The Psychology of Feeling: A Practical Look at Emotions

by Melissa K. Vassar-Belloso
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We all feel emotions at one time or another and sometimes even a range of them every single day. Emotions help us communicate with others,engage with our environment, and make sense of the world around us. But emotions can also be powerful,confusing, or hard to truly understand. How do they work? Can we control them? Do we really need them? Today we’re going to take a look at the nature and meaning of how we feel and how we can make the most of those elusive things we call emotions.

As a person on the autism spectrum, emotions can be a bit of a hurdle for me. Part of that is because my autism causes me to not be able to read others well or have a consistent sense of empathy. However,as I learn more about myself as a person I’ve also learned that emotions are something all people struggle to truly identify and understand. They aren’t a completely concrete concept and while they do have some roots in psychology and science, they also have a very intangible and unpredictable element to them.

Science can tell us that emotions do have ties to chemicals in the human brain and even identify what parts of the brain handle that but that’s not even close to the whole story when it comes to how we feel. So what are emotions? The dictionary defines an emotion as a natural instinctive state of mind deriving from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationships with others. But what does that really tell us about them? 

For starters, despite the heart being used to represent them,emotions don’t have too much to do with our hearts but a lot to do with our minds. The emotions we feel,how we feel them, and even how we express them all stem from the chemistry of our brains. Because of this we all feel differently and express ourselves uniquely. What we have in common is the same chemicals and essential functions creating our emotions and of course even though we might express them differently we as human beings have compiled a set of recognized emotions felt universally.

Classifying emotions usually involves them being positive or negative but even this aspect isn’t a perfect process as the way emotions are expressed differ person to person. Some people even feel in stronger degrees than others. My happy,sad, or angry will look nothing like yours and both of our expressions of emotion will differ from another person’s. So while science can explain how emotions happen, it can’t make sense of the unique execution of them. Emotions are primarily a responsive occurrence. In other words, emotions are something we do as a reaction to something like an event,encounter, person,or object.

I can recall that for about three years I did Dialectical Behavioral Therapy and the one section that I never grasped fully was on emotional regulation. I could never grasp  what emotions were or what I was supposed to do with them. I wanted them to have some concrete definition and reasoning. But I think the best answer was from my therapist at the time who basically told me that emotions just are. They aren’t really right or wrong. There’s no manual or guideline for them. They just are and you just feel them and accept them for what they are without thinking too much about them or judging them.  So at the end of the day maybe there is no true answer to what emotions are. They’re simply a part of us and maybe the real beauty of an emotion is that grey percentage of them that exists outside of the reach of a scientific explanation.

Emotions can be a powerful thing. Each of us feels emotions differently but more vital to understand is that each of us expresses them differently. This becomes important to know because emotions don’t just stay safely in our heads. They come out of us and they manifest as words,actions,and facial expressions. When we express our emotions they can be impulsive by nature and what comes out can cause damage if we aren’t careful.

Emotions are typically not something people think about. They just happen, so it can be very easy to say or do something we don’t mean. One of the most valuable skills I learned in DBT was taking a moment to pause. This skill was literally thinking before speaking. This can be an especially vital thing to do in situations where we feel intense emotions like anger or grief but it’s also just a good skill in general if it interests you to foster truly engaging others in a healthy manner. But this practice isn’t necessarily something to do in extremes. It can help you understand your emotions more,gain a better connection to your environment,and form your thoughts in a manner that you express yourself in the best way possible.

Emotions don’t come with communication packaged. If we want to handle and communicate emotions better, effort has to be made. Communication adds something to our experiences because it allows us to not just express ourselves but also engage with other people and learn to understand them through their emotions.Enriching ourselves through these types of experiences is key to growing as people because it teaches us to appreciate and respect others. It also offers us new ways to look at the world and the things happening in it.

But is there value is checking our emotions before letting them leave the house? The answer is definitely yes. While we have every right to feel our emotions, we don’t exist in a bubble. We live in a world with other people who also have valid emotions that carry just as much value as ours. In the same sense that we want our emotions acknowledged, it can be important to remember that other people feel the same way.

It’s very easy for our own emotions to become blinders. What I mean by that is simply the fact that emotions can make us selfish. We get so focused on expressing our feelings and proving we’re justified in them that we ignore other people’s feelings and this is essentially not respecting them as a person. If we want to be respected,it’s only fair to return the favor.

Next time you’re in an exchange of emotions, take that moment to recognize all emotions have value and allow the people around you to feel too. Just like yelling, trying to make our feelings the only ones that matter stop us from grasping the other sides in a given situation. Take the time to respect and acknowledge that the people around you are feeling something and you may notice that you not only get better reactions and respect in return but also that your experiences will just be better in general.Emotions can be powerful things, but if we all make an effort to use them responsibly and respectfully, we can all stop burning bridges and start really communicating with each other.

One of the things that really baffled me in my quest to understand emotions was that I was under the false impression there was a right and wrong to them. I thought that situations just had ways you should react that that were correct. One of the things I learned over time is that there is no right or wrong way to feel. But what often crossed my mind is how often other people feel that same dilemma and use it to shape how they express themselves.How many times do we just react a certain way to fit in or because we think our natural way of expressing things is wrong somehow?

Wanting to be accepted is so natural that it occurred to me this was probably something a lot of people felt whether they were on the spectrum or not. Even as adults it can be an easy jump to start judging yourself unfairly based on fear or perceived standards.  But the thing that I feel a lot of people can benefit from hearing is that there is no should when it comes to emotions. There may be a common reaction but it doesn’t have to be your reaction. Just because the people around you are reacting a certain way doesn’t mean you have to follow suit.

In the same way that emotions just are what they are,people just are who they are. But social constructs can be complicated things. The urge to blend in,be accepted, and fit a standard can be a strong one. The argument that sometimes you can have an inappropriate reaction could definitely be made as well. There are times where even though your instinct isn’t wrong, it may not be the best choice for a situation. This is where that moment to pause can be a very useful step.  But what do you do if your feeling for that moment isn’t quite right or would be disrespectful to others?

That’s when you employ self-validation. This is when you realize your feelings are justified but not appropriate to broadcast at that given moment. It doesn’t mean you’re wrong but sometimes the mature step is to realize adulthood requires sacrifice and the skill of holding back at times. Learning how to use our emotions responsibly is a hard thing to learn but if you can learn it you not only further develop your sense of empathy but might also find your interactions are a lot smoother. Taking the small step of considering another person’s feelings allows you to step outside yourself and grow as a person. It might also help you learn over time that there are many ways to look at and process any given situation. Appreciating that we all feel and express emotions differently is part of just appreciating people for who they are.

So you might be wondering how to balance out and properly express your own emotions while also respecting other peoples’ emotions. It’s not just a tall order but a confusing one. It asks us to embrace what we feel and not judge it harshly but also give people we interact with the room they need to feel what they feel.

How exactly do you go about mastering your emotions?

Well first you can remember that moment to pause skill. If you’re in a heated exchange or feel your emotions flying off the handle or even if you’re in a sensitive situation and just aren’t sure then take a mental step back. Make a note of the mood,the environment,the social situation, and the people you’re interacting with. Try to get a good idea of where they are emotionally but also how they are tied to that social situation or what their point of view is at that moment. It sounds like a lot to cram into one moment but it gets easier to do the more you practice it and may even become second nature if you do it enough.

Once you have a good feel for that,move to what you feel and  want to say and ask yourself the following questions:

1. Is it appropriate?

2. Is it necessary for this person(s) to hear it?

3. Is it respectful to this person/these people?

4. Will it help or hurt the outcome of this encounter?

Keep in mind you aren’t questioning whether how you feel is right or wrong. You want to take a moment to acknowledge how you feel and validate that yes it’s okay for you to feel it and it’s a valid point of view whether you have another person acknowledge it or not. The reason for this is that a lot of us just want to be heard and acknowledged so if you aren’t in a situation to get validation from others,self-validation can fill that void and reduce our own anxieties about our choices.

This also means you aren’t denying yourself the right to feel something. Unfortunately, you may find that when you actually think about it,not all your thoughts and feelings are appropriate to broadcast. In those situations silently acknowledge your thoughts and feelings and then censor them appropriately for the situation. It may just not be the right time,place,or person for that particular thought or feeling to be broadcasted to the world.

Censorship isn’t always an act of oppression. It can also be a sign of maturity and respect when we understand it’s better to not express something at a particular time or to a particular person. Learning to control your emotions can be a great step to take toward truly engaging those around us. It’s a sign that we’re invested in the situation and mature enough to put a cork in it and realize we aren’t the axis the earth is spinning on. Think of your emotions as a car and thinking before acting as the steering wheel. Emotions can be a great thing, but once we understand the power they really have and take a step to express ourselves responsibly, we open up paths for better communication and more people feeling heard and respected.

Conclusion

So what are emotions exactly? Do we really even need to know? Probably not, but next time you feel try doing it thoughtfully. We all have emotions and all of those emotions have value, so remember that with every great feeling you have comes an even greater responsibility. That responsibility is to understand and control yours while respecting the ones of the people around you. The more we understand ourselves and learn to appreciate others, the more we can all feel safe putting our emotions into the world around us and feel understood and respected. 

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