What’s the point of feeling emotions? Especially ones you might find difficult, distasteful, even scary. You might be thinking, “I don’t want to wallow in sadness,” or “I don’t want to get stuck in anger and not get out of it.” We have a lot of fears about emotions, and spend a lot of time trying to dodge, distract, or avoid feeling things that we’re worried will overwhelm or harm us.
Emotions serve an important purpose. There’s a reason they’ve stuck around through the process of human evolution. Emotions tell us when and how to act — to run from danger, stand up for yourself, connect in grief.
There’s an important distinction here, between core emotions — which bring us this wisdom about the world and how we want to respond to it — and defensive emotions — which take us down a rabbit hole of anxiety or feeling stuck.
Likely you’ve experienced this with a good cry… You feel hurt or sad, tears come and then stop, you reach out to a loved one to connect, you exhale a big sigh and feel a little lighter, relieved. You might not be done with your grief or hurt — another wave or waves might come later. But for the moment you feel complete and are ready to move on to a new experience — maybe a moment of laughter or joy, maybe peace and calm. That’s an experience of core emotion.
Contrast that with a time you felt stuck in your emotions… Maybe you are trying really hard not to feel sad, but you can’t really get rid of it. It is always nipping at the edges of your awareness, and as a result you feel down all the time or maybe even slip into a depressive episode. Maybe you are trying to suppress your anger, and then you end up feeling low-grade irritation constantly until you snap and explode.
Another common experience of defensive emotion is when you cover up what you are really feeling with something that’s easier for you to express. For some people this might be feeling hurt or sad, and covering it up with anger (“whatever, I didn’t like her anyway, she’s awful”). Other people might feel uncomfortable with anger and mask it with sadness (“He stood me up and I feel like such a loser, I suck”).
So how can you tell the difference?
- Embodied – there is a physical experience of the emotion (muscle tension, tightness, lump in throat)
- Relatively short – last seconds or minutes generally
- Movement – they rise and fall
- Relief or sense of difference at the end
- Stuck in your head, racing thoughts
- Persistent – don’t seem to come to an end
- Ruminating – thoughts that run in loops, endlessly repeating
- Stuck – don’t change over time or end
If you notice you are feeling defensive emotions, try sitting still for a moment. Ask yourself, are there any other emotions I am feeling other than this stuck one? Is there hurt under this irritation? See if there is some real grief, hurt, sadness that needs a moment of feeling. Or is there anger that wants to fuel effective action on your behalf? See what it is like to make some space for core emotions.
So what is the point of feeling emotions? The point is to get in touch with your internal compass that is telling you when to run, fight, connect, breathe. To connect to yourself and to others, to feel alive and resilient and in motion, rather than constricted, overwhelmed and stuck.