How do you let your emotions out in a healthy way: 3 common emotions we struggle with expressing

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How do you let your emotions out in a healthy way: 3 common emotions we struggle with expressing

We might like to think that we’re rational creatures, but our decisions are often heavily influenced by our emotional world¹. Not understanding your emotions can lead to confusion and frustration as we struggle to create the results that we want to see in our lives.

Emotions: what are they?

Emotions are complex psychological states that involve three distinct components: a subjective experience, a psychological response, and a behavioral or expressive response.²

Our lives are filled with decisions that are influenced by emotions. Having a good understanding of our emotions is key to:

  • Helping us make more considered, less impulsive choices  
  • Understanding others and how they relate to us

What emotions do we struggle with most commonly?

Patterns of emotional expression are influenced by biology as well as environment.

  • Sadness. In general, men find it harder to express their feelings of sadness.  They often manifest as irritability, anger, and even hostile behavior. ⁹
  • Anger is also hard to express for most people. The manifestation of this feeling could lead to violent acts or violent language, or it can act as fuel towards positive change.¹⁰

Why is emotional intelligence so critical to our wellbeing?

Emotional intelligence (EI) describes the ability to perceive, control and evaluate emotions. Much research suggests that emotional intelligence is as important, or even more important than IQ.³ Various tests are used to assess emotional intelligence, such as the Mayer-Salovey-Carus Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT) or the Emotional and Social Competency Inventory (ESCI). Commonly EI is assesed on four levels:⁴

  1. Perceiving emotions: In order to understand emotions, you need to perceive them correctly. This includes understanding nonverbal signals such as body language and facial expressions.
  2. Reasoning with emotions: Emotions can be used as fuel for cognitive activity. For example, if you have a clear goal in mind, you might be enthusiastic about the process of getting there, making you more efficient.  
  3. Understanding emotions. If a person is angry while talking with you, are they angry because of you or something else? Knowing the difference plays a key role in the way the interaction with that person will play out.
  4. Managing emotions: This describes our ability to deal with powerful emotions in a healthy fashion when they arise, or in a way that furthens our goals.

It’s possible to build emotional intelligence

Although some researchers believe that emotional intelligence is inherited, studies also show that it is something that can be improved with practice.⁵

Here are some ways to work on improving emotional intelligence:

  1. Listen more: If you want to understand what surrounds you, paying attention is the most crucial step. Look closely at someone’s verbal and non-verbal cues which carris signals of how they feel.
  2. Empathize: Put yourself  in another’s shoes. Empathy, or the ability to understand – not merely identify - how others are feeling, is critical to emotional intelligence. It also involves how you respond to others in a given social interaction.
  3. Reflect: Taking pause and reflecting on how emotions influence your actions can be helpful in shedding light on what thoughts and actions trigger certain emotional responses for you habitually. For example, if you find yourself commonly experiencing unexpected feelings anger, take note of the situations that these arise. What thoughts and physiological conditions seem to lead to this?

Why are some emotions so hard to express?

Charles Darwin proposed the evolutionary theory of emotions which implies that our emotions help us adapt to our environment and improve our chances of survival. For instance, emotions like love are adaptive because they increase your chances of reproduction and forming a relationship.⁶ But not all emotions are necessarily adaptive. Some emotions can make us impulsive. Anger, for example, could lead to violence.

  • Negative emotions may be linked to a lack of acceptance: Anger, jealousy and hatred are generally harder to acknowledge. For example, if you are jealous of someone's success, you may not wish to acknowledge this to others or yourself. Aknowledging jealousy might feel like accepting that you truly lack something the other person has.
  • Emotional expression is influenced by childhood patterns: Some people have a harder time feeling and expressing certain emotions because of how they were brought up. For example, those who have grown up in households where it was unsafe to express anger or displeasure may have never learnt ways in which it was safe to do so, and subsequently find it difficult to do so in healthy ways as an adult.⁷

Helpful vs harmful ways to deal with emotions

For people experiencing powerful emotions, therapy can be helpful by giving you tools to assess better understand, recognise and regulate your emotions. This can include evaluating situations from different perspectives and looking for alternative evidence that challenges certain thoughts behind unpleasant emotions.

You don't necessarily need therapy to be able to handle stress, anger, or fear, but arming yourself with useful tools to build your emotional intelligence can go a long way.

References

  1. Wilke, A., & Mata, R. (2012). Cognitive bias. In Encyclopedia of human behavior (pp. 531–535). Academic Press.
  2. Hockenbury, D. and Hockenbury, S.E. (2007). Discovering Psychology. New York: Worth Publishers.
  3. Goleman, D. (1996). Emotional intelligence. Why it can matter more than IQ. Learning, 24(6), 49–50.
  4. Salovey P, Mayer J. Emotional Intelligence. Imagination, Cognition, and Personality. 1990;9(3):185–211.
  5. Serrat, O. (2017). Understanding and developing emotional intelligence. In Knowledge solutions (pp. 329–339). Springer, Singapore.
  6. LeDoux JE. Evolution of human emotion: a view through fear. Prog Brain Res. 2012;195:431–442. doi:10.1016/B978–0–444–53860–4.00021–0
  7. McGee, C. (2000). Childhood experiences of domestic violence. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
  8. John, O. P., & Gross, J. J. (2004). Healthy and unhealthy emotion regulation: Personality processes, individual differences, and life span development. Journal of personality, 72(6), 1301–1334.
  9. Wilhelm, K. A. (2001). Men and depression. Australian family physician, 30(1), 102-5.
  10. Martin RC. Including maladaptive anger in psychology courses. Teaching of Psychology. 2019;47(1):102-107. doi:10.1177/0098628319889540
  11. Maheshwari, S. K., & Gill, K. K. (2015). Relationship of assertiveness and self-esteem among nurses. International Journal of Health Sciences and Research, 5(6), 440-449.