I often joke that I’m a purist when it comes to emotions (similar to Carrie Fisher); you’ve only got three: fear, love and sadness. This mostly comes up in the frustrating work of differentiating between thoughts and feelings (emotions rather than experiences). One easy way to tell the difference is if your statement is, “I feel like” or “I feel that,” it’s likely going to be a thought, not a feeling. “I feel like I’m not smart enough; I feel that he’s doing this on purpose; I feel as if everything is getting harder.” Typically, a feeling can often be described in one word: I feel angry; I feel afraid; I feel happy. 

Why do I place such emphasis on this distinction? Because in my practice, the way you respond to a thought is different from how you would respond to an emotion. I would argue that no one can make your emotions go away, so if you’re hoping to get that from working with me, you will be very frustrated and disappointed. 

Self-Compassion and Emotional Agility teaches us that what we need to do with our emotions is to feel them. Emotions are data for us to help us understand what we are going through. What they need from us is the same type of soothing that a parent would give their infant. The emotion needs to be understood in the same way you need to understand what that infant needs when they are crying or fussing.

I’m mostly talking about the emotions that we often do not want to feel: sadness, fear, anxiousness. I hear a lot of people tell me that they just do not want to feel these emotions because they can experience them as overwhelming. It sucks, but they're a necessary part of living the human experience.

The good news is that our emotions don’t last; they’re not a solid state. Eventually all the emotions that you feel eventually go away at some point or you notice them less. But it’s really hard to convince your brain of that (those are our thoughts helping to perpetuate the emotion). 

I view the strength of our emotions as similar to what happens when we experience intermittent reinforcement. As Skinner proved, if we always know that when we press the lever, we’ll get a treat, then even if the treat is delayed, we know that we’ll get it. But if we aren’t sure that when we press that lever if we’ll get a treat, then we will stress over it and work harder and press that lever over and over in the hopes that the treat is going to pop out. This is the same for our experience of our emotions. Can you really say that you’ve felt any one emotion, forever, constantly in perpetuity? 

Our emotions know when they’ve gotten past our efforts to not feel them. So the harder we try to push those emotions away and ignore them, the more intense the emotions become. As Susan David says, those emotions need to be felt because they have important information to convey. They need to be understood and the message that they’re conveying needs to be clear. The more we “sit” with our emotions, the less intense they will feel, because the emotions have done what they’re supposed to do, you understand the data. 

Gift Chowchuvech, LMSW