Connecting With Your Emotions, and getting better at it

Do you feel disconnected from your emotions? Do you struggle to know what you are – or should be – feeling in different situations? Would you like to have a better understanding of what emotions can teach you? Connecting with your emotions is vital for personal well-being and mental health.

Some people don’t feel connected to their emotions – they struggle to know what they’re feeling and/or automatically block out emotions when they do feel them. This is often because they’ve been taught they should ignore or suppress specific feelings or all strong emotions. Therefore, they’re unable to use their emotions to know how they could improve their lives.

You may be naturally less emotional than others, but suppressing or ignoring your emotions isn’t the same as being naturally reserved. If you try to stop yourself from experiencing emotions, there will be consequences for your mental health and your ability to have enjoyable interactions with others.

Learning to understand your emotions is challenging, and the thought of doing so can be very intimidating to someone who has spent years of their life intentionally suppressing their feelings. But you shouldn’t be afraid of emotions. You’ll experience pain at times, but you’ll enjoy pleasant emotions as well. There will likely be times when you feel controlled by your emotions, but with patience and practice you’ll learn how to accept your emotions without suppressing them.

Connecting with your emotions opens you up to many experiences – with yourself and others – that you can’t have if you try to shut them out. When you embrace your emotions and use them to help you understand yourself and what makes you happy, you can be more fulfilled.

You can’t choose to not have emotions, but you can decide their role in your life.

What are emotions?

Connecting With Your Emotions

Emotions are psychological states caused by reactive changes in your brain developed through evolution. They’re designed to prompt reactions that will save your life when it’s in danger and encourage rewarding behaviours when possible. Having an emotional response is automatic and therefore uncontrollable.

They also help you manage threats to your social status and ability to connect with others. For most of human history, maintaining social connections was essential to survival, so emotional responses are influenced by culture as well. Because emotions are feedback about your environment, and people make up an important part of that environment, the people around you affect your emotional responses.

Some emotions cause physical reactions. These include: blood vessels dilating, accelerated heartrate, heavy breathing, shaking in anger or trembling in fear, and blushing with embarrassment, swelling with pride or flushing with passion.

Emotions also cause psychological reactions. These reactions can drive you to: prepare for a fight, leave a situation that makes you feel threatened, put distance between yourself and something disgusting, or get the attention of someone attractive. This happens subconsciously so you may be unaware of your reactions if you aren’t paying attention to them. However, they’re based your interpretations of the situation and how you should respond, so they can easily drive you to act in ways that don’t benefit you, such s getting aggressive when someone bumps into you or reacting as though you’re being threatened when a new partner tries to get closer.

Emotions are categorised as negative or positive. Negative emotions cause painful or uncomfortable reactions. Positive emotions are enjoyable and encourage you to seek out rewarding situations.

Although this categorisation of emotions is universal, which emotions are considered negative or positive is determined by cultures. For example, many Eastern cultures value calmness and serenity, so being in a low emotional state is desirable. Therefore, they view any highly intense emotions – including joy – as negative. Many Western cultures believe people should always be busy or entertained, which discourages low emotional states. So what would be interpreted as an enjoyable calm sate by someone from an Eastern culture could be considered boredom and therefore negative by someone from a Western culture.

Countries and ethnicities aren’t the only groups that have their own cultures; groups of all sizes can have a culture. You likely belong to multiple groups with cultures, including your family, a group of friends, your workplace and a team you support. The values of these cultures also affect how you interpret emotions. Some cultures encourage maintaining composure even when challenged – such as many types of businesses. Other cultures – typically male dominated ones – encourage aggression and believe it’s necessary when even small threats or offences are perceived. So aggression – and a number of other emotions – can be a positive emotion with some cultures, but a negative emotion in others.

Emotions are instinctual and automatic, but they’re also subjective because they’re based on your interpretation of your environment and your culture. Emotions exist to save your life and improve your situation by helping you choose the best reaction, so whether you find different emotions enjoyable or painful is irrelevant since they only exist to provide feedback. That information can be pleasant or uncomfortable to receive.

Your environment determines which emotions you experience, while your cultures govern which emotions you consider negative or positive. Your role is to ask yourself how you should the information they provide – emotions can be highly insightful, but you have to use logic to decide how you should react to them.

Why do people try not to feel their emotions?

Connecting With Your Emotions

People who suppress their emotions try to ignore how they feel. They typically do this because they don’t know how to process these powerful – and often painful – feelings.

Cultures send strong messages about which emotions are acceptable to feel and which shouldn’t be displayed or acknowledged. They can subtly discourage or blatantly shame different types of emotions in even very young children.

Families almost always have more influence on children than anyone else. They can have rules they think are helpful but actually prevent their children from learning how to manage certain emotions. Some parents don’t allow anger in the name of being calm. Others can encourage toxic positivity so acknowledging negative emotions is forbidden. Pride could be considered problematic and not allowed. Instead of creating a better environment for their children, discouraging certain types of emotions prevents them from reacting to specific emotions and teaches them to suppress those feelings, rather than processing and understanding them.

At any age, people can decide that negative emotions do more harm than good. A painful experience – such as a loss, an unwanted change or a traumatic event – can make them believe they’ll be happier if they don’t let themselves feel the pain emotions can cause. When they start to get upset, they can tell themselves they aren’t actually feeling anything. Or they can try to turn their painful feelings into emotions that are easier for them to experience, such as anger – instead of being hurt they were overlooked for a promotion at work they get angry at their boss; rather than feeling sad when a relationship ends, they get furious at their former partner.

Shutting out negative emotions is more common, but positive emotions can also be suppressed. Some people don’t want to let others know when they’re happy or excited because this makes them feel vulnerable. They can also try not to feel joy too strongly because they’re afraid of how they’ll feel when it’s gone – they would rather stay disappointed and suppress their emotions to protect themselves from loss and suffering in the future.

Consequences of ignoring your emotions

Despite how reasonable their motivations for ignoring their emotions can feel, suppressing emotions – both negative and positive – always has consequences. There aren’t any contexts where suppressing emotions is healthier than recognising them.

If you suppress or ignore your emotions:

1) You can’t learn from experiences

Uncomfortable emotions often indicate what you should change or do differently to be happier. You may be in an unhealthy relationship you should leave, but knowing this requires understanding how your relationship is affecting you emotionally. Or you could have an abrasive communication style that offends your teammates at work and leads to many awkward exchanges. But if you struggle to understand emotions, in yourself and others, you won’t recognise this or know how to prevent it from happening.

Refusing to pay attention to negative emotions can cause you to stay in a harmful situation or keep repeating damaging behaviour.

2) You’re less aware of what you find rewarding

You may think that positive emotions should come easily and naturally, but this isn’t always the case.

Some situations obviously make you happy, but you can experience positive emotions more often and more strongly if you look for these feelings and pay attention to them. You can enjoy the anticipation of going on holiday or recognise how proud you feel when you do a good deed. These emotions might not be strong enough to notice if you aren’t being mindful of them.

When you have a depth of emotional knowledge and listen to your feelings, you’ll have more opportunities to experience positive emotions.

3) Suppressing emotions often leads to outbursts

When you don’t let yourself experience a painful emotion and tell yourself it doesn’t affect you, you’re keeping the pain inside you.

You may be able to contain emotions for days, or even years, but emotional suffering doesn’t go away if it’s ignored. Suppressed emotions typically surface through outbursts during unrelated incidents. You could yell at a friend’s sassy comment because your partner insulted you earlier that week and you’re still angry. Or you could begin sobbing after breaking a glass because a close friend told you they have a medical condition and you haven’t let yourself feel sad and afraid.

While it may seem like you’re controlling your emotions if you suppress them, this actually makes you less in control. All emotions need to be processed. If you try to suppress how you feel, you’ll have a stronger reaction than if you addressed your emotions when you first felt them.

4) You’re less likely to take risks

People who don’t know how to manage negative emotions are less likely to take risks because emotional pain is very challenging for them. They often stay in their comfort zone, refuse to challenge themselves, leave situations when they become difficult, or stop trying something if they’re worried it might not work. But if you know how to process painful emotions, you’re more likely to take risks, which are essential to growth and positive changes, and makes life more interesting.

There are a number of situations that have the potential (or even likelihood) to cause painful emotions – applying for a promotion you don’t get can be discouraging, asking out someone could be embarrassing if they reject you, and starting a new project can be frustrating. Even falling in love can feel dangerous because your partner could leave and break your heart.

Many potentially rewarding situations require taking a risk, which is much less intimidating if you have confidence in yourself to recover from painful experiences.

Why are connecting to your emotions important?

There are many reasons why emotions are important. What will have the most meaning to you depends on your personality and situation. Some of the more common reasons people find emotions valuable include:

1) Emotions teach you what you should and shouldn’t do to be happy

When you’re able to identify your emotions, you can learn from different experiences and situations. Doing something that feels a bit questionable, such as lying to get out of a promise or making an expensive purchase after telling yourself you’ll be thriftier, can cause an uncomfortable emotion, such as embarrassment, guilt or disappointment. This is a sign that your actions went against your values, and you’ll likely feel the same way if you do this again.

Your emotions also tell you which behaviours to repeat. If you feel good after reaching out to a friend or apologising after a fight, recognising this can help you know how to be happier.

If you listen to your emotions, they can tell you where to invest your energy and how to avoid repeating mistakes.

2) Painful emotions teach you what you value

Getting upset at the thought of losing something – such as a relationship, a status (as a talented sportsperson or responsible employee) or a part of your routine – is confirmation that this is a valued part of your life, so investing extra energy to keep it is worth the effort.

There are some situations that can never meet your expectations – a relationship could be unhealthy and need to end or you might not be capable of meeting some of your standards. But many situations can be improved or maintained if they’re important to you.

Understanding that your painful emotions are showing you what you value can be motivation to keep them in your life.

3) You can choose actions with long-term rewards

Emotional responses are based on your interpretation of a situation and how you should act for immediate results, rather than considering potential long-term consequences. If you don’t ask yourself what your emotions are telling you and then consider if that’s a good idea, you’re more likely to react to your emotions without questioning the potentially negative outcomes.

Your emotions could make you yell at a colleague who took credit for your work, even though this will impact your career. Or you could eat an entire pizza to cheer yourself up only to feel mad at yourself for overeating. You might keep relaxing in the sun even though you have a deadline to meet. These behaviours are driven by your emotions encouraging you to react to what you want in the moment, regardless of the future costs.

Reactions to emotions, especially negative ones, often have consequences. Understanding the difference between what your emotions are telling you to do and what you actually should do helps you choose long-term rewards over short-term satisfaction. Staying composed when you’re furious or finding a better way to improve your mood is difficult, but if you consider the potential rewards you’ll enjoy, you can make challenging but rewarding decisions.

4) Your responses will be based on what emotions you’re actually feeling

Knowing what emotions you’re feeling in some situations is easy – losing control of your car will make you afraid, winning a prize will make you happy, and being told a relationship is over when you’re still in love will make you sad. But your emotions aren’t always so easy to understand. There are many situations where you can be feeling a number of emotions.

If you think you’re angry at a friend for cancelling plans, you might tell them off for ruining your evening. But if you realise you’re actually disappointed because you were looking forward to spending time together, you can tell them how you feel and reschedule, or sooth yourself instead of getting angry. The end of a relationship can make you both happy and sad because you enjoyed parts of the relationship but others weren’t good for you. Being given more responsibilities at work can be exciting but also frightening if you’re not sure you’re ready.

When you understand what your emotions are telling you, you’ll have much more insight into what you want and what is concerning you, which enables you to react in ways that will improve your situation or mood, rather than making it worse.

Connecting With Your Emotions

Learning to embrace your emotions when you’re used to suppressing them will most likely take determination and patience. You will need to challenge beliefs that hold you back from making changes, listen to and experience your emotions without stopping yourself, and ask yourself what these emotional responses are telling you. But if you have confidence that your life will improve by connecting with your emotions, and as your positive experiences build up, embracing your emotions will become more natural.

How to listen to emotions

Listening to your emotions means not blocking out the messages they’re sending you and allowing yourself to learn from them. You don’t minimise what you’re feeling, judge yourself or tell yourself you’re wrong to have certain feelings. You might not be proud of every emotion, but you accept them and ask yourself what they mean. If you catch yourself making excuses or being dishonest with yourself, you correct yourself and acknowledge what you’re really feeling.

Connecting to your emotions means letting yourself fully experience different emotions. When appropriate – such as when you’re alone or your reaction can’t hurt anyone, including yourself – you can react to them without holding back. This could be jumping into the air with happiness, crying uncontrollably or yelling as loud as you can.

In order to understand and connect with your emotions, you’ll have to:

Challenge certain beliefs

Learning to listen to emotions will likely require unlearning old beliefs about emotions and why you should suppress them. Before you begin to understand and connect to your emotions, you should first ask yourself why you don’t do this already.

What are your reasons for suppressing or distancing yourself from your emotions?

Consider what you were taught growing up, both directly and indirectly:

  • How have you reinforced these lessons?
  • Have others in your life continued to enforce them?
  • How have these beliefs served you?
  • How have they held you back?

If you want to unlearn a habit and replace it with one that serves you better, you must first understand what beliefs you need to challenge. Keeping certain beliefs – even subconsciously – can prevent you from making lasting changes.

Expand your emotional vocabulary

Everyone possesses a wide range of emotions, both negative and positive. How well you understand the experience of various emotions affects your ability to realise when you’re feeling them. Don’t tell yourself that just because you’re an adult you don’t need to learn more about emotions and grow your vocabulary – many people would benefit from learning more about the emotions they’re capable of experiencing.

Practice using your new emotional vocabulary by identifying what you’re feeling in various situations. Name one emotion, and then think of three more you’re also going through. You may think you’re angry at your manager for putting too much pressure on you ahead of a presentation, but you can also be: worried you’ll embarrass yourself, afraid of disappointing your manager, and excited about what this opportunity can mean for your career.

Not all emotions will be felt equally. After identifying which emotions you’re feeling, rate the intensity of each one on a scale from one (there but not influential) to ten (overwhelming). You can attach a word to each number to clarify exactly what they mean to you.

Reflect

When you’re in emotional situations – such as receiving unexpected news or being mistreated – you will need to slow down your thoughts to know what you’re thinking and feeling to help you choose the best reaction – both in the moment and how you should react in similar situations in the future. Once you’re calm, and ideally have left or the situation has changed (especially if it caused negative emotions), you should reflect on how the experience made you feel. Try to reflect on at least one situation every day.

If you like, you can consider your emotions the way an outsider would: from a detached and neutral perspective. This can help you be less self-consciousness.

You could discuss your feelings with someone you trust, write about your experience, or have a conversation with yourself about your thoughts and feelings. You may benefit from talking to a professional who can help you learn how to trust yourself to embrace your emotions.

You can also write about your emotions. Studies have shown that writing about your experience – on paper or typing – is a highly effective way to fully understand how it affected you and what you can learn.

When reflecting on your emotions, you should:

  • Find a calm and quiet place where you can think
  • Relax and focus your thoughts on how you’re feeling – you can start being quite vague or general, telling yourself “I feel pretty good” or “I’m upset”
  • Start to attach words to your different feelings
  • Dig deeper into your emotions – what else are you feeling besides the most obvious emotions?
  • Ask yourself what these different emotions mean – if you’re feeling disappointed, who or what caused you to feel this way? What does this indicate? Should you do something or is this an emotion you’ll have to accept and let pass?
  • Accept what you’re feeling

When you’re reviewing your experience, consider:

  • What happened
  • How it made you feel
  • The intensity of those feelings
  • What this says about you
  • The lessons you can learn
  • How you reacted
  • How you want to react if/when something similar happens

How you structure this is up to you; you can write your thoughts in bullet points or as a story. You can destroy or delete what you wrote once you’re finished.

If this method doesn’t help you understand your emotions better, then it likely wasn’t a good fit for your personality. Everyone is different, so an approach that works for some people won’t work for others.

Connecting With Your Emotions

As paying attention to your emotions becomes second nature and you become more adept at interpreting your emotions, you will be more aware of what you’re feeling and more connected to the experience.

Negative emotions can be useful

The mind is designed to experience negative emotions more often and more strongly than positive emotions – recognising a threat is more important to survival than appreciating enjoyment. But this doesn’t mean you have to be upset more often than you’re happy.

Emotions that cause pain don’t need to be unpleasant if you can think of them as useful. Many people are willing to experience pain because of the benefits – the pain of running is tolerated by runners because it makes them stronger and brings them closer to an accomplishment. People who want to learn a new skill don’t necessarily enjoy the mental discomfort of studying and pushing themselves, but they endure it because they want to learn. Because emotions are feedback about your environment, your beliefs about what is enjoyable influence whether an emotion is negative or positive. You can be mentally uncomfortable but not want to leave or change your situation because you know that this discomfort is necessary to growth.

Not all painful emotions can be viewed as positive, but you can still benefit from these emotions by focusing on what they teach you. You can be incredibly disappointed by a failure, but also be grateful for the lessons you learned. If painful emotions serve a purpose, they can be fulfilling.

However, when negative emotions are reoccurring and persistent, but they’re not in response to something that happened to you, they can harm your mental health. You could be feeling shame, anxiety or sadness without understanding why. This could be due to a very deeply held belief you’re struggling to address on your own. In stations like this, you should consider talking to a mental health professional. They can help you understand beliefs that hold you back and ways you self-sabotage that you weren’t aware of, as well as teaching you techniques to manage these painful emotions so you’re less affected by them.

You should also consider talking to a professional if you’re struggling with your emotions following a loss or traumatic event. Negative emotions in these situations can feel overwhelming. A mental health professional can help you understand what you’re feeling and how you can process these powerful emotions without trying to suppress them. You night not want or need long-term help, but you may benefit from having support and guidance during this challenging period.

Connecting With Your Emotions

You can’t stop yourself from experiencing negative emotions, but you can choose how they affect you and what you learn from them.

When you’re attuned to your emotions, you can act in ways that are consistent with your values and will have long-term benefits. You’ll know what you want, which situations to avoid and why, and have the courage to challenge yourself because you can cope with the potential pain of failure.

Not wanting to listen to your emotions because you believe you’re better off disconnected from painful feelings is understandable, especially if you’ve been doing this for years. Opening yourself up to pain can seem like it will make your life worse, but trying to stop yourself from feeling emotions also causes pain and has consequences. You’re just less aware of them because they’re familiar.

People can think they don’t need to acknowledge their emotions and suppressing them is better than allowing themselves to experience them, but this only gives them an illusion of control. Ignoring your emotions is highly limiting – it not only prevents you from appreciating positive emotions, but it can make you repeat mistakes and keeps you from taking the risks that are necessary to living a life beyond the limits of your comfort zone. Without understanding and honouring your emotions, you can’t live life to it’s fullest.

But it’s never too late to learn how to connect with your emotions if you want to discover what your life can be like with a deeper understanding of your emotions.

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