Why We Need ALL of Our Emotions: The Good, Bad, Ugly and Why Emotion Regulation Helps
Have you ever been told (or told yourself) to “suck it up” or “calm down” or “you don’t need to cry”? Have you ever judged yourself for feeling certain emotions?
Have you ever used something to help you avoid the “negative” emotions?
Have you ever felt like you had to hide or stop yourself from expressing your emotions?
Probably all of us, right? Somewhere along the line, we decided, “Nope, emotions are no good.” Well at least certain ones, right?
It’s okay to feel happy, joyful, excited, giddy…
So when you find yourself feeling sad, angry, anxious, guilty, shameful, embarrassed…you may think to yourself, “you better lock that up because no one wants to see that.” Or you think those emotions make you too vulnerable or weak.
You push them away. You avoid them like the plague. And sooner, rather than later, you will do anything you can to not feel those emotions.
When you do this, when you avoid, you start to send yourself messages like:
- Emotions are bad.
- You can’t handle certain emotions.
- You need certain behaviors, usually unhealthy and/or maladaptive behaviors, in order to cope with these emotions.
You avoid, but then you hit a point where you can’t avoid anymore, and your emotions come back even more intensely. This reinforces the idea that you can’t tolerate these emotions and then you keep avoiding them.
That’s the cycle of avoidance. And it is vicious. It’s similar to the phenomenon called the rebound effect. Wegner and his colleagues demonstrated that the suppression of a particular thought often resulted in the subsequent increased return of the unwanted thought. This is also what happens when we try to avoid our emotions.
However, there is another way.
All of our emotions, even the ones that you label as “negative”, do serve a purpose. I know what you’re thinking. There is absolutely no way this could be true.
But it is.
The Good About Emotions
Here are some of the most common “negative” or uncomfortable emotions. The ones that we think we don’t want in our lives. The ones you wish would just go away. Now let’s see what would happen if you eliminated these emotions entirely.
What would happen if something was chasing you? If something was coming right towards you, and wasn’t stopping. Fear is what makes you run away and save yourself. Fear is nature’s alarm system. It lets us know that there is danger and the situation needs our immediate action and/or attention. Without fear, our lifespans would decrease significantly because you would never be able to identify life-threatening situations. Fear can also be that yellow warning sign you see on the road telling you to proceed with caution.
Now maybe that seems like common sense and you’re thinking, okay I get fear. But not other emotions. So let’s keep going.
Imagine you have a big presentation coming up for work, it’s a make or break kind of thing. It could mean advancement in your career. Bottom line, it’s a huge deal. You think about it more as the date approaches and you start to feel anxious. You work harder and make sure you’ve gathered all the information you need. You practice the presentation several times in front of family and friends. You worry about some of the questions you might be asked and develop potential answers for them. In this situation, your anxiety helped you get prepared, do your best, and also anticipate possible challenges that could arise. Without anxiety, the presentation would have gone a lot differently. You wouldn’t have spent as much time getting prepared or collecting information. You wouldn’t have taken the time to consider the obstacles that might come up. Because the thing about anxiety, and a lot of these uncomfortable emotions, they show you what’s important to you. The things you value. If you didn’t care about the results of the presentation, you wouldn’t have felt anxious about it in the first place.
When a loved one is hurt or passes away, what emotion do you feel? Sad, right? Maybe you feel like you have no energy. Or maybe it’s hard to focus on anything. You may even feel numb. Have you ever asked yourself, what purpose does this have? I know I never did. Like anxiety, it shows us what you care about and what you value. You probably wouldn’t feel the same emotions about accidentally running over a squirrel as compared to if your family dog passing away. That’s because you care about your dog, your dog meant something to you. They were a big part of your life. Sadness can also help us build perspective. It gives us those, “life is short” moments in order to re-evaluate where you are in your life and make changes where you need to in order to live the life you truly want.
How do you think you would feel if you found out your best friend told someone your deepest secret? Betrayed? Angry? Would you demand justice? That’s because anger is the referee in our lives. Anger is focused on keeping things fair and it also helps us defend our rights and values. If you didn’t feel angry when someone was stealing from you, then you wouldn’t care enough to do anything about it. You wouldn’t be motivated to take action and right the wrong. That is anger’s purpose. It’s an adaptive way of signaling that someone has wronged us. It signals that you should be taken seriously and that you will take action. It’s the thing that ultimately motivates us to take action. And once again, it shows us what you value.
Noticing a theme here? And finally, our last emotion.
You forget your best friend’s birthday. You feel absolutely terrible. Once you realize what you’ve done, you immediately call them up and start apologizing profusely and asking how you can make it up to them. If you live close, maybe you bring them their favorite takeout. Guilt has a self-correcting function or a reconciliatory function. Basically, you realize that you have to fix something that was wrong. You need to make-up or redeem yourself. If you don’t feel guilty about something, then you clearly don’t think you did anything wrong.
The bottom line is that emotions are a NORMAL part of being human. They are automatic. You don’t tell yourself to feel the way you do, it just happens. And the more you jump into judgment, the more you will get stuck in that cycle of avoidance. But you don’t have to be stuck anymore.
But What About the Bad and Ugly?
Now you might be thinking, that’s not how my emotions play out. For some, you may feel like your emotions are easily triggered, completely take over and leave you powerless to stop or manage them. You may feel like you’re overly sensitive to situations. For example, you get into an argument with your best friend where you start screaming and calling them bad names, potentially doing irreparable damage, and then you can’t stop thinking about it or you even lose sleep over it. You feel as if you had no control over how you reacted, it was like someone else was calling the shots.
This is what we call emotion dysregulation, the inability to manage the intensity and duration of negative emotions such as fear, sadness, anxiety, or anger. Essentially, you feel as if your emotions are a 10/10 on the intensity scale and it is nearly impossible to recover from. Therefore, you start to do anything and everything you can to lessen these emotions in some way. You want to make them go away or, at the very least, more bearable.
While this all holds true with anxiety and depressive disorders, I have really seen this impact on individuals who struggle with food and body image through my experience working in residential treatment for eating disorders. For instance, an individual with an eating disorder might feel as if their anxiety is out of control and finds that controlling exactly what they eat and how much they eat decreases their anxiety. Or perhaps another individual is feeling really depressed and uses food to cope, eating a lot of food in one sitting, which helps lessen the depression. However, the individual then feels guilty about what they ate and feels the need to compensate for their behavior in some way. In both scenarios the eating behaviors are being reinforced and sooner rather than later these individuals are going to have to increase these behaviors in order to get the same effect, thus creating a vicious cycle.
There Is Hope
Instead of ignoring, avoiding, or shoving emotions aside, you need to give yourself permission to feel. You need to validate the emotions that are coming up for you. You need to be spending that time figuring out why you are feeling that way if it’s not already obvious because there is a reason. Even if your emotions feel like they are coming out of nowhere, there is always a reason. Emotions are there to tell us, “hey something is going on here.” And it’s our job to figure out what that is. The more you can understand why you are feeling the way you do, the less you judge yourself for it because it makes sense. You can say, “well duh I’m feeling this way if THAT is what is going through my head right now!”
Emotion regulation is being able to intentionally respond to emotionally triggering situations rather than reacting without thinking. Emotion regulation also requires flexibility. As I am sure you know, life is unpredictable and we cannot prepare for every possible scenario that might occur; therefore, emotion regulation teaches you to become more flexible when coping with your emotions and helps you take back control.
As a therapist, I utilize Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) to teach emotion regulation to my clients. This approach brings awareness to what is coming up for you at the moment, while also teaching distress tolerance. Distress tolerance is a tool that essentially helps you get more comfortable with being uncomfortable because, let’s face it, emotions can be uncomfortable, which is why we try so hard to DO something to lessen or escape them. But here’s the thing, emotions are automatic and natural, meaning you can’t truly escape them. So instead, you have to learn that the more you allow yourself to feel the emotions, the less intense they will become. You might have the occasional intense emotion, but it won’t be so intense all the time.
Emotion regulation is no walk in the park, but if you want to get back in the driver’s seat when it comes to your emotions, this is a possible solution for you.
Moderation Is Key
The whole “moderation is key thing” works here too. You don’t want too little or too much of any emotion. Too little, you’ll just look back up at the fear example – YIKES. And too much can be absolutely paralyzing. It’s like you shut down. And when that happens, our world becomes very, very small. So the more you can ride out the wave – because you will come back to your baseline naturally – the less intense and more manageable/tolerable all your emotions will be. YAY!
Be Patient with Yourself
Change won’t happen overnight. You can’t just snap your fingers and do things differently. It takes time. It takes patience. It takes awareness. And most of all, it takes intentional actions.
So the next time you find yourself judging or invalidating how you feel, first take a deep breath, or a few. And then I want you to ask yourself a few questions:
1. Okay, what’s going on here? I’m feeling this way for a reason right now. Why?
2. What happened right before I started feeling this way?
3. Is my current situation reminding me of something that happened in the past?
4. What are the thoughts going through my head right now?
The more understanding you can bring to the table, the easier it will be to validate your emotions. And when that happens, you teach yourself that you are capable of handling any emotion, any situation, and anything that comes your way.
So give yourself permission. Allow yourself to truly feel whatever it is you’re feeling. I promise it doesn’t make you weak or crazy or stupid. It makes you human.
If any of this resonates with you or you need help putting this skill into practice, please give me a call! I am currently taking clients and I would love to work with you!