by Kathryn Vaughn, LCSW
They can make us feel so uncomfortable and sometimes even out of control!
Sometimes emotions lead us to behave in ways we later regret, which can make us feel even more unpleasant feelings, such as shame and guilt. But what happens when we try to push those pesky emotions away or pretend that we don’t have them? Sooner or later they catch up with us in ways that can be far more detrimental.
Blocking our emotions can cause mood swings, depression, anxiety, angry outburst, and feelings of numbness-all which affect or important relationships and how we interact with others. When we avoid our feelings, we tune out to what we need, and we fail to experience life fully and authentically. When we block one emotion, we damper all our emotions.
Suppressing emotions has been linked to heart disease, gastro-intestinal problems, headaches, muscle pain, insomnia and autoimmune disorders-our minds are not separate from our bodies.
So, we do not want to get rid of our emotions, we want to use strategies to help us respond to them in beneficial ways.
So what are emotions and why do we have them?
Since ancient times this question has been debated and studied by Philosophers, Psychologists, and Scientist, and continues to be researched and disputed today. Different researchers classify emotions in various ways, however, for brevity lets clarify some generally accepted meaning for emotions that can help us to better understand them.
In the 1970’s psychologist Paul Ekman identified six primary emotions: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise. These emotions can be identified by facial expressions. Today we may see happiness listed as “joy” or “enjoyment”. These basic emotions are innate physiological response to what is happening around us in our environment or organic processes occurring within us.
These core emotions are instinctual, universal, strong, and occur pre-consciously. They prompt us to take action and help us to survive. They also help us connect with others- our faces have around 90 muscles and at least 45 of which are used to signal emotion to other people. Primary emotions are your first initial reaction to something that has happened, and they are transitory- they come and then they go.
Anger and Fear tell us there is a threat, potentially life or death, and we should protect or selves either by fighting or running away.
Disgust propels us to move away from something that is potentially toxic that could cause harm or death.
Sadness tells us we are missing something that is important to us.
Joy is triggered by pleasurable experiences and it encourages us to do more of what is beneficial for us that helps us thrive.
Surprise prompts us to pay attention and helps us remember something that could be important.
Later Dr. Ekman added an additional eleven universal emotions which are which aren’t primary emotions they are: amusement, contempt, contentment, embarrassment, excitement, guilt, pride, relief, satisfaction, sensory pleasure, and shame. And In 2017 researches at UC Berkley identified 27 distinct categories of emotions (these are with in American culture).
Secondary emotions are feelings we have about our primary emotions.
Secondary emotions are more complex and are caused by our unconscious or conscious thoughts about a primary emotion. Secondary emotions may be simple such as feeling angry when someone close to us hurts our feelings (when the primary emotion is really sadness or fear), or they are a mix of emotions such as feeling afraid and guilty about being angry with a friend. As you can see the primary emotions can be felt as secondary emotions, which can make them feel confusing. Also secondary emotions can feel familiar from past experiences and they generally linger over time.
Some secondary emotions such as shame, anxiety, and guilt are used to help protect us when our core emotions could cause a conflict with important people in our lives or when fully experiencing our core emotions would cause emotional overwhelm.
These “inhibitory emotions” can feel safer to feel over primary emotions due to what we have learned through our family norms or what our culture dictates is socially acceptable. For example, when we are told being vulnerable is undesirable and then we experience a core emotion of fear, we unconsciously push it away and feel shame instead. This is not to say shame, guilt, and anxiety are not beneficial emotions at times, they help motivate to be better human beings however if we learn to use these to block our core emotions and authentic self they cause psychological suffering.
Stay tuned for part 2 which will discuss strategies to help identify, explore, accept, and express or emotions-which is different from reacting and sharing our emotions with others.
“Feelings or Emotions are the universal language and are to be honored. They are the authentic expression of who you are in your deepest place.”
Learn more about Kathryn and how she can help you, Here
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Hendel, H.J. (2018). It’s Not Always Depression: Working The Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self. New York: Spiegel & Grau