Meta-Emotions: What They Are & How To Deal With Them

Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist By Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist
Elizabeth Earnshaw is a Philadelphia-based marriage and family therapist, certified Gottman therapist, writer, and the owner of A Better Life Therapy. She received her bachelor's in adult organizational development and education from Temple University and her master's in couples and and family therapy from Thomas Jefferson University.
Couple Looking Upset

Image by Rob And Julia Campbell / Stocksy

What's your relationship to your feelings? Do you generally embrace them and like to talk about them with others? Or do you prefer to not get emotional and try to avoid negative feelings? These different perspectives about emotions and feelings are known as meta-emotions.

What is a meta-emotion?

A meta-emotion is the way we "feel" about feelings. They're the emotions you have around your emotions, hence the meta. Different people have different feelings about feelings. For instance, some believe that feelings are helpful, while others see them as unproductive.

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Types of meta-emotions.

People who find feelings helpful think it is important to recognize, tend to, and share their feelings with others. They believe that addressing the underlying emotions is an important aspect of conflict or connection. They feel good about discussing, processing, and sharing emotions.

When people feel good about feelings, they often use "emotion coaching" in their communication. Essentially, this means that they seek out feelings—their own and their partner's.

Other people believe that feelings are unproductive. Their belief system tells them that exploring, sharing, and talking about feelings makes the problem worse. It prevents moving through the issue. These people generally have uncomfortable feelings about their feelings. For instance, when they feel anger, they feel disappointed that they have anger. When they feel sadness, they feel embarrassed about the sadness.

These people often use what is called "solution coaching" in their communication around issues that bring up emotions. When there is an issue, they go straight to the most "common sense" solution in order to skip over the exploration and sharing that takes place in emotion coaching.

How to recognize your meta-emotions.

You can integrate these two practices into your life to better understand your meta-emotional experiences:

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1. Learn to recognize your emotions and the belief or feeling you have in response to them.

Start noticing how you feel about your feelings. Yes, I know...this sounds so meta. And it is really important work.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself:

  • When I am angry, how do I feel about that? Do I feel scared of anger? Proud of it? Ashamed?
  • When others are angry, how do I feel about that? 
  • When I am sad, how do I feel about that?
  • When others are sad, how do I feel about that?
  • When I am proud, how do I feel about that?
  • When others are proud, how do I feel about that?
  • When I am afraid or nervous, how do I feel about that?
  • When others are afraid or nervous, how do I feel about that?

2. Pay attention to how you respond to people when they are having an emotional experience.

Notice how you respond to people who are expressing emotions. Do you emotion coach by asking questions, validating, reflecting, and exploring their feelings? Are you able to empathize? Build understanding? Do you withhold problem-solving until you make sure you get their emotional experience?

Or do you jump into the role of solution coach? When you hear a feeling, do you respond by giving an answer? Shutting it down? Explaining it away?

One way to reflect on this further is to make a list of emotions and then to explore with yourself how people responded to you. How did your parents, friends, and family respond to you when you had the feeling? Does this mirror how you respond to people now?

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Meta-emotion mismatch in relationships.

When couples are matched in how they think about their emotions, they seem to do OK. A couple that is matched as "solution coaches" might not have deep emotional intimacy, but they don't complain about the lack of emotional intimacy. They both are OK with being solution coaches.

When couples are matched as "emotion coaches," they also do well with each other. They build a healthy conflict culture together in which they explore each other's emotions and respond to them. This match creates a fulfilling relationship for them.

When people are mismatched, they tend to get into conflict about whose way is the right way. Rather than recognizing that each person has a powerful skill to bring to the table, couples become gridlocked. One partner holds out until their emotions can be shared while the other partner continues to suggest solutions and becomes frustrated with how long it takes their partner to move toward change.

However, when couples get gridlocked this way, they miss a very important point—that if they can actually come together on their preference, they can be a powerhouse. To have one person that can guide the emotional conversations and another that can guide the couple toward solutions is to have a couple that can intimately connect and create change and growth.

How to deal when you and your partner disagree about talking about feelings.

After reading this article, you might recognize that you and your partner have a meta-emotion mismatch. Don't fret. If you can channel this "mismatch" in a healthy way, you can create a powerful connection that supports the experiences, beliefs, and feelings of both people. Here are tips for coming together (rather than falling apart) when it comes to your mismatch:

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1. Identify that there is a difference.

Say it out loud. Mark it. Let each other know that you are very aware there is a difference. Make sure you identify this without judgment but rather with intrigue, curiosity, and acceptance of the reality.

2. Commit to honoring emotions.

Both people must be willing to work toward embracing emotions as part of the process. Agree with each other that you will both work to honor emotions as part of the process toward building intimacy and connection. For the person who believes feelings are a "good thing," you will need to work toward embracing your partner's discomfort with emotions and their process in learning to utilize them. As the partner who believes that emotions are unproductive, your work will be to begin to develop an interest and curiosity into the emotional world of your partner and yourself. (Here are some ways to increase emotional intelligence.)

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3. Remember, emotions first and solutions second.

Solutions do not stick if someone believes their emotional experience has not been considered or understood. In order for both people to get what they need in the relationship, you must address emotions first.

Tend to the emotional experience by utilizing validation and curiosity with your partner. Allow them to be the guide of their own internal world.

4. Once you feel understood, give room for solutions.

A willingness to move through the process with your partner, accept influence, and try solutions will help your solution-coach partner feel as if they are a valued part of the process. It also creates a container and sense of safety around emotions, which for some people can feel uncontained and worrisome.

Understanding your meta-emotions is important for navigating any and all relationships, and it's also helpful knowledge to have about yourself no matter your relationship status. When you understand the way you react to your own emotions, you're developing more self-awareness. Ultimately, we all have emotions, and accepting our emotions (and the way we feel about them!) is part of developing self-compassion.

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