Understanding your Emotions

Many of us have a love-hate relationship with our emotions. While we enjoy the feeling of excitement at getting together with an old friend or relaxation while taking a hot shower at the end of a long day, we detest the irritation that overwhelms during the morning commute or the deep sorrow that comes with loss.Especially with these more difficult or painful emotions, it can be tempting to wish that we didn’t have to deal with emotions at all.

Throughout the history of psychology and philosophy many have wondered why humans have emotions. As an example of a more extreme view on the topic, the behaviorist B. F. Skinner (1948) famously proclaimed: “We all know that emotions are useless and bad for our peace of mind and our blood pressure.”

But the modern view suggests the exact opposite - perhaps emotions do serve an important purpose in our daily lives. In many cases, emotions serve a social function. For example, excitement and joy at a party may help deepen social connections between people. Similarly, when an individual suffers a loss and feels sorrow, they may be motivated to reach out to others in their grief and receive support. And without the ability to experience a range of emotions, it would be impossible to imagine how others are feeling and express empathy. Other times, emotions serve a more individual purpose. Without feeling anger after an incident of disrespect, an individual may not be motivated to demand reasonable change. And finally, sometimes emotions serve the simple purpose of alerting us to something important in our environment that we need to pay attention to or change.

These personal and social functions of emotions can be very important to re- member especially when you are having a rough day. You have an emotional reaction to something someone says, an interaction with your kid, or a story on the evening news - and suddenly you find yourself getting upset that you got upset in the first place. This is where I encourage you to pause and ask yourself: What emotion am I having right now? What might my emotion be trying to tell me or do for me?

This simple check-in allows you to slow down and assess your emotional experience. You might be surprised to find that your emotion is rather understandable if you give it more thought. Because emotions do have a function even if that function may not be immediately obvious. Although some emotions may benefit from being regulated or controlled, first they deserve to be understood. Simply noticing that you are having an emotion and acknowledging that it is occurring for an understandable reason may be the best first step in managing that emotion.

Kate White, Ph.D.emotions