Befriending your emotions

This post was inspired by the wonderful Emmy Van Deurzen – a philosopher, artist and existential psychotherapist who I had the benefit of hearing talk at an event put on by the Brighton Therapy Partnership last year. You can watch her lecture to the Weekend University on ‘Managing your Emotions’ if you’d like to hear more!

Emotions are not just extreme responses to special situations. They are actually essential daily messages

Emmy Van Deurzen

People often come to counselling for reasons such as wanting to reduce their anxiety, prevent their angry outbursts or ‘get rid’ of their depression. Whilst these are understandable goals, they are framed in a way that implies that our emotions are to be avoided, dampened or dismissed. The main message that I took from Emmy’s talk, and that I want to pass on to you, is that all of your emotions are valid and important. There are no good or bad emotions. Consider befriending your emotions, tune in, rather than block out.  

Emmy describes emotions as signposts, daily messages, proof that we are alive, that our body, brain and nervous system are working and reacting to the world around us and to our needs as human beings. The complexity and variety of our emotions is what makes us human and our emotions have something to tell us. In this way, counselling can be an opportunity for growth and learning, time each week to work on understanding what drives your emotions and what messages they have for you.

We can learn to listen to our emotions, feel their intensity, let it pass and then exercise curiosity rather than judgement. We might ask: What message is behind this emotion? What task do I need to take on? What is really going on here? What do I need right now?

Many of us have never learned how to pay attention to our internal world and we may also have internalised the stigma around asking for help or expressing our so called ‘negative’ emotions. You might believe that you should be able to cope better, that you shouldn’t be struggling or that other people are worse off so you shouldn’t be feeling sad. These mindsets are both unhelpful and unrealistic. It also happens that reaching out for help can provide the very thing we are often seeking – authentic connection to others,  one of our basic human needs. If you feel you have a version of yourself that you try to show to the world and a ‘real’ version inside then over time this will become exhausting. 

How do I tune in to my emotions?

Facing your emotions can be scary for a number of reasons. It can often seem less painful to look the other way, minimise them, or discount them entirely, so that in the short term at least, you don’t have to deal with them and the discomfort and pain this might entail. You may have learnt to do this to survive growing up, perhaps certain emotions were frowned upon in your family or you needed to switch your emotions off in order to cope with your environment. Whatever the reason, as an adult, you may find that your emotions come in intense waves when you can no longer hold them at bay or you may feel disconnected from the world around you. 

In the same way that it is necessary for us to attend to our physical selves (we must eat, sleep and exercise to avoid illness), it is also necessary for us to attend to our emotional world so that we can be mentally well. When we let ourselves feel, we are being our authentic selves, this may be uncomfortable at times but being true to ourselves also feels good. The first step is to slow yourself down and name what you are feeling.

Emotions provide both the fire and the light inside us. We need to learn to tend the fire.

Emmy Van Deurzen

Take envy for example, often seen as an ugly, unwelcome emotion. We may feel ashamed to admit our envious feelings, we might put ourselves down for feeling envy. Emmy points out in her talk that in fact, envy reflects our aspirations and our personal values. Envy can lead us to energetic motivation in our own lives. What are we working towards and what do we want to achieve? Embrace your envy, be curious about it, accept it and work out what it has to tell you. Take action. 

Similarly with anger, this has the potential to be an explosive and impulsive emotion. Anger often comes with a lot of energy that we need to learn to contain and then channel into a healthy expression of our resentment, disappointment or frustration. You might want to consider what is going on in your life that is resulting in these feelings? Your anger, like a siren, it’s telling you that something isn’t okay about your current situation. Perhaps someone is violating your boundaries, disrespecting your values, taking advantage of your good nature – the task then is to consider what you need to change in order to tend to your anger. 

Finally, one of the most common feelings that we fight against is anxiety. We can become consumed by worry and fear: What will they think of me? Will I get it right? What if I fail? The task with anxiety is to welcome the rising energy within, the butterflies in your stomach, the racing heart and to find the courage to keep going. Your threat response system is working which is a good thing! You may however, need to remind your brain that in fact you have the tools to cope. Suppressing your anxiety, or trying to switch it off, will only intensify it. Instead, learn to trust your ability to handle unexpected situations and see each one as a chance to grow, to improve and to expand your comfort zone. Take responsibility only for yourself and let everyone else take care of themselves. You deserve to live a full life, not one where you shy away from the action or stifle your potential.

We cannot expect ourselves to know how to handle every situation the first time around and remain calm. This knowledge and confidence only comes with experience and the courage to work with our emotions rather than against them. 

On a practical level, it also helps to find safe places and people to go to and recover from the adrenaline after a difficult experience. I like to run or walk in nature or reflect on my experience with a trusted friend or colleague. A little reassurance can be helpful and a reminder that we are loved and respected in all our messiness.

Get used to noticing your emotions, naming them and being curious about what’s driving them. Whatever you do, don’t judge yourself badly for feeling something. Feeling is what makes you human.