Whether we want them to be or not, emotions are incredibly important aspects of being alive. Emotions propel us into action or inaction; they drive our behavior and are the lifeblood of all things we do. More simply put, what we feel is directly correlated to what we do. What some people are unaware of is that emotions are predicated by our thoughts (which then lead to our behaviors).
In my nine years of clinical practice, I have worked with patients who fall everywhere on the emotional awareness spectrum. Although more rare, some individuals are completely in tune with how they are feeling at any given moment. They excel at being able to identify their precise emotions and some can even use cognitive strategies (without having any prior therapy or psychological training) to challenge their thinking, which then changes their emotions. The majority of individuals, however, tend to display noticeable discomfort when simply asked to identify or describe their emotions. This can be for a multitude of reasons, including genuine discomfort with emotional content (likely due to past messages that emotions are unreliable and misleading), lack of awareness and practice with identifying emotions, or possessing a poor emotional vocabulary. On the last point, it is also common that many individuals will report feeling “okay,” “fine,” and “good.” Sorry to break it to you folks – none of those are emotions. Since these are such common responses, I take it upon myself to challenge each of my patients to identify how they are actually feeling and use emotional vocabulary. Further, most individuals will express feeling “sad,” “happy,” “mad,” and “angry.” Sure, these are emotions, but these are primary emotions. These are the most basic of ways to describe how you are feeling and don’t actually get to the meat of what’s going on.
While it may seem trivial to distinguish between feeling sad and disappointed, that cannot be further from the truth. Sadness is an emotional state that of course should be attended to, but understanding where the sadness comes from (i.e., feeling disappointment or another underlying emotion) allows me to help my patients gain a greater understanding of them self, the situation at hand, and can lead to more effective and efficient problem resolution. This holds true for all primary emotions (sadness, anger, happiness, fear).
That being said, it is incredibly important to increase self-awareness of emotions and learn how to precisely identify how you feel. Some patients have been quick to brush this exercise off as being too simplistic or unnecessary, which is most likely out of discomfort with emotion material. However, they are then quick to learn how complex, uncomfortable, and difficult this task actually can be – at first. With practice, this task becomes progressively easier and more comfortable.
The ability to identify your emotions can even make the worst of situations somewhat more bearable, as having the self-awareness to know what you are experiencing decreases confusion, increases effective communication of your thoughts, needs, and wants, and can result in more responsive action. Some studies have even suggested that when experiencing emotional upset, simply taking the moment to identify what you are feeling by using emotional vocabulary can decrease the intensity of the emotion. How about that for being pretty significant?!
Whether you realize it or not, you “feel” emotions every day and all day. Emotions are not to be feared, they are to be lived. Your emotions are your greatest thermometer for determining what you value, what you believe in, what you stand for, and what needs to change or persist in your life. The simple (or initially not-so-simple) practice of increasing self-awareness of emotions can lead to much greater quality of life and can significantly increase positive outcomes while you are engaged in psychotherapy. Neglecting emotions can do the opposite.
Psychotherapy can help you learn how to identify and manage your emotions in ways you may have never realized. I am here to support you on this path to growth. Give Dr. Barbash at Tampa Therapy a call to start living the life you want.