I often hear people refer to emotions as positive (happy, grateful, peaceful) and negative (anxious, sad, disappointed) or good and bad. Sometimes people come to therapy because they want to stop feeling the negative ones. It makes sense because the negative ones don’t feel good, but does ignoring them serve us? Without knowing why we have feelings, we become ruled rather than guided by them.
We are misguided if we see emotions as positive and negative because our goal then becomes doing anything we can to avoid them. We need our feelings because they give us vital information. They are meant to flow and change, and if we learn to listen to them, they are a compass, a tool to help us navigate the world.
For example, feeling uneasy about an upcoming presentation motivates us to start preparing. Once we’ve organized our talking points, the emotion has served its purpose, and the unease dissipates. If we ignore the feeling, over time, the message gets louder. This is because ignored, denied, or buried feelings become stuck energy in the body, and the more they are held back, the more they are ready to explode, implode, or cause physical pain.
If the presentation is in two days and we still haven’t prepared, we may start feeling anxious and experiencing headaches, stomach tension, or difficulty breathing. This is our internal compass alerting us to take action immediately as it anticipates the unpleasant consequences if we do not. Like hunger cues tell us to eat something to keep our body going, our emotions signal us to check things out and take action or find expression. This is our body doing exactly what it is designed to do: To take care of us, physically, mentally, and emotionally. So if we see our emotions as pleasant and unpleasant or comfortable and uncomfortable, it allows us to be less afraid of them and more open to sitting with them when they show up.
All emotions are valid and reasonable. I often encourage my clients to befriend their feelings and inner world. Let’s get to know them and raise your awareness of them so that you can hear the messages they are sending you. Let’s help you see that they are on the same team. Their job is to protect you and help you connect with yourself and others. By moving with and through emotions rather than intensifying or suppressing, you will be able to see how your feelings are guiding you.
I recognize exploring your feelings can be scary, especially if you have never had anyone help you navigate through your emotions. It is only safe to feel emotions when there is a safe person to join you in the experience. My role, as a therapist, is to be that safe person so that as you acknowledge the surface feelings and go deeper into your vulnerable feelings, there is someone to validate your experience and be a witness to them. As your emotions are held, supported, and listened to, you gradually become more aware of them and can name and talk about them. You will also notice body sensations associated with your feelings and the meanings you create about them.
Like a polaroid picture that becomes clearer over time, a therapist’s open, invitational, and curious presence in sessions helps develop and color the internal image. As you give your feelings more space, your ability to notice what is happening develops, and you gain more clarity around why the feelings are present. This experience expands your awareness and understanding of your internal experience, thus allowing you to use your emotions as a compass to guide your life. Your behaviors and choices will reflect your values and heart more accurately, which ultimately leads to a more fulfilled life. This is your inner wisdom.
We need all of our emotions to create that complete, colorful picture. Happiness tells us we’re on the right track and motivates us to keep doing what we’re doing. Sadness can indicate that we miss being with others and to reach out to a loved one. We need anxiety and fear to tell us we’re in a physically or emotionally threatening situation and to prepare for action. I encourage you to befriend your feelings and get to know all parts of you so that you can experience more meaning and purpose in your life. I look forward to sitting with you on this new journey of exploring your inner world.