Ok folks- before we dive in, a quick recap. So far we’ve covered what emotions are, how to identify them, the difference between judgment and curiosity, how to engage with our emotions in a curious way, and how self-empathy can support us in building a relationship with our inner landscape.
That leaves one major question: how do we process and deal with emotions when they come up??
When we feel an emotion, we have two options: we can either express it or repress it. When feelings are healthily expressed, no harm is done to another person or thing. There might even be a moment where you physically feel the sensation of an emotion flow through you or release in some way. I can usually feel a pretty strong difference in my body when I am actively feeling something, and after it has flowed through me. It’s almost like a sigh of relief. However, expressing a strong emotion in an unsafe space or with unsafe people can feel awful. And if you’re expressing a strong emotion without regulation techniques, that can lead to overwhelm (more on this soon)!
The other option we have when feeling an emotion is repression. When feelings are repressed, they are shut down, pushed away, and get physically stuck in the body. Emotions cannot continually stay repressed, however, so repressed feelings tend to express themselves in jarring and explosive ways in due time. Think about a powerful emotional experience you’ve had - be it deep sadness, rage, or ecstatic joy. What would happen if you had repressed that strong feeling, and shoved the energy back inside? It would eventually implode.
Additionally, when we repress our emotions we don’t learn to listen to or honor the important messages they’re trying to tell us. We train ourselves to believe that emotions are an annoyance, overwhelming, or simply too much to deal with. For some people, this may lead to a belief that we just don’t feel emotions at all. It is a practice to continue learning about ourselves in this way and becoming attuned to the truth desiring to be expressed within our body and soul.
Here’s the tricky part about expressing and repressing emotions: not every situation where we feel a strong emotion is the right time or place to express it, though that is eventually what needs to happen. We might have to moderately repress the emotions before a safe time or space appears to express that emotion. It can be tricky to find the balance between putting off emotion to feel later, and pushing an emotion down to not feel it at all. However, when we view our emotions as an integral part of ourselves, we can better work with them when they arise.
Emotions are energy, and energy is meant to flow. This energy can be quite powerful, and if we aren’t ready for it or don’t have regulation techniques, emotions can consistently feel overwhelming to ‘too much.’
HOLD UP RACHEL. What is ‘regulation???’
Ah yes- I did promise we’d come back to that!! Emotional regulation is your ability to deal with and respond to an emotional experience. The way we deal with emotional situations and experiences is through coping strategies. Some strategies are healthier than others- talking to friends, therapy, meditation, exercising, journaling, getting enough sleep, substance abuse, self-harm, and aggression toward others are all examples of various ways we self-regulate.
TLDR: when an emotion arises we either express it or repress it. Sometimes, we do this subconsciously. When we express emotions, it takes us out of homeostasis, out of neutral. We have to find our way back, and that is through the coping strategies mentioned above.
Honestly, when you really start feeling and working with your emotions, it will feel overwhelming- you are practicing a skill that requires you to be self-aware and feel emotions you may have been avoiding for a long time. 5 years ago, when I started going to therapy regularly, I had no idea how to feel my feelings. And when I finally did begin to feel them, they rushed out. It was like a pendulum; I had spent so many years repressing things that when I unlocked the floodgates I swung HARD in the other direction. It’s taken many years of practicing strategies and building a language around my emotions to feel like I have solid emotional regulation skills, but now I do notice a difference when those strong emotions occur.
Here is a pathway I like to use when I feel emotions arise in my body and I feel like I can express what I am currently feeling in a safe space in a safe way:
Name and identify what is happening. This could be naming what emotion you are feeling. It could also be identifying what is physically happening in your body. Are your hands sweaty? Is your heart racing? Do you want to cry? Do you feel the impulse to move? Identifying what is physically happening can help determine if the present moment is the right time to let that emotion flow through you and help us build specificity around our experience.
Take 3 deep breaths
If the present moment is a good time to let the emotion flow, name what you are feeling to the best of your ability (“I don’t know” is an acceptable answer here BTW!)
Now, we have a few options. You could get curious about the emotion itself: why it’s coming up, any messages it has for you. I also like to follow any physical impulses I have- shaking, dancing, and grounding, just to name a few.
Keep breathing and notice when you feel like the emotion(s) have run their course.
Here is a recent example of this process from my life. I was dealing with technical issues on my yoga platform one Sunday morning. I had gotten up early to film after a long week, and I was frustrated after purchasing (another) microphone that wasn’t working properly. I tried to connect my AirPods to my computer and they would not stay connected. I started to feel really anxious and upset. I started to cry because that’s how the emotions wanted to be expressed. For a few minutes, I was surprised and overwhelmed at how strong the emotional release was. But I let myself cry it out because I had the time and a safe space to do so. After this moment, I checked in about my overall feelings about my yoga platform. Those emotions gave me a clear message that I was starting to burn out and not find joy in that work, and I was able to come to that realization a little later that day. Experiencing our emotions doesn’t always feel good, but it can make us feel much better in the long run.
We are feeling beings. Emotions drive so much of our lives and experiences. The more we get to know our own emotions and get curious about how we experience them, the better we can connect with others and empathize with their experiences.
The most beautiful thing about working with your emotions is they are yours. I think at its core, working with our emotions is getting to know ourselves a little deeper. And it’s up to us how we decide to use or implement what we learn. Let this be a journey- your journey.
Also, y’all- despite the amount I read, I am not an emotions researcher. There are so many people who know way more about this than I do. I’ve included a list of books below that are a great starting place if this subject is interesting to you and I highly recommend all of them:
Working with our emotions is a lifelong journey. Give yourself grace along the way.