Emotions are the way our heart communicate with us. By heart, I am referring to both the literal emotional brain (i.e., limbic system) and the metaphysical soul. We listen to our hearts by feeling or experiencing the emotions, which in turn, can be translated into words, images, and other forms of human expression that add value to our culture and evolve the human condition. In this section, my intention is to provide perspectives and strategies to help you understand and process difficult and painful emotions.

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Understanding Emotions

The following perspectives aim to provide a basic understanding of how emotions work.

All emotions are valid. Upon deeper exploration, it is possible to uncover the underlying meaning and purpose of our emotional experiences. Even when triggers are unclear, the emotions may arise from an unconscious and historical part of our lives, such as unresolved emotional issues or traumas. Despite how irrational and/or intense a particular emotion feels in moment, it is helpful to maintain the perspective that your emotions are valid.

We either feel or don’t feel. We can’t be selective of feeling only the positive emotions and not the negatives. When we avoid feeling negative emotions through such tactics as suppression or numbing with alcohol and drugs, our ability to feel positive emotions also diminish, leaving us feeling numb and empty. Thus, we need to accept and be willing to feel the full range of our emotional experiences.

Emotions manifest in the body. Emotions can be felt in the body. To exemplify this point, a study was conducted across several countries in which participants were exposed to emotionally triggering videos and asked to identify the levels of arousal in their bodies. A composite of their findings is shown in the following image that found cross-cultural patterns in where and how emotions impact our bodies.

People drew maps of body locations where they feel basic emotions (top row) and more complex ones (bottom row). Hot colors show regions that people say are stimulated during the emotion. Cool colors indicate deactivated areas.

Emotions form social bonds. An important function of emotions is that they create social bonds. With close friendships, it is likely you went through emotionally salient experiences together, such as supporting each other through difficulties. Emotions also play an important role in our ability to empathize with and feel love for others, allowing us to form deeper connections.

Emotions can be invested. We can get emotionally invested in people and objects, both physical (e.g., engagement ring) and non-physical (e.g., social status). When we care for, depend on, and develop feelings for somebody or something, an emotional bond is formed. The bond becomes stronger as more emotions are invested. A strong bond can be a blessing in mutually beneficial relationships, but a curse in non-reciprocal relationships in which there is a lack of return for the investment.

Emotions are transient states. Emotions are states not traits, which means that they come and go and pass through us, unlike traits that are more persistent and pervasive aspects of our personalities. Sometimes when we experience intense emotions, it feels like the emotions will last forever, but the reality is that these emotions will pass through in time. This does not mean that “time heals all wounds.” We still need to attend to the emotions, but the intensity and saliency of emotions waxes and wanes.

Emotions can get stuck if we feed or avoid them. Even though emotions are transient states, they may stay longer than needed if we mentally fixate on an upsetting event, such as ruminating about a past regret. Mentally detaching is easier said than done, as oftentimes these fixations are intrusive, automatic, and involuntary. Alternatively, emotions can get stuck when we avoid them. Like procrastinating on unwanted work, avoidance does not make the emotions go away, the work just ends up accumulating over time.

Emotions can influence our perceptions. Emotions can distort and influence the way we perceive ourselves, others, and the world. This property of emotions has pros and cons. Positive emotions can add color and vibrancy to life, such as when we are in love with someone who returns the love. On the other hand, when we feel depressed, we believe we are not good enough, we perceive others as uncaring, and view life as hopeless, even in the face of positive opportunities.

Intense emotions can hi-jack, and make us reactive. Generally, it is helpful to be responsive versus reactive to life challenges, yet emotions can make us more impulsive and say or do things we don’t mean in the heat of the moment. Getting emotionally hi-jacked happens on a neurological level when our amygdala, the alarm system of our brain, does not shut-off. Dysregulation of our alarm system can happen when our emotional resources are depleted and we are not able to tolerate any more distress. Furthermore, intense emotional experiences such as like trauma compromises the brain’s ability to properly assimilate the painful experience as something that happened in the past but no more. This keeps us stuck in past traumas, as if the traumatic event is happening in real-time, as in the case of flashbacks (van der Kolk, 2014).

There is a rhythmic, ebb and flow to emotions. There are moment to moment changes in intensity of how our bodies experience emotions. To demonstrate this point, the Heart Math institute conducted a study in which the heart rhythms were measured during various emotional states. Findings showed a erratic and disorganized pattern for frustration, compared to a consistent and stable pattern for appreciation.

Feeling emotions increases our window of tolerance. Even in small doses, the more we allow ourselves to feel a difficult and/or painful emotion, we develop a window of tolerance for that emotion. The intensity of the emotion doesn’t necessarily decrease, but what increases is our ability to stay centered while holding these emotions.

Knowing your emotions give rise to intuition. It would be disabling to go through life without one of your basic senses. Intuition is like a sixth sense that gives us a spontaneous sense of a situation based on “gut feelings” that operate faster than our conscious knowing. Intuition is a valuable guide when we have to make rapid decisions in the face of ambiguous situations with no clear right or wrong.

Emotions make us feel alive. One of the biggest challenges in affective computing is designing AI that goes beyond interpreting, responding to, and mimicking emotions, but for them to actually have and experience emotions themselves. Emotions are one factor that differentiates living life forms from those that are non-living. Without emotions, we would be like an empty shell, animated with the motions of human behavior, but not really experiencing life. The joy and the pain in equal measure are reminders that we are alive, and life is precious.

Emotional Processing

Emotional processing is more than just talking about your feelings. It is a process that integrates the mind, heart, and body to feel and express your emotions, understand the meaning and function of emotions in the larger context of your life, and responding to and resolving emotional issues in a constructive and healthy way. It is an everyday process that we often neglect or don’t have proper training in. Ideally, emotional intelligence would be prioritized on the same level as the 3 R’s in education.

In my professional opinion, emotional processing is most fruitful when engaged consciously and with intention. To this end, I introduce a model of emotional processing called Feel-Heart, which is an acronym to provide structure to the intentions, perspectives, and strategies involved in emotional processing. The goal of Feel-Heart is to heal, resolve, and give closure to painful emotional injuries that torment and keep us stuck in a persistent cycle of pain and suffering.

feel your emotions

Feeling emotions, including the difficult and painful ones, allow us to experience life more fully and deeply.

Set an intention to feel your emotions. You can say to yourself, “I intend to feel my emotions…I intend to sink into my feelings…I intend to listen to my heart.” Periodically, check in with yourself, “what am I feeling right now?” and “how does this make me feel?” Alternatively, be mindful of the emotions you are unwilling to feel, “what am I not feeling right now?” and “which emotions are difficult for me to feel?”

Find a safe and peaceful space. When we are in the throes of an intense emotional experience, it may feel like a storm is passing through our internal world. Thus, it is helpful to make the external environment as peaceful as possible. This may involve asserting your need to take a timeout during an argument, or reserving time to process your emotions in a safe and peaceful setting.

Label your emotions. Dan Siegel, a professor at UCLA, has a catch phrase, “you have to name it, to tame it.” The scientific basis for this suggestion is that when we experience strong negative emotions like terror and dread, our emotional brain (i.e., amygdala) gets hi-jacked, and blood flow to and activity in our conscious brain (i.e., pre-frontal cortex) is inhibited. By labeling our emotions using feeling words, we put our conscious brain back on line. To this end, it may be helpful to say your feelings out loud, e.g., “I feel sad right now,” a well as developing a vocabulary for emotion words.

Feel deeper and wider. Usually, the emotion that we are able to identify initially is just the surface of that emotional experience. We often experience multiple emotions at once, some that are deeper and underlying the surface emotions. For example, when you feel irritated, you may also be feeling exhausted, stressed, and upset. Thus, when you label your emotions, don’t stop with just the first emotion that comes to mind. Ask yourself, “what else am I feeling?” and “what is underlying this emotion?”

Cry it out. Crying is an effective way of feeling and releasing emotions. Its unfortunate that there is stigma attached to crying, especially crying in public. Thus, it may be helpful to identify private spaces where you can cry freely without being self-conscious of other people. Personally, I purposely have a good cry at remote areas in nature during my hikes, when I’m driving on the freeway with sun glasses on, and during my evening runs in the cover of dark.

Reduce numbing agents. Sometimes emotions are too painful that people have to resort to behaviors to numb their pain, which work in the short-term but have detrimental effects in the long run. Numbing agents may include alcohol and drug use, workaholism, and excessive consumerism. Additionally, positive distractions, emotional distancing, and compartmentalizing may be necessary at times in order to meet life demands, but an over-reliance on these strategies may delay your ability to address the underlying issues and prolong the pain and suffering.

Be mindful of how you vent your emotions. Venting can provide a temporary sense of relief, but can back fire depending on how you do it. In the past, a popular recommendation was venting anger by hitting an inanimate object like a pillow or punching bag, but research showed that this method actually increased anger and aggression. Projecting a mental image of a hated other onto an inanimate object, and then hitting it, may reinforce the hate by rewarding aggression with emotional relief. The same pattern may hold when we vent our anger by talking bad about another person. Thus, be mindful of your intention when venting, whether it is to resolve the hurt underlying the anger, versus figuratively acting out a vengeful fantasy.

Vacillate between feeling difficult emotions and a neutral home base. Sometimes feeling difficult emotions may be too painful, especially when there is trauma involved. In these situations, it may be helpful to consider the following pendulum metaphor. The pendulum represents your attention gently swinging from something neutral, positive, and/or comforting towards the physical and/or emotional pain, and then back again when it gets to be too much. The goal is not to feel your emotional pain fully all at once, but in small manageable doses.

embody your emotions

Locate the emotional energy in your body, mindfully be aware of how this energy manifests, and channel these energies in healthy ways.

Find a physical activity that allows your emotions to flow. A common saying amongst therapists is “sit with your emotions.” The intent is to feel into your emotions, but the posture does need not be sitting. Emotions may flow more fluidly depending on the physical posture or activity, such as when laying down, talking, singing, chanting, walking, running, swimming, dancing, driving, shooting hoops, or taking a shower. Find the physical posture and/or activity that gives flow to your emotions.

Locate the emotional energy in your body. Identify the location of the emotion in your body and how it is manifesting. For example, when you are angry, you may notice your fists clench up and feel your head heat up. Or when you are lonely, you may feel a heaviness in your heart and a suffocating feeling. One helpful practice to cultivate attunement with your body is a body scan meditation.

Place your hand on your body and breathe into it. Holding your hand over the area of the body where the emotional energy is manifesting may elicit a feeling of being held, such as when you receive a hug from a good friend, Furthermore, take a moment to slowly and gently breathe into that affected part of the body, imagining that you are inhaling healing energy to that part of the body, and exhaling the pain and distress.

Display congruent affect. Affect display refers to non-verbal expressions of emotions, such as facial expressions, vocal tone, and body posture. It is common for people to display affect that is incongruent with how they actually feel inside. I realized this for myself one summer, when I was swimming in a lake in Florida, and noticed my reflection in the water. I observed a smiley face 😊 looking back, as if my facial expressions had solidified into a half-smile from years of wearing a “nice guy” social mask. I realized that I often unconsciously project this face even when I am not feeling happy. Thus, it may be helpful to look at yourself in the mirror when going through an emotional difficulty to observe whether your affect is congruent. Incongruent affect may have been what kept you safe in invalidating environments of the past, but may no longer be needed, especially when you are with yourself.

express your feelings

Giving expression to emotions is a way to translate the visceral experience of emotions into a “language” that we can understand and communicate.

Expressive writing. Write out your feelings in a stream of consciousness, whatever you are feeling without worrying about spelling, grammar, of even if what you are writing makes sense. Feel free to use language of your choice, including curse words if needed. It may be helpful to designate a notebook or journal that is dedicated to writing out your feelings. After writing, take some time to read over your entry, and notice what other feelings, perspectives, and insights arise.

Artistic expression. Words are not the only medium that we can use to express emotions. Emotional expression can be a source of creativity. Turn whatever you are feeling into art, such as poetry, painting, music, and sculpting. There is a freedom to art in which even the darkest emotions and impulses can be expressed in an unfiltered way.

Listen to music that resonates. Music can mirror the emotions you are feeling, helping you feel understood and connected with others who feel this way. You may also consider singing or humming along.

Dancing. In my opinion, dancing is one of the most under-rated forms of self-expression. Most people relegate dancing to concerts, parties, or night clubs, that play mostly fun, upbeat music. However, dancing can be a full-body way of expressing your emotions through movement. Dancing alone is unfortunately stigmatized, so you may need to find private place to engage your dancing, such as closing the door to your bathroom, putting your headphones on, and turning off the lights.

Discern healthy versus unhealthy expressions. Negative emotions get a bad rap because people confuse emotions with the expression of emotions. All emotions are valid, but they can be expressed in healthy or unhealthy ways. For example, anger is a basic emotion that arises when there is a perceived injustice, and it can be expressed either constructively through assertive communication or destructively through hostile aggression.

lower the intensity

It is challenging to manage difficult emotions when they are so intense we lose control of ourselves, such as when we get emotionally hi-jacked. Thus, it is helpful to find ways to lower the intensity of these emotions.

Deep breathing. The first time I heard Daniel Tiger’s song on emotional regulation “When you feel so mad, you want to roar, take a deep breath, and count to four,” I thought they should also teach this to adults. In addition to Daniel Tiger’s method, other techniques can be found in relaxation exercises.

Self-soothe using five senses. Engage in activities that soothe your physical senses, such as watching the sunset or gazing at the moon and the stars, sipping on chamomile tea, taking a relaxing bath, listening to soothing sounds, and lighting a candle or incense that has a calming scent. Additionally, the five senses grounding exercise may be helpful.

Brace yourself physically. When we experience intense emotions, such as tremors or shaking as if there is an earth quake inside your body, it may be helpful to brace yourself physically. To this end, you can brace yourself by attuning to the sensations of your body making contact with your chair or bed, or hugging a pillow or stuffed animal.

Carry a transitional object. A transitional object is a physical memento that has sentimental value, such as a photograph of loved ones, a piece of jewelry, or a stuffed animal. During difficult emotional experiences, touch and/or hold this object to elicit feelings of calm, safety, and love.

Laughter yoga. “Extreme sorrow laughs, extreme joy weeps.” Laughter can help us feel lighter and bring levity to a difficult situation making it more bearable. Laughter does not need to relegated to funny moments in life, but can be deliberately engaged in, such as the following practice of laughter yoga:

heal your emotional wounds

We are not meant to go through difficult emotional experiences alone. Being in the emotional trenches with another person can make the emotional pain more bearable.

Practice self-compassion. A great resource is Kristin Neff’s website, self-compassion.org. One of my favorite practices that she recommends is writing a self-compassion letter, for which I have a template here. Another commonly recommended practice is the loving kindness meditation.

Mantra and self-affirmations. One evening on the Redondo Beach pier, I ran across a fisherman that had just caught a fish. The fish was desperately flapping around the ground, when a young girl calmly approached the fish and repeated the words “tranquilo…tranquilo” in a soft, gentle voice. Surprisingly, the fish appeared to calm down and become still. I’m not sure what exactly happened, but her response appeared to put the fish at ease, as if it had accepted its fate and died in peace. Such words, embued with the intention and tone of loving kindness can also help calm our difficult emotions.  

Seek therapy. Therapy can provide a corrective emotional experience, with regard to providing clients a safe, confidential, and non-judgmental space for them to work through emotional issues.

Join a support group. Given that pain and suffering are human universals, it is likely that are other people going through similar struggles. The difficulty is finding the right group that brings these people together to share and support each other. In Los Angeles, the Group List may a good starting point to find groups that fit your needs. You may also search the internet for any online groups or forums. Even being a lurker on these sites may be helpful to gain perspectives, strategies, and not feel alone in what you are going through.

Cultivate the ability to be vulnerable. Seeking support requires a level of vulnerability which is difficult for many people, especially those who have difficulty trusting others. Vulnerability puts down your guard and exposes your weaknesses, which may trigger fear of these weaknesses being exploited. However, in the presence of safe and caring others, the benefits of vulnerability may outweigh the negatives. I recommended watching Brene Brown’s excellent TED talk on the power of vulnerability.

explore the meaning

Emotions carry a message, illuminating a particular need, desire, or impulse. Rather than kill the messenger, it is helpful to uncover the meaning behind the emotions and understand what exactly our heart is trying to communicate to us.

Identify triggers and consequences. Emotions don’t arise in a vacuum, usually there is a trigger. When the trigger is not external or clearly evident, the trigger may be internal and/or operating on an unconscious level, such as a trauma or a unresolved issue from the past. Furthermore, examine what impact and consequences these difficult emotions have on your life.

Connect the dots. When a difficult experiences are not processed properly, the emotions from these experiences may continue to arise without a rhyme or reason. Thus, it may be helpful to replay the emotional event in your mind, and weave a narrative to place these emotions in the larger context of your life story. If its safe and possible to do so, you may also consider going to the site on the painful event to purposely trigger memories and feelings.

Differentiate primary and secondary emotions. Primary emotions are our initial, organic, and spontaneous reaction to an emotional experience, whereas secondary emotions are based on our interpretation or judgment of our initial emotions. For example, when we judge as wrong our anger towards an authority figure who is idealized and respected by the community, we may feel ashamed of ourselves and fear social exclusion for having such feelings.  

Try not to over-identify with emotions. It is important to recognize that emotions are transient states as opposed to personality traits. Despite this fact, people sometimes identify themselves or others by their emotions, such as “he is an angry person,” or “I am a sad person.” When we do this, we can get stuck in a particular emotional state. For example, overidentifying as a “sad person” may lead you to avoid positive experiences, keeping you in a state of sadness. To de-identify with your emotions, it may be helpful to cultivate a mindfulness practice, so you can get in the habit of observing and being aware of your emotions, but not getting too attached to them. Furthermore, it may be helpful to shift your expressive language from “I am sad,” to “I am in state of feeling sad.”

Discern whether your emotions are actually yours. A not uncommon defense mechanism is projective identification, in which one person has difficulty accepting a particular emotion, and uses projection to make the other person feel what they have trouble feeling. If the recipient lacks ego strength (e.g., secure sense of self, self-knowledge, ability to stand up for themselves), they may internalize the projection. A common example is when somebody guilt-trips or gas-lights, and the other person feels guilty or crazy even though they didn’t do anything wrong. Thus, it is helpful to pay attention to emotions that feel incongruent with your sense of self.

accept as valid

All emotions are valid and have something important to tell us. Thus, we need to go beyond just tolerating them, but be willing to accept and embrace them.

Befriend your heart. Even though your heart can be a source of painful emotions, relate to your heart as if it is your friend and not the enemy. A true friend does not sugar coat things but gives you honest feedback on blind spots and areas of growth, which is what your emotions do.

Seek validation and mirroring. Communicate to supportive others that you are seeking validation, which is a basic emotional need. While validation is often verbal, mirroring is the non-verbal reflection of what you are going through, such as mirroring of facial expressions, gestures, and postures.

Empathize with self. Empathy does not need to be limited to other people, it can also be directed towards the self. When we experience intense emotions that are disproportionate to the situation, there may be unresolved emotions from the past that is amplifying your emotional response. In these cases, it may be helpful to revisit the memory, and even the physical location, of this painful experience and empathize with the younger version of yourself who went through this experience alone. But this time around, you are there with yourself. 

Set boundaries with invalidating people. Invalidating others may continue to trigger difficult emotions, reinforce suppression of your emotional responses, and make it difficult to be vulnerable. Thus, setting boundaries and limits and creating healthy distance is a form of self-care. Politeness and keeping interactions superficial and/or professional may be a pro-social way of setting boundaries when life forces you to co-exist with these individuals

De-mystify the belief that you are an emotional burden. A common belief I hear from clients is that they would be burden if they share their emotional difficulties with others. Yet, when I ask how they would feel if the situation was in reverse, most clients say they prefer their loved ones to reach out to them than dealing with their problems alone.

respond to emotional needs

Exploring the meaning of your emotions may reveal underlying emotional needs that are not being met in your current life and relationships. Difficult emotions may continue to persist until these needs are met.

Communicate your needs. Sometimes when we seek support, the other person may have the good intention of wanting to be helpful, but not know how or what you need exactly. Thus, it may be helpful to communicate directly what you need from that other person. For example, instead of problem solving, you can let the other person know that you just want them to listen and validate your feelings. Communication may also involve providing feedback to others, such as letting someone know that telling you to “chill out” when you are in the throes of an emotional hijack is not helpful.

Take time off from work. Emotional processing is work in the non-traditional sense. Like your job, this process takes time, attention, energy, and emotional resources to do properly. Thus, it may be helpful to consider a health leave or take wellness days when emotional difficulties are prolonged. For example, it is not uncommon for people to take bereavement leave in response to a death of a loved one, to engage the work of grief and mourning.

Inferring the need from the emotions themselves. The emotions themselves may provide a clue to what your needs are. For example, grief implies a need to go through mourning process; anger may imply a need to assert yourself; guilt may imply a need to apologize and seek forgiveness; envy may imply a need to be grateful for what you currently have, sadness may imply a need for support, and so on and so forth.

Purposely feel opposite emotions. Sometimes when we get stuck in a particular emotion for too long, we can get detached from other emotions that takes away from the fullness of life. Using such mediums as music, watching a movie, or dancing, we can purposely elicit emotions that have been neglected. Experiencing opposite emotions, even for moments at a time, can remind you on an experiential level that that is more to life than pain and suffering.

Periodically check in on your basic emotional needs. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, beyond physiological needs (e.g., food and shelter), there are several other needs areas that are emotion based. Specifically, Maslow delineates the following need areas: safety (security, stability), love and belonging (friendship, intimacy, trust), self-esteem (respect, achievement, status), and self-actualization (meaning, purpose, successful aging).

trust the process

A major thesis of Darwin’s (1871) “The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals” is that emotions serve important adaptive functions that allowed humans to survive the wilderness and form social relationships through emotional communication. Thus, there is a wisdom to emotions from millennia of human evolution.

See the value in emotional pain. Children go through growing pains as bones lengthen in order to grow taller. For adults, when we engage in exercises like weight lifting, we break down muscle tissue before they can heal and grow back stronger. Parallel to physical growth, emotional pain is an inevitable part of life, and necessary for growth. Working through emotional pain provides opportunities to be kinder to ourselves, wiser in learning ways to heal and recover, and more resilient in persevering through the pain.

Recognize you may feel worse before things get better. When we open emotional doors, painful memories and feelings arise in consciousness. When progress is tracked in therapy, it is common for there to be an increase in distress and a decrease in functioning at the beginning stages of therapy that precedes a gradual and sustainable improvement in these areas. For this reason, the therapeutic relationship and working alliance are critical to positive outcomes, such that the client is able to trust the therapist and the process when things get worse to prevent premature termination.

Let go of control and resistance. It is natural to pull away from pain, such as when we instinctively pull our hands away from a hot plate. However, with emotions, the more we avoid painful emotions, they don’t just go away, but build up over time. Furthermore, we can not directly control emotions. For example, I can’t will myself to be happy and be happy. There is a futility in trying to control and resist emotions. It is like trying to push a two ton object, you can exert a lot of precious energy pulling and pushing, but the object won’t move.

Surf the emotional waves. Emotions have their own momentum and trajectory. Related to this perspective, Swami Satchitananda says, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf” We can surf the emotional waves by going with the flow of the pacing, rhythm and timing of our emotions, and allow them to carry us to a metaphorical shore. For example, grieving is a painful process that requires us to slow down and connect with others, but eventually it will take us to the shores of acceptance and a new way of engaging life.

Cultivate your intuition. Our “gut feelings” are the basis of intuition. when we have the vague feeling that something “feels right” or “feels off,” it is your intuition communicating to you. We can open the channel to our intuition by taking pause, getting out of your head, and feeling into our body and emotions in the moment. Since the reaction time of intuition is faster than our conscious knowing, reliance on our intuition may be life saving when dealing with ambiguous situations that may be threatening or misleading.

Listen to your heart. Your emotional brain is a product of countless years of human evolution, and the metaphysical soul even longer. Our emotions are wise beyond our current lifetimes. They have kept us safe and ensured the survival of the human species. Emotions bring fullness, color, and vitality to our lives. They bond us not only to present others, but also our ancestors and future generations that have felt and will feel the same emotions, respectively. Emotions are a transcendent force that needs to be honored, respected, and appreciated. The least we can do is listen.

Posted May 26, 2021 by Y. Sue Park. Revised May 26, 2021.