Learning to Accept and Utilize Emotions

Author: Meagan Marsh, LCSW – Adolescent Group Therapist

How many of us can recite the ABCs? How many of us know what a right angle is? The vast majority. Now, how many of us can identify 4 emotions we are experiencing in this moment? This is likely more of a challenge. From an early age we are taught the alphabet and the basics of various academic subjects, however locating lesson plans on emotions is more difficult.

It is common for many of us to have learned that “negative” emotions are to be avoided; that they’re “bad”. We learn through observing the behaviors of others, particularly our caregivers, watching television and movies and what’s discussed or not discussed in our society, that uncomfortable feelings are to be ignored, pushed down and bandaged through the use of over consuming alcohol, drugs, food, material goods, and other ineffective coping strategies such as lashing out, self-harming and over sleeping. In the short term these strategies work. They protect us from feeling the distress certain emotions cause, however in the long run they serve to intensify and prolong the emotions we intended to avoid in the first place. These behaviors often create additional issues and most importantly, reiterate the belief that we are incapable of tolerating certain emotions long enough to understand and benefit from the information they provide us.

Oftentimes we hear program group members wish anxiety never existed and that if they could live the rest of their lives without feeling sad or depressed, they would. This is understandable given how the severity and chronicity of their emotional experience has impacted their self-worth, beliefs about the future, and overall ability to function. However, despite popular belief, emotions are neither good or bad, positive or negative. Certain emotions can feel uncomfortable to experience (loneliness, sadness, embarrassment, depression) while others tend to feel more comfortable (accomplished, excited, proud). Again, it is our response to them and the problematic behaviors we engage in to reduce the discomfort they cause that negatively impacts our lives. Instead of fearing certain emotions, let’s see them for what they are: an internal messaging system. Sadness allows us to reflect on the significance of something we’ve lost, anger can motivate us to make changes or stand up for justice, fear protects us from unsafe risks and informs us to be cautious, while joy signifies something is working. Simply put, emotions serve to help us survive, create meaning in our lives by connecting and interacting with others and informing us of what it is we value.

For many of our patients, especially those who’ve learned to respond ineffectively to painful emotions, it takes losing their sense of self, important relationships, and potentially their job to seek help in understanding their emotional experience. What if it didn’t take getting to one of the lowest points in our lives to look inward and use the information our emotions communicate to us? Tolerating distressing, sometimes painful emotions isn’t easy, and learning to do so after years of ineffective coping isn’t either. Learning to manage and understand our emotional experience and respond in a beneficial way allows us to live more purposeful, fulfilling and accomplished lives.

It is unfair that our patients have to struggle with the emotional pain they endure, however having the courage and support to address and normalize their experience is often what allows them to regain control of their lives. Compass is a wonderful place, there isn’t a doubt in my mind, however in order to assist individuals, communities and our future generations with improving their emotional awareness, efforts must be made outside of treatment facilities. Ask yourself, what would you gain by accepting and utilizing your emotions?

The next time you find yourself in a situation that leaves you feeling overwhelmed with emotion (comfortable of uncomfortable) try following these steps to enhance your emotional awareness!

  1. Observe your emotion: Don’t fuse with it. List the facts of the situation and avoid judgements or assumptions.
  2. Get Specific: Delve into your experience from an observational point of view. What additional emotions may be present that you aren’t initially aware of?
  3. Experience your emotion as a wave that will come and go: Every emotion subsides eventually (it is often our response to the emotion that keeps it around)!
  4. Remember: You are not your emotion. You are a wife, a friend, a classmate, a _______________, and _______________.
  5. Respect your emotions: Don’t judge them. See them as a form of communication. What are your emotions telling you about the situation?