How To Observe Your Emotions Without Being Consumed By Them
We've all had those instances when our body is doing its own thing—adjusting to hormones, time zones, climates—and we notice a physiological change and then proceed to create a new story based on these feelings.
For example, maybe you're on your period and the bloating plus a sad movie you watched last night got you thinking about how you will die alone, and suddenly you feel lonely and resentful (oh, have I been there!). Our narratives are powerful, and our narratives are not always a reflection of reality.
This is why it's important to have the skill of observation, as well as the ability to separate facts from projections, assumptions, and interpretations. This will not just help our relationships with others but also—say it with me now!—with our Self.
Observing our emotions is the first step toward understanding them
Rather than evaluating our emotions (i.e., labeling them as "good" or "bad," "positive" or "negative"), let's begin seeing them as messengers of our inner world. Let's view them as our lived experience and the essence that stems from encountering the world around us. Instead of asking, "Should I be feeling this way?" let's start wondering:
- What beliefs about emotions are preventing me from embracing them?
- What is this emotion trying to tell me about myself?
- What is this feeling trying to tell me about the way I am engaging with others?
- How have I changed as a result of this feeling?
- What value is this emotion speaking to?
- What narrative am I holding on to? Why?
- Am I feeling more than one emotion?
Our emotions provide us insight into our experiences and our Self. By feeling them in their entirety, we do not become prisoners to our emotions, we become informed by them. Still, it's also important to note that we do not need to sit and feel every single thing all the time. That would be an unreasonable expectation. It's not about being consumed by emotions; it's about being aware of them. It's about connecting to our Self through them.
How do we acknowledge emotions without being consumed by them?
Naturally, observing our emotions can sometimes feel overwhelming. Here is a trick I teach my clients: When you feel an especially strong emotion, try to identify one or two other emotions that are also present, the more the better.
Although it may seem counterintuitive to try to feel more when you are overwhelmed, identifying multiple emotions can actually dilute the power of the consuming emotion. It will also offer a more realistic representation of what you are feeling. You may be overwhelmed, but you may also be sad, disappointed, and angry. You may feel frustrated, isolated, or simply hungry (as is often the case with me!). When trying to address our needs, we are more likely to do it well when we can specifically identify what those needs are.
In this practice, we will often find that we are experiencing contradictory emotions. But if we feel a strong emotion, most of us usually won't allow ourselves to feel something else that's seemingly contradictory. We struggle to hold both. A common combination, for example, is sadness and relief, yet we often ignore the relief because we don't know how to make sense of these two feelings together. So we overcommit to sadness.
We may feel happy and scared, so we will often choose to focus on one as self-preservation (the one that makes us more uncomfortable and poses a greater threat). But we are complex human beings who can hold a vast array of contradictory emotions—each one communicating something different or representing a unique value. Until we learn to carry it all, we will only see one side of us.
How do we acknowledge that feelings are not facts?
Remember this: How we feel represents our subjective reality, and not always the facts. Just because you may feel rejected doesn't mean someone is rejecting you. Just because you feel insecure doesn't mean you don't have the skill to do something. Just because you are sad, it doesn't mean there is objectively a loss.
This doesn't invalidate your feelings, but it does place a limitation on them. They represent your reality, your triggers, your wounds, your hormone or fatigue levels, and so much more. This doesn't mean we should dismiss feelings; it simply means they are limited in presenting the whole, or even accurate, picture at all times. More precisely, feelings represent how we experience the picture.
Excerpted from It's on Me: Accept Hard Truths, Discover Your Self, and Change Your Life by Sara Kuburic, with permission from the publisher.
Sara Kuburic is an existential psychotherapist, consultant, writer, and columnist for USA Today. She was born in Yugoslavia and raised in Canada. She is passionate about helping people seek change and live authentic, free, and meaningful lives. Her interest in psychology stems from her personal experience living through wars, navigating complex relationships, and continually learning what it means to be human.