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Emotions as a compass

Learn from what you feel

Emotions have a central role in therapy because often what we say and do is a result of what we feel. Emotions are not just psychological experiences, they are a reminder of what is important to us. Emotions are ‘the evidence of our resonance with the world, with others and with the principles we live by’ (Van Deurzen & Adams, 2016 p.93). It is not always easy to know what we feel and yet we always feel something. Emotions are always present, whether we acknowledge them or not.

Emotions are not negative or positive. What is often subject to a moral judgement is the behaviour resulting from the emotions. (A classic example of this, is anger, which is a very normal feeling to experience. The problem with anger is not the feeling, but the behaviour we have as a consequence. The behaviour is the result of how we manage the feeling. See my article on anger management: Labelling emotions as positive or negative it’s not necessarily helpful and it only increases self-critique.

Emotions give us important information about our position in the world. They help us to make sense of our direction and ultimately to give meaning to our existence. For example I access my emotional world to understand if I’m happy and satisfied with my career or my relationships.

An important characteristic of our emotions is that we never have only one emotion about a person or an event. We always experience a mixture of feelings; they can often be contrasting and in opposition to one another. This can be very confusing for some of us. For example I can feel fearful and hopeful; I can feel angry and caring; I can feel sad and melancholic. It’s hard, but it’s important to hold these contrasts and to reflect on the dilemmas.

When people are unable to do so, they might reduce to a more simplified emotional vocabulary and just express one feeling. For example it’s culturally more acceptable for men to express anger, so a man might tend to ignore that he might also feel sad. In contrast to this, other people might feel overwhelmed by emotions and experience them as too much to handle, so they might want to numb themselves using substances.

I think that we want to use our emotions to find a direction in life and the only way to do so is to listen to them and use them as a compass. To do this, we need two main tools:

1) We want to articulate emotions and expand our emotional vocabulary. This means moving away from ‘I’m angry’ and expand to sub-emotions. What’s that anger like? It can be that I’m annoyed, irritable, sad, disappointed and so on.

2) We want to think about our emotional regulation. This means to find a happy balance between over-sensitive (overwhelmed by feelings) and desensitized (numb/detached).

We can achieve those goals in different ways, and every person has their own skills and techniques. In general for the first point we want something practical, maybe a journal or talking therapy. For the second point we want to think about grounding exercises (meditation, mindfulness, yoga…) as well as sensory oriented activities (for example something that we create we our hands, or something we build, make or play).

Emotions are an interesting tool to use to explore the world and I wish we could use it more. We can perceive the world with our senses but it’s only through our emotions that we can make sense of it.

Van Deurzen, E. & Adams, M. (2016). Skills in Existential Counselling and Psychotherapy, 2nd Ed. London: Sage.