“The symphony of bodily feeling, mental thoughts, and images is emotion. It is the symphony on which people must learn to focus, to understand their inner stirrings and to harness its message.” ~Dr. Leslie Greenberg
Like most people in our Western culture, I didn’t learn to read the language of emotions growing up. I had no clue that our emotions are purposeful information about ourselves, our relationships, and our experience in the world around us. They actually carry messages about what to do—what actions to take to meet our needs for safety, balance, and contentment.
Like all people, my parents were a product of their generation and their family dynamics. Both of their childhoods consisted of emotional deprivation and trauma.
Like all humans, they did their best to survive.
Their intolerance to deal with the transgenerational trauma they carried led them to numb themselves through partying and drinking every weekend to avoid their pain. In the eighties this resulted in relying on pretty much any kid from the neighborhood to babysit me and my brother. One of those babysitters sexually assaulted me when I was seven.
I had no skills to deal with all of my feelings from this and other life experiences. Like all kids, I adapted quite automatically and unconsciously to my environment.
Like many victims of abuse, I tried to numb out and not feel. I started experimenting with drugs at age fourteen, not having any insight that I was drawn to teens doing the same because we were all trying to self-medicate—to cope. When I didn’t have drugs to help me zone out, I ate. And ate and ate and hated myself for it.
Of course, the uncomfortable feelings would be only temporarily anesthetized, inevitably reappearing with equal or more intensity. I felt like an open funnel where any soothing, satisfaction, or peace I experienced siphoned through, leaving me again faced with my vulnerability, like a dark cloud I couldn’t shake that brought with it more anguish than I could bear.
The illusion of love and care from boyfriends became another way to detract from the shadow within and distract myself from negative feelings.
A history of ignoring and trying to avoid my feelings meant that I also couldn’t hear their messages telling me “This relationship isn’t good!” I heard the whispering inner voice that said “leave this jerk,” but I stayed far too long, not trusting or believing my feelings mattered.
The earlier abuse and unresolved trauma I carried had eroded my sense of self-worth. Without knowing how to read the cues of my emotions that told me otherwise, the internalized belief that I didn’t matter, that I wasn’t worth protecting, was the one I acted from.
Although I was desperate to just feel better, the choices I made because of these unconscious beliefs and disconnection from my emotions left me feeling worse and worse, running from a dark shadow that followed me always with mere momentary lapses of relief.
Like for many people, it took a level of pain and despair that was no longer tolerable for me to change the course of my life.
The means I used to numb myself lost their effectiveness to numb the pain. The emotional abuse I endured by my boyfriend put me in a trance of darkness so far from myself that “brainwashed” is the closest descriptor that comes to mind.
It took the depth of this darkness before I finally listened to the inner whisper—the voice of something or someone inside me that said “Enough.” I woke up out of what seemed like a trance and left the dysfunctional community I was in. But still a dark cloud followed me.
I made many steady positive changes towards being healthy. I cut out the toxins—both substances and relationships. I went back to school and exercised regularly (to feel better, not just to look better).
I learned about mindfulness and began meditating daily. I ate healthier food and slowly and steadily started to treat myself like my own close friend. Though smaller, and with breaks of light, the dark cloud continued to follow me.
I was accepted into graduate school to become a therapist and I met my soul mate, but I still didn’t understand my emotions.
The aha moment came while sitting in a training course to learn about emotion-focused therapy from its developer, Dr. Leslie Greenberg. The missing piece of the puzzle that had eluded me finally landed.
Dr. Greenberg taught that emotions are actually purposeful, important, and meaningful information. Like data, when understood and translated, emotions can help us connect with our needs and values. They are the clues to the path to find meaning and happiness in our life.
I had spent my life avoiding, pushing down, and viewing feelings as the greatest nuisance—something to try to shut down and get rid of. It rocked my world to learn that they are actually purposeful, natural, and wise—they are there for a reason!
“How is everyone not freaking out right now?” I wondered.
How is this knowledge not everywhere, in every school, so we can all learn the skills to deal with our emotions and not suffer so much? Why is knowledge about emotions so esoteric?
After that epiphany, I became a devout emotion-focused therapist, training as a clinician and finding true healing working with Dr. Greenberg as his student and client. I finally rid myself of the hanging cloud by learning how to process my deeply suppressed emotions and resolve my unfinished businesses of the past.
Transforming my relationship to my emotions was the missing piece that allowed me to fully heal. Learning to be with my emotions, investigate them, and process them was like letting go of 100-pound chains shackled around my body all these years.
I felt free and empowered, knowing I no longer had to run from myself. I could decipher the inner sensations of my emotions and actually use them to get out of life what I want and need for peace and happiness.
For the past decade, I have taught hundreds of people how they too can ease their suffering and confusion by relating to their emotions differently, with mindfulness and compassion, and by processing the unresolved emotions that have been stored as their own personal shadows.
Here is a brief synopsis of my knowledge about emotions, as well as some practices that can help you transform your relationship to—and experiences with—them.
The Different Types of Emotions
All emotions are not equal. There are different types of emotions—some are healthy and helpful, while others, linked with social conditioning and internalized from negative experiences are less healthy. To complicate things, emotional expression can also be used as a tool to try and get our needs met.
Understanding the different types of emotions is a great first step in being able to read what type of emotion we might be feeling.
1. Core Emotions
Core emotions are a source of intelligence, hard-wired into us and available from two months old. These emotions tell us about what to get more of, what to avoid, and about the state of our relationship with others in the world.
For instance, core anger informs us when we are being violated or our boundary is being crossed. Sadness is a core emotion we feel with any loss, and fear is a hardwired survival emotion to let us know when there is a threat to our safety.
Core emotions tell us what action to take (e.g., core anger wants assertive empowered action, sadness typically wants acceptance and comfort, whereas fear will tell us to flee for safety).
If they are responded to well (considered valid, without added judgment or resistance), they leave the body fairly quickly.
But if core emotions are not responded to well by others in childhood, and especially if there is trauma, the emotions can be imprinted in a skewed and negative way.
This is where people tend to feel stuck in painful emotions, which can last long after the situation that caused them—sometimes for years (e.g., feelings of shame, destructive rage, and unresolved grief).
For me, feelings of shame and unworthiness were imprinted as a result of abuse. These core emotions (that include thoughts and beliefs) needed to be experienced and activated in order to access the adaptive and healthy emotions to help heal, such as core anger and self-compassion.
2. Secondary Emotions
Secondary emotions mask the core emotions. They are influenced by our judgment about emotion. They include internalized messages from culture about what is permissible (e.g., “boys don’t cry”). They can also be a form of self-protection or as a defensive mode (e.g., afraid of one’s anger or ashamed of one’s fear).
These are the feelings that are created from thoughts. For example, if you have a negative thought about yourself, this will trigger a negative feeling, which in turn triggers another negative thought and there you are, caught in a negative ruminative loop.
3. Instrumental Emotions
This is a type of emotion that small children try on to see if they can get their wants met by expressing emotion, like the toddler who cries when Mommy says “No” to a second cookie (i.e. “Crocodile tears”).
If Mommy gives in and gives the child the second cookie, the child learns that by using certain expressions of emotion, one can get what one wants. This reinforces the use of instrumental emotion, which is basically expressing certain emotions to manipulate others to get one’s wants/needs met.
Anger, for example, can also be instrumental, like when people walk on eggshells around a family member and give into their demands in order to avoid the consequences of their anger. Here, anger is not primary, but is instrumental and as you can imagine, a big problem for all involved.
Practices that Help You Get Better at Feeling
While it may take some time, following these steps is a good start to change your relationship with your emotions and help you feel better by become emotionally literate.
Practice mindfulness meditation or yoga to help build your capacity to stay present in your body. Mindfulness meditation has been proven to help expand your “window of tolerance,” which refers to the capacity to be with all of your sensory experiences, including uncomfortable emotions.
Bringing an attitude of curiosity and care to your inner emotional world will help you start to connect with your emotions. Investigate and challenge any internalized myths/beliefs that emotions (i.e. tears) are weakness. Understand that your emotions are not who you are—they are energy, sensation, and experiences all humans are hardwired to have. They do not define you.
Learning to pause and go inward to investigate your emotions is essential to see what type of emotion(s) you’re experiencing.
Ask yourself: What am I feeling? Can I stay with it long enough to see if there’s something underneath? See if you can name what you might be feeling. It’s okay to guess if you’re not sure. (“Is this sadness? Fear? Anger?”)
If you feel a negative emotion, like shame, question the truth of the thoughts that accompany it to help get underneath to the core emotion. For example, if the thought is “I suck at everything,” you might ask yourself, “Is that true?” Then ask, “Where did I learn that I’m not good enough?”
Write down the messages you were taught and from whom. You might be able to see that you learned this from somewhere.
Remember, just because it feels real, doesn’t mean it’s true. It is most likely one of those skewed, negative, unhealthy emotions that came with painful learning in childhood or from negative or traumatic experiences in your life.
Recognizing our use of instrumental emotions is important to check ourselves. If you are using emotional expression to get another person to respond in a certain way, choose to be truer in your emotions. Investigate what it is you really want and speak directly with the person in your life about what you really feel and what you need.
The practice of mindfully witnessing and reflecting on my emotions allowed me to know myself, understand my feelings and needs, and ultimately see that I am not my emotions. They are important information, but they do not stay stuck and they do not define me. This felt incredibly helpful and freeing.
4. Express your emotions
Journal/write/paint/create to begin to connect with and express your inner feelings in some way.
Sometimes staying with our emotions is hard. Sometimes we close off or shut down from our emotions, which, particularly in cases of trauma, can be adaptive. Bringing an attitude of care and friendliness to our difficult emotions is essential.
Not knowing what we’re feeling, or feeling something other than happy, needs to be held without judgment.
As we work to learn the language of our emotions and relate to ourselves with understanding, it helps to approach our experiences with kindness, patience, and compassion. We are all feeling beings, and we all suffer at times in our lives. Reminding ourselves of this is paramount to healing and being better at feeling.
You will find that practicing these steps will transform your experience of feeling. Over time, you will come to see that many emotions, when they arise and are not judged, dissolve naturally without activating stories of the mind or creating drama or painful narratives.
When we investigate the stronger emotions that have deeper meaning for us and relate to issues of importance, we can close in on them with curiosity and openness, able to identify their inherent messages and heed their call to connect with our inner most needs and desires. We can connect with our true self.
Getting better at feeling completely transformed my life. Thinking back to the times when I couldn’t bear to be with any of my feelings, drowning myself in anything I could to not feel, it’s like I was a completely different person. Eons away from my true self.
Of course, I was still me. The difference is, I learned that my emotions are an importance source of intelligence in life. I learned how to read the messages of my emotions and to use them to connect with myself, which ultimately led me to pursue my dreams and my purpose. Which I realized is to help others do the same.