Although unpleasant feelings usually start in response to some upsetting external event, there are other psychological processes at play that can increase the intensity of challenging feelings. This article explains how changing your relationship with your feelings can help you regulate emotions to feel better.
Sad is never just sad
A client of mine looked up from her shoes and, with an exhausted expression said, “I just don’t like how I feel, and I want it to stop!” With this sentence alone, she told me a something important about her relationship with feelings.
Feelings never happen on their own, they always take place in a context. This means that we experience our feelings inside of a story.
There are a few factors that combine to create our experience and interpretation of feelings:
Personal difference - Some of us are sensation-seekers and want the rollercoaster of emotions, others want smooth sailing and consistency.
Situational difference - Crying over a breakup in a movie is enjoyable, we pay to experience it; crying over our own breakup is awful.
Childhood upbringing – How your parents treated their own emotions as well as yours as a child would have informed how you respond to emotions throughout your life.
Social norms – We receive cultural messages around how to judge and express our emotions in a socially acceptable way. This is influenced by our demographics (age, gender, race, class, etc.).
Take a moment to reflect on these questions: What’s your relationship with your emotions like? What role does emotion play in your life? Do you have strong opinions about certain feelings? Looking at your past experiences and your language around emotions might provide some insight into the stories that frame your feelings.
Feelings about feelings
We all experience meta-emotions, which are feelings about a feeling we’re currently having. All the feelings we can have about a situation, we can also have about our feelings.
We can feel pleased about feeling excited. We might feel disappointed about feeling anxious. We can feel shame about feeling love.
Some of us talk about our emotions as if they’re holding us back, and if they would just cooperate, then we’d be able to accomplish our aspirations in life. For these people, emotions are frustrating things that are out of our control and require strict management.
Are you embarrassed by your emotions? You might shudder at the thought of crying in public or getting angry in front of a friend. Many of us cringe at strong emotions because emotional vulnerability is often associated with weakness or failure. This threatens social rejection, and we might attempt to suppress negative emotions to save face and present ourselves as ‘fine’ to the people around us.
Although we might not admit it, we might be somewhat terrified of certain emotions. On one level this makes sense, because we all know how painful the negative emotions can be when they gain momentum and strength. But this fear may convince us that the sadness will take over our lives, or that the anger will never lift. The fear may tell us that we must keep all negative feelings away at all costs, or risk being overcome by pain that we can’t get rid of.
Double emotional trouble
If any of the above examples resonate with you, then often when you’re dealing with an unpleasant emotion, you’re actually dealing with two unpleasant emotions: (1) the original emotion, e.g. “I’m angry that my girlfriend chose to go out with her friends instead of me”, and (2) your feelings about the original emotion, e.g. “I’m so stupid for letting this affect me so much, I shouldn’t feel so angry”.
The original emotion is informative; it’s telling you something about how an external event is impacting your life. The secondary feeling about the emotion is influential; it will evaluate your feelings, which will determine your behavioural response to the situation.
Appraising our feelings
Our amazing brains conduct a quick appraisal process that we’re usually not even aware of. In this process, our feelings are evaluated based on the following questions:
Is this sensation pleasant?
Is this feeling getting me what I want?
Do I have control over the feeling?
Is this feeling normal?
Let’s say there are two people who are angry because neither of them were accepted for the job they applied for. But they have very different appraisals of the anger they experience.
Person 1: “I’m angry about the not getting that job I applied for.”
Is this sensation pleasant? "No, it’s really horrible, it’s unbearable."
Is this getting me what I want? "I hate being angry because it usually lands me in trouble."
Do I have control over it? "Definitely not, it’s going to overwhelm me, and I won’t know how to make it stop."
Is this normal? "I bet no one else feels this angry. There’s something wrong with me, I shouldn’t be feeling this way."
Person 2: “I’m angry about the not getting that job I applied for.”
Is this sensation pleasant? "No, it’s very unpleasant and uncomfortable."
Is this getting me what I want? "I don’t want to be angry but it’s telling me that I really wanted that job."
Do I have control over it? "Yes, I can find a way to vent my anger and I know I’ll be able to calm down."
Is this normal? "Anger is a natural reaction to situations that seem unfair. I think this is a reasonable way to feel after I put so much effort into the job application."
Although both people started with the same angry feeling about the same situation, their appraisals of the anger will lead to very different experiences of that anger. The first person might feel a layer of shame added to their anger, which would really intensify their unpleasant sensations. The second person might actually feel calm after their appraisal, which could make the experience of anger less intense.
Their behaviours that follow these feelings will probably come out in very different ways. Person 2 is more likely to respond to their angry feelings directly, and they might have some tools for expressing the anger responsibly to help them calm down. Person 1 might react to the feelings of shame by punishing themselves, lashing out at others, or avoiding their feelings all together. They might try to distract from their painful feelings by harmful means such as alcohol or substance abuse.
This is why it’s so important that we understand how our meta-emotions work. They have a direct impact on how we interpret and then respond to our feelings, which can fall anywhere on the spectrum from alleviating our distress so we feel better, to pulling us into a downward spiral of overlapping, unpleasant emotions.
And I know which end of that spectrum we all want to be on. Let’s move away from the downward spiral.
Transform your relationship with emotions
Finding a different way to relate to our emotions is a powerful first move towards easing emotional distress because we can prevent that meta-emotion of shame or fear (or anxiety, or embarrassment etc.) from ever occurring. So, how do we work with our emotions?
There are two categories of feeling that support our emotional regulation: Curiosity and Compassion
When we’re feeling curious about our emotions, we are interested in why they’re happening. We see emotions as sources of information. We wonder what our bodies are trying to tell us. We view emotional experiences as opportunities to grow. I can tell that I’m sporting a curious meta-emotion when I think things like, “I wonder why I’m so angry right now?”
A compassionate meta-emotion has two parts. There’s a felt understanding of your own experience, as well as the desire to alleviate distress. In this case, we empathise with our own unpleasant emotions and try to take care of ourselves. Compassionate meta-emotion might sound like, “that meeting was hard, no wonder I feel frustrated. I should do something to give myself a break.”
Now that you know how meta-emotions function and what they look like, you’ll be able to notice yourself having feelings about your feelings. Notice the sensations in your body. Notice the thoughts that are running through your head.
You might want to answer the 4 appraisal questions to get some clarity about your meta-emotions. Seeing the answers in front of you can help to identify which meta-emotion is coming up for you. Label the emotion, give it a name.
If your meta-emotion isn’t making you feel better, if it’s making you feel worse, move towards curiosity or compassion. Choose whichever one feels easiest or most natural to you in the moment. If you can slip into the curiosity or compassion and direct it towards yourself, great. If you’re not sure what to do, finish these sentences for your feelings:
I wonder why/what/how . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I probably feel this way because . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I’ll take care of myself by . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Appraisal without judgement
Although it may take some practice, we can learn how to appraise our emotions without judging them as good or bad. Here are some things to remember about emotions that can help you stay neutral and not put them into a right-or-wrong dichotomy:
All emotions are natural human experiences that happen to all of us. Literally everyone.
Emotions are physical process that happen in our bodies (similar to hunger).
Emotions contain information about how we experience the world.
Unpleasant emotions don’t mean something is wrong with us. They indicate that we’ve interpreted something to be wrong in our situation.
A note: Go easy on yourself
Reforming your relationship with emotions is not an easy process! The relationship you have with your emotions has been developed over your whole life, and is influenced by your childhood upbringing as well as the society you live in.
We’re generally not educated on our emotions, so we learn from the people around us, as well as from media like TV and movies. You may have been punished or shamed for expressing yourself as a child, so you learned to be scared of your emotions. Social messaging around emotions suggests that they can and should be controlled, and if you can’t control them, then you’re weak (this might be particularly true for men and boys).
Changing your interpretations of your feelings might take time and might not always look like linear progression. But understanding the impact of your meta-emotions and developing your ability to change how you appraise your feelings is a crucial part of effective emotional regulation. Just by reading this post, you’re on your way to building a healthier relationship with your emotional self.