What Are Your Emotions Telling You?

What are your emotions really telling you?

Emotions are complicated, and they can be extremely confusing. There is no easy way around this. From an early age, we are taught by our caregivers and peers which emotions are OK and which are not; which ones are pleasant and which we should try to avoid; which emotions we can express in public or only in private. These messages, along with our own personal experiences, help develop our beliefs about emotions and tell us what to think about them.

As adults, we have a lot of thoughts and judgments about the emotions we experience--many of these under the surface of our conscious awareness. Sometimes these messages are helpful and allow us to have greater control over our emotions or how we express them. They can also keep us from paying attention to our emotions and truly understanding them--steps that are crucial when we are struggling with intense, difficult, or challenging emotions. Luckily, mindfulness and emotion-focused therapy offer some great tools to help us with this process.

Step One: Identify the Emotion

What AM I feeling right now?

In order to understand our emotions and figure out what to do with them, we first have to figure out what exactly we are feeling. Sometimes our emotions are obvious and there are likely certain emotions you are very good at recognizing in yourself. Maybe you know that you always get anxious when meeting new people or that when you are snippy with your partner it means you are feeling overwhelmed. Certain emotions have strong physical cues that help us identify them; when you are anxious, you may feel like your heart is trying to beat itself right out of your chest; when angry, you may feel your face get hot and your muscles become tense. 

One helpful tool to expand your emotion vocabulary is to actually use a list of emotions to reference when you are practicing identifying what you feel. Sometimes it's as simple as saying "I feel angry right now because I got a parking ticket" but often, our emotional reactions are much more complex and these nuances can be important to understand. If earlier in the day you also got into a fight with your best friend and were half an hour late to work, you may feel angry about the parking ticket but also defeated, hopeless, exhausted, and overwhelmed.

Another practice to increase your ability to identify emotions is to notice what is happening in your body. Often when my clients and I are discussing an emotion in session, I will ask them to try and notice where they feel that emotion in their body. This can be really challenging, especially if you are more of a logical thinker and don't often notice what your body is feeling. It may take time and practice to be able to describe the exact location and sensations that come with your emotions. A good practice to start with is just doing a quick body scan each time you are doing an emotional check-in: from the bottom up, scan your feet, legs, torso, arms, head, face, to see if any sensations stand out to you. It might be a sense of tightness or feeling relaxed, cold or hot, sharpness, pressure, ache, nausea, heaviness, disconnection. 
What is underneath this emotion?

Step Two: What's Underneath?

Once you have identified the emotion/s you are feeling, it is time to explore a little deeper, or in our visual metaphor of the iceberg, looking underneath the water. Sometimes we can very easily identify our surface emotions--"I feel disappointed because my friend cancelled our plans"--but other reactions might be lurking beneath the surface. Sometimes the process of just mindfully sitting with our emotions, holding them for a moment, can help us identify what's underneath. This might include thoughts about the situation--"Maybe she is mad at me" or additional emotions "I'm feeling worried it's something I did". 

What caused or triggered the emotion?

Figuring out what might have caused or triggered our emotion can help us in gaining a better understanding of our emotional patterns and vulnerabilities, and we can use this information to be proactive in planning for future emotional upsets. Sometimes identifying what caused our emotion is easy--getting the parking ticket, or our friend cancelling plans--other times, the cause may be subtle (it was a certain word our friend used in her text), more distant in time (we got a few parking tickets earlier this year), outside of our awareness (we didn't realize we were so upset about the fight with our friend), or a combination of small events that normally wouldn't bother us (spilling coffee on yourself when you're having a great day might be easily brushed off, but spilling coffee on your shirt when you're already 10 minutes late and your hot water wasn't working this morning can produce a lot stronger reaction). 


Our emotions are not always triggered by distinct, observable events--they can also be triggered by a thought we have ("There's no way I can afford this parking ticket by its due date" or "They always cancel on me") or a different emotion (feeling angry with your friend, then feeling guilty for being mad).

Feeling stuck? This step isn't absolutely necessary, so if you are getting stuck on this question skip it and move on to the next step. A close friend or therapist is a good resource for helping you look at patterns and developing some guesses as to what caused your emotion.
What is the emotion telling me to do?

What is the emotion telling me to do?

Another helpful step is to try and understand what our emotions are pushing or pulling us to do (we call this the "action urge" in DBT). Is your anger telling you to crumple up the parking ticket and throw it on the ground? Do you want to slump down in your seat and cry? Are you having the urge to text your friend, or maybe avoid responding altogether? Spend a minute paying attention to the urges that come along with your emotions--they can be useful to notice, even if you don't end up listening to them in the end.

Step Three: What do I need right now?

An important step in this process is to provide ourselves with some self-validation and acknowledge whatever is happening for us emotionally. We may not like the emotion we are experiencing, we may not agree with it, it may not even make sense to us--but our emotion is there, whether we want it or not. Sometimes ignoring the emotion or setting it aside can work for a little while, or with lower intensity emotions, but often with bigger emotions it just comes back bigger and stronger later, like trying to hold an inflatable ball under water that comes shooting up into the air when you lose your grip. 


To get you started in this process, I've made a list of some emotions and common needs associated with them. However, you can also ask yourself, "What would make me feel like this emotion was taken care of? What would make the emotion feel listened to or resolved? What would need to happen in order for the emotion to fade away or dissolve?"

---> Acknowledgement of what is painful, missing, or different
---> Encouragement; comfort and soothing
---> Finding a way to change things

---> Affection; touch
---> Verbal or physical reassurances
---> Comfort and closeness
---> Feeling important, valued, or wanted

---> Being seen or being heard
---> Having your point taken seriously
---> Acknowledgment
---> Changing something or making it different

---> Reassurance that things are OK
---> Being soothed and calmed
---> Support and guidance
---> Being given a break or time-out

For example, in the parking ticket situation, your anger, exhaustion, and sense of defeat might be taken care of if you had support, help, or encouragement about , acknowledged your anger at the unfairness of the ticket, and calmed down enough to problem-solve what to do next. With your friend who cancelled plans, your anxiety might be soothed if you asked your friend the reason why she is cancelling and re-scheduled your plans for another time; or provided yourself some reassurance by thinking of positive things your friend has said about your friendship.

Step Four: What Are My Options?

Okay--you've figured out what you are feeling, what's underneath the emotion, what might have caused it, what it's telling you to do and what it needs...now what? Of course, you could stop here if you feel like there is nothing you want to do about the emotion in this moment, or if you are still feeling unclear and want to talk with a friend or therapist to clarify what's going on for you first. However, it's usually helpful to think of ways we can attend to our emotions and try some of them out.

You can include in your list of options any of the "action urges" you identified in the What is my emotion telling me to do? section. You can also think of possible solutions to meet the needs you identified for your emotions. Sometimes our options involve other people--asking them for something, telling them how we feel or what we think, using them for support or encouragement. Other times, we may rely on ourselves to provide that support through self-validation, engaging in self-soothing or distraction activities to cope, moving our bodies to change how we physically feel, doing an activity that helps us feel a different emotion, or trying to change something about our situation by taking a specific action.

For our parking ticket experience, we might include on our options list things like listening to our favorite song once we get in the car; calling a different close friend to vent to them about our day; giving ourselves a few moments to notice and acknowledge all the difficult events of our day; practicing some breathing exercises to calm our body; or problem-solving by identifying what we need to do to take care of the parking ticket. 

When the Emotion is Too Intense...


This can be one of the sticky spots in this process. Especially when we are overwhelmed by intense or difficult emotions, trying to brainstorm possible options or think clearly about the situation can be difficult. Sometimes we may need to do some self-soothing or take a break from our emotions before we come back to this problem-solving step. We could take a hot shower, focus on our breath for a minute, spend a few minutes with a favorite pet, watch a short TV episode to distract ourselves. Using our support system can also be a good step if we are feeling particularly stuck or overwhelmed by our emotions. Texting a friend, partner, loved one about what's going on with us, or sometimes about a completely unrelated topic, can be helpful at lowering that emotional intensity. 

Step Five: What Am I Hoping For?


In order to evaluate our list of options we've brainstormed, we need to understand what we are hoping for with each of the options, and whether that outcome aligns with our ultimate goal in the situation. To figure out your ultimate goal, ask yourself "What do I ideally want to happen at the end of this situation? What is a realistic possible outcome? What would make me feel better or okay about this? What do I want to feel at the end of this? What do I want to be different?" For our parking ticket, maybe our ultimate goal is to not have it ruin our day and to stop ourselves from spiraling down into a depressed mood. With our friend, maybe our goal is to feel okay about our friendship.

Looking at each option, check in with yourself--what exactly are you hoping for? What are you expecting or wanting to happen? You might be hoping that listening to a favorite song will boost your mood, or talking to a friend will make you feel better. You might hope that texting your friend will get her to say something reassuring and reduce your worries about your friendship. If your expectations have a good likeihood of coming true, AND they align with your end goal, they are probably good options to consider. If your expectations are very unlikely (maybe this friend doesn't respond to texts quickly, or frequently misunderstands communication via text) or don't really match your long-term goal (ruminating about all of the other bills you have to pay doesn't help you feel better or figure out how to pay the parking ticket), you may want to scratch it off the list.

Final Step: Take a Break!

Paying attention and sitting with painful, uncomfortable, or intense emotions is draining and you probably need a break. You can do this before acting on your chosen option (sometimes distance can also help give us perspective on the situation and change our minds!) or after. Just make sure you acknowledge the hard work you did attending to your emotions and allow yourself to do something that doesn't require a lot of mental or emotional effort. Read a favorite book, take a nap, watch an episode of your current TV show obsession, treat yourself to dinner out. 

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