Sometimes, it can feel like our feelings control how we think and act to the point where we feel like we’re not in control. Experiencing and expressing emotions are integral parts of life. But, for many people, emotions remain mysterious, confusing, and difficult to express constructively. Accepting and Valuing Your Emotions Often, there is a strong relationship between the events in your life and your emotions–for example, to feel sadness in response to loss, or to feel happiness in response to something desirable. Sometimes, emotions related to past events or even to expectations for the future. For example, sorrow about something that happened recently may bring up sadness about other past losses. When you are feeling something, consider asking yourself the following kinds of questions:

  • What is this emotion?

  • What is this emotion telling me about this situation?

  • Why is this emotion happening now?

Identifying Emotion Learning to identify the connection between your emotion and specific events (or stressors) in your life can take time, but it’s important in learning how to address emotions in a healthy manner. Here are some things to consider when learning to identify your emotion:

  • You may notice a physical or bodily reaction to an emotion (for example, fear may feel like a knot in your stomach or tightness in your throat; embarrassment may cause you to blush).

  • Your bodily responses may indicate a pattern (for example, feeling jittery prior to beginning every exam).

Emotions are also connected to your behavior. If you aren’t sure how you feel, but you realize that you are acting in a way that sends a clear message to others, you may be able to infer what you are feeling from your behavior. For example, if you have an angry facial expression or tone of voice when you are talking with a particular friend, it may be that you are angry or frustrated with that person without recognizing it. Making the connection between life’s events and your emotions is very useful. Continuing with this same example, once you recognize your emotions, you may then more clearly understand and articulate your concerns with your friend.

Interpretations and Perceptions Often emotions relate to your interpretations of events more than to the events themselves. While it’s natural to think that you are responding only to the events of your life, you make interpretations or judgments of these events based on your perceptions of the event or person. When you stop to think about it, each event could yield a variety of emotional responses; your interpretation of the event helps link a particular emotional response to that event. Your interpretations can seem so rapid (or automatic) that you may not realize they are happening. When your emotional reaction is disproportionate to the event, it is likely due to your rapid, undetected interpretation of that event, more than to the event itself. Examining this further may help you gain perspective of your emotional reactions. Here are some common, recurring self-defeating interpretations:

  • Dichotomous thinking. In this way of thinking, you interpret events as in extremes (all or nothing). In other words, events are wonderful or terrible, with no recognition of the grey areas in between.

  • Excessive personalization. Here, someone concludes that another’s behavior or mood is because of them. So when a friend is in a bad mood, the person assumes it must be their fault.

  • Overgeneralization. This is when someone gives more impact to something than it really has. For example, someone may assume they are a horrible student because they do poorly on one test.

  • Filtering. This is when we magnify negative events and discount positive ones. For example, a student may only pay attention to one negative comment after a class presentation rather than considering many other positive ones.

  • Emotional reasoning. This involves confusing your emotions with the truth. For example, if you feel lonely, you determine you’re not worthy of relationships or friends. Acknowledging these self-defeating tendencies can be difficult but do not define you as a person. They can help us learn how to express our feelings more accurately and productively.

Expressing your Emotion Cultural backgrounds, family values, and many other factors can influence how we express emotions. Typically,  we learn to express our emotions in two primary ways: either directly expressing them to someone else (e.g., in a personal confrontation), or hiding the feelings and keeping them to ourselves. Learning ways to express our emotions that are aligned with our cultural values, while still attending to our needs and feelings, can be helpful both for ourselves and in our relationship with others.

Our families and cultural background help shape our attitudes about emotions, our abilities to identify emotions, our ways of interpreting events, and our ways of expressing emotions. Many people do not recall being taught “family rules” concerning emotions, but such teachings occurred, whether directly or subtly. A subtle example might be where a parent distanced themselves from you or left the room whenever you got angry, thus indicating that expressions of anger were unacceptable. In other families, a parent may yell, “Don’t raise your voice at me,” suggesting a rule against the child’s expressing anger, but subtly conveying the rule that expressions of parental anger are permissible. Sometimes, learning or identifying your family’s and culture’s rules can help you begin recognizing your own reactions and beginning to make changes.

Some common examples of learned/unproductive rules for emotions:

  • Always treat other people’s feelings as more important than your own.

  • Never do anything that might cause conflict or negative feelings for someone else.

  • Don’t express anger.

  • Use anger to get attention.

  • Ignore your feelings.

  • Don’t trust others with your feelings; keep them to yourself.

  • Never trust your feelings; trust only your logic.

  • Be happy all the time.

Sometimes, we also learn “acceptable” emotional reactions based upon our gender or sexual identity from our families when, in reality, healthy emotional expression is important for everyone. As an adult, you have more options, including replacing those rules which are not helpful.

Learning to experience your emotions fully and expressing them in ways that are adaptive and healthy is not a simple process, but there are some key components that can help. In general, it is important to become a good observer of your emotions, to accept and value them, and to attend to what they signal to you. Pay attention to how your interpretations and thoughts affect how you feel and also how the lessons learned in your family about emotional expression continue to influence your behavior. When deciding how to express how you feel, give some thought to all of your options. And most importantly, be patient. Don’t become discouraged when you find yourself struggling with this process. Learning to experience and express your emotions is a life-long process.

Understand, you have emotions, emotions do not have you. You are the infinite being, a soul on a spiritual journey.


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