When dealing with intense emotions, it seems us humans automatically want to label them as “bad” or “good.” For example, intense anxiety or sadness is “bad” and intense happiness is “good.” Many people seek therapy when they are feeling more “bad” emotions than “good” emotions. Naturally, they want to decrease the "bad" emotions and increase the "good." The catch is, it’s not necessarily the emotion itself that is the problem, rather it’s the label of “bad” or “good” that we give them.
The fact is, labeling our emotions as either “bad” or “good” is not helpful when trying to cope with them. What is helpful is when we strip these labels away and look at emotions as just that – emotions.
As a means to help remove these labels, two questions I often ask my clients are “what are emotions?” and “why do we have emotions?” These questions are often met with a thoughtful or even puzzled look and a response along the lines of, “they are automatic… they just happen,” “emotions exist to make us feel things” or “to make us act in a certain way” or “to tell us something is wrong or right.” These are all valid answers.
Let’s take a look at the first question: What are emotions?
"An emotion is a complex psychological state that involves three distinct components: a subjective experience, a physiological response, and a behavioral or expressive response."(Hockenbury & Hockenbury, 2007)
What I like about the Hockenbury’s (2007) rather scientific description of emotions, is that it identifies three different parts of an emotional experience:
The Subjective Experience
There are six basic emotions that are universal throughout human cultures: fear, disgust, anger, surprise, happiness, and sadness. Other basic emotions include embarrassment, excitement, contempt, shame, pride, satisfaction, and amusement.
However, researchers also believe that the experience of emotion can be highly subjective or individualized:
How we experience emotions – thoughts, action urges, physical changes, expressions or actions, and triggers, differ from one person to the next. Consider sadness - is all sadness the same? Your own experience might range from mild discontent to severe depression.
To make things more complex, we can feel more than one emotion at the same time or one after another. Take for example starting at a new school or job, you might feel both excited and nervous. When someone says something to you that’s hurtful, you may experience anger and shame.
The Physiological Response
If you've ever felt your stomach knot up with anxiety or your heart sink with sadness, then you can speak to the fact that emotions cause strong physiological reactions. This is thanks to our sympathetic nervous system, a branch of the autonomic nervous system that controls involuntary or automatic body responses such as breathing and digestion. The sympathetic nervous system can initiate our fight-or-flight response, which can help protect us when facing danger. For some, especially those who suffer with anxiety disorders, this system is easily triggered and works against them rather than for them.
The Behavioral or Expressive Response
An emotion's behavioral response is how we express our emotions. These can be verbal or non-verbal expressions – things that you say or do when feeling a particular emotion. While culture may influence how we display our emotions, researchers believe that many expressions are universal, such as a smile indicating happiness or pleasure, or a frown indicating sadness or displeasure.
Now let’s take a look at the second question: Why do we have emotions?
Put simply, emotions are there for a reason—they all have jobs. Whenever you experience an emotion, it gives you information about your situation and communicates to you or others what is needed or wanted. Let’s take a more detailed look at some of the basic emotions and their jobs:
Sometimes people become more emotionally sensitive, which means that their emotions get triggered more often than they need to. This is one reason why individuals seek psychotherapy to begin with. For example, you might find you get angry over something that seems small and wouldn’t normally bother you, or maybe you feel anxious in a situation where there really isn’t anything that’s threatening to you.
In therapy, we work to see why the emotion has come up in you, even if it seems to be an overreaction or not justified. The goal is to not label your emotions as “good” or “bad” and then work to only experience the “good” and avoid the “bad.” Instead, you want to be able to manage your emotions more effectively and not let them control you.
This starts with identifying your emotions, including your subjective experience, your physiological response, and your behavioral or expressive response. After you identify your emotion, you can then ask yourself, “What is my emotion telling me?” After reflecting on this, you can then move forward a make a wise decision. Paradoxically, listening to our emotions and letting them do their job, rather than avoiding them, often leads us to feeling more positive emotions over time.
What’s more is that emotions communicate to you about your own inner state and they can be a form of self-validation. They can confirm that what you think and feel is true. They may tell you “yes, what you perceive to be a threat is a threat,” or “You’re right, that person shouldn’t have said that to you.”
Why do you think it is important for us to know what emotion we are feeling?
Why do you think it is important for us to understand the jobs of emotions?
Why is it important to see emotions as just emotions and not label them as “good” or “bad?”
Which "bad" emotion do you experience most? What is its job?
Hockenbury, D. H. & Hockenbury, S. E. (2007). Discovering psychology. New York: Worth Publishers.
Linehan, M. (1993). Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder.
Moonshine, C. (2008). Acquiring Competency and Achieving Proficiency with Dialectical Behavior Therapy.