If your early schooling was anything like mine, it didn’t include much about identifying and managing emotions. It’s such a massive part of the way we process and respond to the world, yet there is surprisingly little focus on how it all actually works. Isn’t it strange that we study logic and ‘common core’ subjects like complex mathematics (most of which never gets used in adult life unless one enters a STEM field), yet barely scratch the surface of understanding human emotion?
Emotions comprise a huge part of how we experience the world, so if they’re ignored, we’re missing a major piece of the puzzle—especially when it comes to understanding ourselves. It starts with awareness, simply feeling and identifying what emotion is currently being experienced. From there, we can understand what that particular emotion is asking for, and find a healthy way to meet its attachment (in other words, what that emotion is asking for).
It might be helpful to think of emotions like an inner child—one who is simply expressing what they need in the only way they know how. Understanding how to interpret and meet these needs for the inner child means fewer “tantrums” that lead to twitches. Understanding the emotion being felt, what that emotion is asking for, and a healthy way to meet that need, makes day to day intentionality much easier.
Four Basic Emotions (And What They’re Asking For)
ANGER: Outrage, Hostility, Agitation, Annoyance, Irritation
Anger can be triggered by many things, but some examples of prompting events are:
- Believing you’ve been treated unfairly
- You or someone you care about being attacked or threatened
- Losing power, status, or respect
- Not having things turn out as expected
- Physical or emotional pain
Most often, anger is the result of a hurt that needs to be expressed, heard, or validated. When anger is repressed, it might not even be felt fully—which makes it even harder to know when to act on meeting the need it’s asking for.
There’s a reason that anger often turns to sadness, grief, and tears when it does get intense—hurt causes a complex array of emotions and sadness is a part of it.
FEAR: Anxiety, Nervousness, Shock, Worry
Fear is a completely natural response to perceived (and real) dangers. There are many things that can trigger fear—even if nothing happens in the actual environment we’re in.
- Being threatened
- Being in a similar situation where you’ve been hurt in the past
- Being alone, or simply in an unfamiliar situation
- Having to perform in front of others
- Flashbacks, etc
Comfort, reassurance, and validation. It’s often helpful for fear to be expressed, externalized (get it out of your head) and comforted. Sometimes we simply need reassurance that things will be okay. Other times, we need to have our fears validated and heard by others, so we don’t feel so alone with them. That can be enough to comfort the anxiety about a situation. Journaling is a way to externalize fear without requiring another person.
Remember that these emotions are your inner child expressing what they need in the only way they know how. Pushing them away, dismissing, or entirely ignoring these feelings will not solve the problem. It will only build up over time—and if you have kids you’ll know, it becomes a tantrum.
Explore ways to comfort and ground yourself in mind and body. Yoga, meditation, weighted blankets, breathing, strong pleasant scents, etc.
SADNESS: Grief, Despair, Defeat, Depression, Dejection
When dealing with loss, things going worse than you expected, or not getting something that you worked for, it’s natural to feel sadness. Every emotion fulfills a purpose, one we need to fully process the difficult events in our lives—so it’s there for a reason.
- Losing something or someone irretrievably
- Not getting what you have worked for or believe you need in life
- Being rejected, disapproved of, or excluded
- Being with someone else who is sad or in pain
- Feeling alone or isolated
Support, acknowledgement, and expression. Much of the time, sadness needs to be expressed to feel better. Expressing it to another person in an emotionally safe relationship can help provide the support we need to process and feel the sadness.
SHAME: Embarrassment, Humiliation, Self-Conscious, Shyness
Shame is one of those emotions that can be incredibly difficult to allow ourselves to feel and process. It feels awful, and can manifest in different ways, but generally is one of the few emotions that doesn’t serve much positive purpose to feel. It’s an incredibly powerful emotion, and understanding it really helps process where it’s coming from.
- Being rejected by people you care about
- Having others find out that you have done something wrong
- Being laughed at/made fun of
- Being reminded of something wrong or shameful you did in the past
Empathy, understanding, and compassion (most often, self-compassion). Mistakes are bound to happen. No one is perfect, yet the feeling of shame can be a crippling one. It’s in the moments when we think that we deserve it the least, that we need compassion and understanding the most. Few positive things come from shame without understanding, compassion, and empathy. Without them, we learn to avoid and hide from situations that have caused us shame (and have potential to cause it again).