Ask a Therapist: How Can I Better Understand and Manage my Emotions?
By: Kendra Doukas
We are taught that emotions are often “irrational” and that it is better to think logically or rationally. I find that argument to be flawed as it discounts the essential role emotions have in helping us understand ourselves and the world around us. Emotions are not necessarily based on rationality, but that does not discount the validity or significance emotions play in our overall lives. Emotions give us crucial information about ourselves as well as our relationships, contexts, and interpretation of events. Whether or not they are based in objective facts, the truth is that if you are feeling something then it is valid because it is a reflection of your authentic perception and experience. Feelings can shift as new information becomes available to us, but we need to remember that we can in fact trust our feelings as both meaningful and mentionable. In some ways, we might actually be able to trust our feelings more than our "logic" based thoughts, but ultimately we will be at our best using a balance of both emotions and logic.
We often cannot directly control our emotional responses when we are faced with a situation or dilemma. To change emotions you have to either change what you are thinking or what you are doing. When you alter either of these cognitive or behavioral domains, our emotions respond accordingly, but we cannot simply turn off our emotions as you would a faucet. We can however have more direct access to altering the ways we are thinking about people or events. This can be either a good or a bad thing because thoughts can be used to rationalize things or choices in our lives, but not always for the better. We can rationalize any problem away such as addictions, toxic relationships, and bad behaviors even when it is not in our best interest. Pure logic is not always our friend and sometimes can be our own worst enemy because on its own, it can miss out on important details or perspectives that emotions can bring.
As an example, when deciding whether to move away or stay close to home for college, there are many logical ways to approach this situation. These logical approaches are likely to have good value in determining objective pros and cons of choices, defining logistics inherent to each individual option, or understanding the rational, concrete implications of choosing one school over another. These perspectives could help inform a good decision about what college to attend, but if you exclude emotional considerations, you deprive yourself of other important information such as how it might be to live far away from friends and family. One might respond with the logical argument, "I will make friends no matter where I go so feelings about this are irrelevant." But that cheapens the potential impact of factors such as emotional pain or grief from separating from loved ones. It also deprives one from understanding how our sense of fulfillment, satisfaction, comfort, or wellbeing would be impacted by the various school options. For instance, does one school "feel" like a better fit than another based on intangibles outside of rationality. We need both emotions and rationality to make informed, balanced, and ultimately healthy choices. This is a major step to both understanding and managing emotions.
With regard to the positive implications of improved emotional management, there is a very powerful phrase that I say repeatedly to clients and that is that we need to try and speak about our feelings instead of simply reacting from them. For example, saying, “I’m hurt because I really wanted to be able to spend time with you today” versus storming out and slamming the door. Which version of events do you think will lead to the better outcome? Putting words to your emotional experience allows for nebulous emotional experiences to link with our cognitive/logical sides. Combining these two domains through speaking about emotions will, almost always lead to better decisions, insight, and responses.
I’m not suggesting we abandon logic altogether, nor should we rely solely on emotions. Rather, we are better off if we can put our emotional side into conversation with our logical side, letting each inform the other. When this happens, our behaviors reflect the balance of emotional and rational perspectives, and this usually leads to better choices overall. Thus, the answer to the question of how can one understand and manage emotions involves integrating our emotional and logical sides and allowing each perspective to inform the other. If you find that your emotions seem overly powerful, unpredictable, or explosive, then you are most likely bottling up your emotions and without properly acknowledging or addressing them. In other words, you are not speaking about your feelings and are instead reacting from your feelings due to the fact that they are building up much like water behind a dam. When the dam breaks, the emotional flood is often too difficult to manage well. An ignored emotion only gets bigger and louder. Paradoxically, when you acknowledge and allow yourself to experience emotions, they will be easier to manage than if you use pure logic to try and rigidly control them. I encourage you to work on being in touch with your feelings. Work to understand them by using your experience of them while also incorporating your rational viewpoints. You might find that your sense of confidence and effectiveness will improve to make you the best version of an integrated you.