Familiarizing ourselves with our emotions
During an argument with a partner, friend, or parent, has it ever occured that they were begging you to share what you were feeling, yet all you could do was stand there frozen?
Did you ever find yourself in situations where you intellectually knew what was happening yet had no idea what you were feeling or experiencing emotionally? As if suddenly, there were no words in the dictionary to choose from.
Are you someone who tends to ‘react after’, not reacting to situations as they are happening, finding it almost impossible to FEEL what is happening at a specific time such as during an argument? As a result, you may have come across to others as if you ‘didn’t care’, as if the situation did not affect you?
No, you’re not a robot. And no, you’re not ‘slow or dumb’... or any of the other ‘negative’ words you or others may have used to describe you.
Why am I blocking my feelings?
This can be a manner of avoiding negative emotions = “If I push my feelings away, I don’t have to experience any pain.”
It’s possible that from a young age, you learned to suppress your feelings as a manner of coping or surviving your emotions. Emotional suppression is a type of emotional regulation strategy that is used by many people in an attempt to make uncomfortable thoughts and feelings more manageable. The idea being, “if I face these feelings, it’ll hurt too much, I won’t survive it, I won't get back up.” If you do this unconsciously, without awareness, we call it repression.
Examples of other maladaptive emotion regulation strategies (other than suppression/repression) are excessive use of alcohol, cannabis, and other illicit drugs, in aim to avoid what is hurting or what could hurt us.
Examples of adaptive (healthier) strategies are meditation or mindfulness techniques, exercising, writing in a journal, breathing exercises, painting, or even seeking help from a psychologist. It differs per person!
The negative consequences of pushing our feelings away
Research shows that repressing emotions is strongly linked to various psychological and physiological illnesses.
Examples of physiological consequences of repression consist of the following: cardiovascular diseases, irritated bowel syndrome, paralysis, dizziness, blindness, sexual dysfunction, shortness of breath, infertility, and more.
Moreover, researchers have shown that suppressing an emotional response will increase the intensity of the emotional experience as a result of concentrating on suppressing the emotion. For example, if I instruct 5 of my readers not to think of a PINK ELEPHANT and allow 5 of my other readers to think freely, the readers I instructed not to think about something specific will most likely think about what they were told not to, the pink elephant. This is called the Rebound Effect. It is also tiring to constantly tell yourself that you are not allowed to think of something specific. The Rebound Effect doesn’t seem so harmful when picturing a pink elephant but imagine if what we were suppressing were incredibly painful emotions such as feelings of depression, severe loneliness, or even thoughts of attempting suicide.
How to start exploring our emotions?
Dr. Robert Plutchik said that there are eight primary emotions, these being anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, anticipation, trust, and joy.
He made a wheel of emotion (it looks a bit different to the one posted above) to help us identify what we are feeling. The idea is to first choose one of the core emotions in the center of the wheel and once you have done so, to move on to the next layer and then the next.
If you find yourself in a situation where you aren’t sure what you are feeling, I recommend trying to use this wheel! Firstly, question how you are feeling and choose the one(s) most suited to you at that specific moment. Then, work your way through the outer layers of the wheel, pinpointing more specific emotions.
Practice makes perfect
Even before experiencing such emotions, we can practice describing some of the emotions in as many details as possible in order to familiarize ourselves with a vast variety of emotions. This is useful for everyone, not only those who suppress or repress their emotions. While there are eight primary emotions, apparently there are around 34,000 different emotions!
Therefore, there is a high likelihood that we will experience emotions in the future that we have never experienced in the past. In other words, there will always be new feelings to endure that we may not have in the past, PRACTICE FAMILIARIZING YOURSELF TO THEM IN ADVANCE!
A useful tip is to be as creative as possible!
1/ Where in the body do you feel the emotion?
2/ What color is the emotion?
3/ If it was auditory, how would it sound?
4/ If it was an object, what would it look like?
You don’t need to use words. You can also draw, paint, act, whatever you like.
Here are 4 examples:
There’s no such thing as perfect. Keep practicing with different emotions until you feel you understand your emotional experiences better. It’s fine if it takes time or if this is an on-going process. What’s important is that you feel you understand what you are experiencing or going through. Use the wheel if it helps you. You’re not alone!
Patel, J., & Patel, P. (2019). Consequences of Repression of Emotion: Physical Health, Mental
Health and General Well Being. International Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research, 1(3), 16–21. doi: 10.14302/issn.2574-612x.ijpr-18-2564
Written by Mylene Costa, M. Sc.
Psychologist at AntiLoneliness
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