You probably think you know yourself pretty well. Why wouldn’t you? You’ve spent your whole life as you. You know when you like something and when you don’t. You’re aware when someone rubs you the wrong way. You notice when someone else’s presence fills you with warmth and joy. Perhaps you’ll even insist you know what will make you happy.
But do you know why you like something or not? What about why you become annoyed or elated by specific people? Are the things you claim will make you happy what you want, or what you’ve been influenced to want? Lastly, are your answers vulnerable and honest, or are they justifications and rebuttals?
It’s okay if you’re unsure of the answers. I don’t know them about you either, but I can share a way for you to discover them on your own. The techniques in this article helped me find my own answers and are simple to understand. To sum it up, everything you want to know about yourself can be discovered through listening to your emotions.
I won’t lie, learning to hear what your emotions are really telling you takes time and practice if you don’t already know how to tune in. There will be moments the discomfort will make you want to quit, but I promise it's worth sticking out.
Most importantly, there’s no one-size-fits-all method. I can’t promise what worked for me will work for you, but I can offer my experience for you to take under advisement while you find your own path.
Stuck in a Childhood Understanding of Emotions
When we’re children, emotions serve a very specific purpose — to communicate our needs. For example, it may take a bit of trial and error at first to understand the why behind an infant’s cry, but we immediately know they’re unhappy.
As we grow, our emotions grow with us. Now, not only can we use them to communicate our needs, but they teach us about the world and how to survive. They direct us toward what’s fun and people who make us feel safe, just as easily as we discover what's dangerous and who to stay away from. At this point, the language of our emotions is pretty much limited to two words, good and bad. Which honestly, is really all we need to know.
A problem arises though when our emotional understanding halts here. People within all ethnicities, religions, and genders get stuck on the simplistic childhood view of “good” or “bad”. It’s especially true if you’ve experienced trauma, or had minimal education about emotions during childhood.
Marriage and family therapist, Andrea Brandt Ph.D. M.F.T. writes about four specific ways trauma can cause stunted emotional growth. Keep in mind, trauma doesn’t always mean abuse. Emotional growth can also be hampered if you were never allowed to express your anger or didn’t learn how to communicate your feelings in a healthy way.
A common result is portraying perpetual victimhood — when we get stuck blaming others for our lacking — or defaulting to passive-aggression if you’ve never been allowed to express your frustrations.
The truth is, the limited classification of “good” or “bad” is like spending your life reading a children’s book filled with limited vocabulary and simplistic pictures. Instead of ever falling in love with multi-dimensional fictional characters or exploring intricately imagined worlds within a novel. The kind that sticks to your soul and stays with you forever.
Figuring Out What You’re Feeling
Off the top of your head, you can probably identify six emotions pretty easily. Such as happiness, love, surprise, fear, sadness, and anger. If you think a moment longer, you might add a few more like disgust, anticipation, or jealousy for a total of nine unique emotions you’re familiar with.
Though nine is barely a fraction of the 34,000 emotions we actually feel. In fact, according to a 2017 study done by the Greater Good Science Center, at the University of California, Berkley, humans have twenty-seven distinct categories of emotions. All of which have their own spectrum and intensities. We can even feel multiple at a time!
What’s cool, is Greater Good Berkley created an interactive map with over 2,000 emotionally evocative video clips which were shown to participants in the study. The map shows how different emotions relate to each other.
Above is a screenshot of the interactive map, I encourage you to play with it. It’s a great way to feel the effects yourself when you watch the clips.
As you can see from the map, our emotions blend together, are gradient, and interconnected. It’s no wonder we feel confused or overwhelmed when we try to identify how we feel. It makes sense we default into saying we feel either good or bad, angry, happy, or sad, instead of digging a bit deeper.
Have you ever seen the Pixar movie Inside Out? It’s about a little girl who has to move across the country, and her emotions help her handle the big change. Each emotion — fear, disgust, happiness, sadness, and anger — are their own character. If you haven’t seen it already, I recommend you do. It might help you see your emotions from a more objective standpoint and make them easier to identify.
At first, the most natural emotions for me to identify were happiness, sadness, and anger. After a while of noticing these three, I realized several other emotions mimic the same feelings.
I started classifying anger, sadness, and happiness as “blanket emotions” because they’re the easiest to identify and multiple emotions fall into each category. For instance, jealousy, anxiety, and insecurity can all present as anger. For this reason, I know when I feel angry, there’s usually a deeper, less obvious, emotion hiding under the trigger.
Similar to Inside Out, I’ve found the easiest way to understand my emotions is by thinking of them as little messengers sent from my subconscious. Their mission is to tell me something about myself that I’m unaware of.
When I metaphorically close the door in their face or ignore them, then without fail, my emotional messengers become louder, stronger, and more obnoxious.
Eventually, I’m running around trying to close all the windows in my mind to keep them at bay. But doing so only increases my anxiety and eventually, I’m forced to submit. It happens the most when I’m trying to fall asleep. My guard comes down and I’m flooded with everything I tried to avoid.
However, the experience is completely different when I allow the messenger in. They’re happy to deliver their report and be on their way. It’s much faster and takes far less energy for me to take a minute and acknowledge their presence rather than to drag out the process, only to eventually succumb anyway.
Thinking of my emotions as messengers helps me view them objectively. Otherwise, the exchange ends in a possession where they take over my body and I have little control over the experience. (I go into more detail about it in this article about my relationship with anxiety.)
How in Control of Your Decisions Are You Really?
The Greater Good map helps you recognize how different emotions feel. But it becomes harder when life happens and you don’t have a map to point to. It takes practice, but also, identifying which emotions you’re feeling is only the first step.
Emotions are sneaky. Not only do some disguise themselves, such as Jealousy pretending to be Anger, but they’re good at convincing you they’re always right, which isn’t necessarily true. When you believe everything your emotions say then your decisions become reactions.
Harvard University reviewed research conducted over the last thirty-five years about the relationship between emotions and decision making. In fact, according to the report,
Many psychological scientists now assume that emotions are the dominant driver of most meaningful decisions in life. Decisions serve as the conduit through which emotions guide everyday attempts at avoiding negative feelings (e.g., guilt, fear, regret) and increasing positive feelings (e.g., pride, happiness, love), even when we lack awareness of these processes.
In other words, emotions go hand in hand with decision-making. Once I understood this, I started second-guessing the decisions I’ve made in my life. How often did I react rather than respond to a situation?
How to Gain Control
In order to know when to believe your emotions so you have better control over your decisions, you have to get vulnerable with yourself. If you haven’t already developed this habit, you’ll probably feel uncomfortable the first few times you try. Unfortunately, I haven't found a way around it, as far as I can tell, it’s a required step. (Here’s an article I wrote about how to make vulnerability your superpower.)
I do it by asking myself a simple question. Why am I feeling this emotion? The initial answer might seem obvious, but in my experience, the obvious answer isn’t usually the right one. Especially when the emotion I’m feeling isn’t one I want to feel.
I got better once I recognized patterns in my behavior and increased my vulnerability. Figuring out the Why is when I noticed the ‘blanket emotions’ I referred to earlier.
A few years ago I was at my friend’s Halloween party. I didn’t really know anyone but was acquainted with a few people there. At the time, I recently had to move back in with my parents and was single for the first time in a couple of years. I wasn’t feeling very confident and as an introvert, I was already anxious about being at a party.
Even still, I tried being social and chatted with a handful of people. Everyone was happy and having a good time. Each person I talked with was wonderful and inviting, yet I felt angry. The longer I stayed, the more I felt it. So, I left early and tried to untangle my emotions on the ride home.
By the time I pulled up to my house, I realized everyone I talked to was excited about some new great thing in their life. Engagements, new babies, first-time homeowners, and promotions. Every time I spoke to someone I felt more and more like a failure. Every conversation hit on my insecurities about having to move home and my breakup. But what I felt was anger.
Of course, I didn’t arrive at this conclusion at first. When I initially asked myself why I was so angry, the first reason that popped into my head was that everyone was bragging and being superficial. Then I thought it was because I hate small talk, and since I didn’t really know anyone, I had to do a lot of mindless chitchat with no actual connection.
Reasons like these are what I later came to call “surface reasons”. They’re excuses and justifications that float to the surface of my mind to protect my ego and pride. After driving for a bit I calmed down and knew I wasn’t actually mad at anyone for being in love, starting a family, doing a good job, and achieving their goals. I was mad at myself for not having any of those things.
Like everything so far, figuring out the true reasons behind your feelings takes time and practice. I’ve found it works best after the wave of physical emotion passes. You don’t need to meditate or journal every day to accomplish this either, although both are great options. You can do it in the shower, brushing your teeth, or while driving like me.
The more you recognize your truth, the more often you’ll notice when you have emotional reactions to events in your life instead of thoughtfully responding to a situation. This brings us to the last part.
Understanding Your Relationship with Your Emotions
I’ll admit, it's not exactly fun to realize the things you don’t like about yourself. It’s even less fun, albeit still illuminating, to see how you react when those insecurities and fears are triggered. Humans don’t like doing things that bring us discomfort. It’s why we avoid our ‘negative’ emotions. However, there is an incentive to do it anyway.
Once you allow yourself to experience your emotions and understand why you’re feeling them, you get to decide how to use the information. This gives you more control over your life in more ways than you can imagine.
Let’s revisit the party story.
By the time I got home, I was ashamed and embarrassed. I wasn’t rude to anyone, but I felt bad about leaving early because my friend was excited about her party. An extra stab to the heart was that it meant something to her that I went.
Had I understood the true underlying reason for my feelings, I would have seen I had options. I could have taken a different approach in conversations or stuck around long enough to discuss other topics instead of excusing myself.
On a logical level, I knew I could still be happy for other people despite my self-doubts. If I had acknowledged my emotional messager alerting me to my insecurity, maybe I would have chosen to stay anyway. I could have made a new friend. The point is, I would have had more options rather than acting on my impulse to leave.
On the plus side, I learned something about myself during my thirty-minute drive home that night. My lack of confidence was easy enough to recognize, but until the party, I didn’t realize how much moving back with my parents or my break up affected me. I mean, rationally I knew neither is the end of the world, but I didn’t recognize the depth of my feelings of failure.
This revelation gave me a solid place to build from. Before the party, I felt like I was floating in a grey cloud and almost depressed. After the party, I knew myself a little better, and from there, I could decide what to do about it.
As far as I could tell I had three choices. I could (1) hold onto my bitterness until the point of moving out (2) Avoid all social situations where someone might ask me about my life, or (3) figure out a way to not be ashamed of my situation. As you can tell by reading this article, I chose the last one.
That’s the amazing thing about this whole process. Yes, it takes time and consistent effort before it feels natural. Yes, learning about yourself isn’t always a pleasant experience. But at the end of it, you can recognize when you’re being triggered and why. This knowledge gives you more control over your life because you can decide how to respond to any given situation instead of acting on your impulses.
When you consistently reflect on your emotions and reactions, it becomes easier to recognize patterns in your behaviors and relationships. Be patient and kind to yourself throughout the process. It takes time. For months I fell into a yo-yo of reacting to triggers, then apologizing after I reflected about it later.
At first, this made me feel even more like a failure because it seemed like I was always letting people down or making myself look bad. But I reminded myself of the fact that even being aware of my mistakes, and taking the steps to correct them, took strength. I couldn’t do either a few months prior.
The hardest part is realizing what’s going on before acting on your impulses. Though, reaching this threshold is a good sign you’re becoming a master in the process.
Quick Recap of What We’ve Discussed
It’s easy to file all emotions as either “good” or “bad” as a simplified way of understanding. It makes perfect sense for children who are still learning about the world.
But, the truth is, no emotion is good or bad. Each one serves a purpose and has a message to tell you. Once you understand what your emotions are communicating, and why, it makes dealing with them easier.
The more you do it, the easier it gets. Like any skill, it can be strengthened with practice. Pretty soon, reflecting inward will become a habit you do when you have spare moments in your day. There’s no need to schedule it at specific times unless you want to. I bet you’d be surprised how many excess minutes you can find.
Let’s review the steps we’ve discussed:
- Understand your emotions are more complex than just good or bad.
- Allow yourself to experience your emotions and familiarize yourself with how they feel.
- Identify them by getting as specific as possible.
- Be honest and vulnerable with yourself.
- Evaluate your options and the best way to handle the situation aside from acting on your impulses.
- Stay consistent and do your best to complete these steps while you’re experiencing your emotions instead of after the fact.
My world became larger than I could have ever imagined once I learned how to tune in to myself. I’d love for you to feel the same way. I can’t guarantee my method will work perfectly for you, but take any parts that speak to you and modify it until it fits your life.
The goal is to get past your justification and excuses by zooming out to see a bigger picture, one not centered around you, and watch how many new perspectives you see.
We act as though everyone should have the ability to listen to their emotions. As if it’s common knowledge for people to recognize when they’re in the wrong and make rational choices that transcend their feelings or immediate wants. The truth is, the majority of people struggle with these skills.
The good news is, it’s a skill anyone can strengthen within themselves. If you think about it, your emotions are tools you can use to learn about yourself in a deeper way than ever before. Have fun and get curious during the process. After all, the one person you’ll spend the most time with is yourself.
With this information, it’s amazing how much control you have when you’re able to free yourself from emotional triggers. Simply acknowledging your feelings solves one of humankind’s shared desires — finding acceptance and love.