How to feel emotions
One of the most difficult parts of being a human is how to feel emotions, and fully feeling and experiencing the difficult sensations they can bring.
People go to great lengths to avoid having to feel their feelings, all the time. Think about the last time you or someone you love:
- Had a drink after work to relieve feelings of stress or overwhelm
- Turn on the television at night to quiet the thoughts in your own mind
- Help or over-focus on other people’s problems to avoid dealing with your own
Some of the emotions we experience as humans are downright unpleasant to feel, but we are designed to experience them all.
Understanding what emotions really are, and how you can use them to help you move through your own world, can be so helpful in learning how to feel emotions and how to process tough emotions effectively.
What are emotions?
We tend to think of emotions as one-word and one-dimensional, e.g., “I feel depressed after this break-up” or “I am so stressed from all this work I could explode.”
In reality, emotions are a complex, multi-dimensional process. The emotions system integrates our cognitive and meaning-making brains with our nervous system to read our environment and keep us safe.
These are the key components of the emotion signaling process:
- Cue or trigger: What we see in the environment that brings about a reaction. It takes 1/10 of a second for the emotional brain to react to these cues.
- Bodily sensation: What you feel physiologically in response to the cue. Some examples are heat, tightness in the chest, heaviness, lightness, knots in the stomach, or a lump in the throat. Think about what you notice in your body just before you notice you are feeling emotional.
- Thoughts or narrative: The story your mind tells yourself about what has happened and what it all means. It takes about 6/10 of a second for the message of the trigger to get to your prefrontal cortex for your mind to start weighing in on the situation.
- Emotion: The felt sense that integrates your bodily response and your cognitive appraisal. There are 5 main emotions, which are described below.
- Action or response: What you do in response to the bodily sensation, thoughts, and emotion.
(We’ll walk through an example of this process you may relate to below- keep reading!)
Emotions also have qualities about them, and rather labeling them as “positive” or “negative”, (because really, they are all useful!) I like to think of them as having functions that either pull us toward or away from others.
What happens if I don’t know how to feel emotions?
There is a huge cost to not knowing how to feel emotions. As most people in modern day have experienced, unprocessed emotions are often expressed in the body in other physiological symptoms- things like increased stress, blood pressure, and lower immunity.
If you don’t understand and process your own emotions, you are also much more likely to live in a state of reactive projection on others. You might think that all your problems are about other people, and not see the needs in yourself that need to be addressed.
In addition, if you don’t tap into your own emotions and what you need, you won’t be able to send clear signals to the people around you. You run the risk of inviting chaos and disconnection into your relationships with trusted others.
Primary and secondary emotions
Two types of emotions exist- primary and secondary. Every emotion that we have has a core, primary function as well as a secondary response.
Primary emotions are the underlying, genuine experience, and it reflects our needs and the places we are vulnerable. They represent our immediate response to a threat itself, and usually involve feeling sad or scared, a softer experience of the emotion.
Secondary emotions are reactive, defensive, and protective. They are how we protect ourselves when we sense the presence of the vulnerable, soft emotion. The are always covering a primary emotion, but people often do not know that and cannot access the primary emotion when they are really heated.
A real-life example
The most common example of the layering of primary and secondary emotions are sadness or fear layered with anger. Let’s say your husband comes home late from work, and you are livid. He said he would be home on time today, but he’s an hour late, AND he forgot to pickup the groceries he promised.
You’re mad, and your anger makes sense- you were counting on him. But in the grand scheme of things (this was his first time coming home late, he was honest about his slip up, and he apologized) the situation might not warrant an intense level of anger. As you process this anger, it naturally starts to dissipate.
As your anger calms down, you realize that you are still hurt. You feel hurt that your husband did not prioritize getting home early, and you tell yourself you don’t matter as much to him as his work does. This hurt makes you sad and makes you long for a time when life was more simple. These sensations of sadness and hurt are your primary emotions coming to the surface.
As you untangle the events and each partner’s experience (like a therapist would guide you to do in therapy), you realize that the hurt and sadness were the primary emotions you felt. But almost immediately, anger moved in to protect you from feeling and showing those soft, vulnerable emotions. In this way, understanding the process allows you to understand how to feel emotions.
Emotion process components
Here’s how the same interaction fits into the pieces of emotional processing we walked through above:
- Cue or trigger: Husband walks into room, late, with no groceries.
- Bodily sensation: Stomach falls (primary emotion= hurt), then heat and increased heart rate (secondary emotion= anger)
- Thoughts or narrative: I can’t believe he couldn’t do this one thing for me. I must not be important to him. I must not matter.
- Emotion: Hurt, anger
- Action or response: Criticize his lateness
Staying in the secondary emotion can be useful in many different situations in life, like when we need to protect ourselves. In other times, staying in the defensive place and prevent us from connecting with loved ones and ourselves.
The list of emotions
Most psychologists and therapist agree on five core emotions. Recognizing emotions in others can be pretty intuitive. In fact, as you look through the photographs selected for this article, you can probably identify the emotion displayed in each person just by observing their facial expression.
Each emotion has a corresponding felt sense in the body, a need, and an action we tend to use. The examples provided below for the bodily sensation and action may show up differently for you, but these are ones we generally see.
|Common Bodily Sensations
|Pull others toward
|Heat, increased heart rate, flooding
|To be heard
To move away from hurt/ protect
|Knots in stomach, sweating
|Safety and security
|Heaviness, lump in throat
|Cry (pull others toward)
|Sinking feeling, queasiness
|To be good
|Hide away or disappear
Note: Shame is a complex emotion/ action to work with, and often requires a therapist to guide you in managing the nuance. I like how Brene Brown describes shame and its consequences.
List of emotions- exercise
Consider the 5 core emotions listed above. Think about a time that you felt each of these, and then try to put yourself back in that moment. See if you can tap into anything you feel in your body, anything you think you need in that moment, and what you tend to do when that emotion is present.
Explore anything that comes up in your journal as you attune to your own body and mind in these activated moments. Equally, notice any ways you tend to avoid feelings emotions when difficult ones arise (e.g. substances, television, sex, distractions, etc.)
How to feel emotions
Understanding what you need when you feel an emotion makes the idea of feeling them much less scary! You know that your emotions are a process of cueing you into what you need to feel safe. Once you know what you need, you can communicate this to others or find it in yourself.
To feel your emotions, you just have to notice the spaces or moments you may be avoiding them, and instead, stay present with yourself. Know that you are safe and you are strong. And you can manage temporary discomfort that comes with the full experience of being a breathing, feeling human. Right before you reach for one of the avoidance mechanisms you discovered in your journaling exercise, take a pause, notice what you are avoiding, and just allow yourself to stay there.
You might also start to notice when you feel anger or other secondary emotions at an intensity that does not match the situation you are in, and ask yourself, what primary emotion is underneath this? What do I need in this moment?
Emotions are a deep, complex process. If you feel confused about what comes up as you feel emotions, it can be helpful to work with a therapist to have professional guided support in untangling your history in relationships and your present experiences.