Emotions are the glue that gives meaning to life, connecting us to other people.
They are the foundation of our ability to understand ourselves and relate to others. When we are aware and in control of our emotions, we can think clearly and creatively; manage stress and challenges; communicate well with others; and display trust, empathy, and confidence.
But lose control of our emotions, and we’ll spin into confusion, isolation, and negativity.
Emotional awareness is a skill—which means that with patience and practice, it can be learned. You develop your emotional awareness by learning how to get in touch with difficult emotions and manage uncomfortable feelings so you remain in control, rather than being overwhelmed.
Whether we’re aware of them or not, emotions are a constant presence in our lives, underlying and influencing everything we do.
Emotional awareness means knowing what you are feeling and why. It’s the ability to identify and express what you are feeling from moment to moment and to understand the connection between your feelings and your actions.
Emotional awareness also allows you to understand what others are feeling and to empathise with them.
Emotional awareness involves two basic abilities:
- The ability to recognise your moment-to-moment emotional experience;
- The ability to handle all of your emotions without becoming overwhelmed.
Why Emotional Awareness Matters
Have you ever felt like depression, anxiety, or anger was controlling you?
Do you often act impulsively, doing or saying things you know you shouldn’t, only to regret it later? Do you feel disconnected from your feelings or emotionally numb? Do you have a hard time communicating with others and forming meaningful connections? Do you feel like your life is an emotional roller coaster—all extremes and no balance?
All of these challenges are related to a breakdown in emotional awareness.
Our emotions drive our behaviour. Without an awareness of what you’re feeling, it’s impossible to fully understand your own behaviour, appropriately manage your emotions and actions, and accurately “read” the wants and needs of others.
Emotional awareness helps you:
- Recognise who you are: what you like, what you don’t like, and what you need;
- Understand and empathise with others;
- Communicate clearly and effectively;
- Make wise decisions based on the things that are most important to you;
- Get motivated and take action to meet goals;
- Build strong, healthy, and rewarding relationships.
How Developing Emotional Awareness can bring your Life into Balance
“My life is an emotional rollercoaster!”
Life doesn’t have to be about high highs and low lows. Becoming more in touch with your emotions can help moderate the extreme up and down swings.
“I often regret what I say or do.”
If you often wish you could press an “undo” button—or you simply have a short fuse—you can gain emotional awareness by learning to prolong patience during times of stress.
“I have no energy.”
Got the blahs? When there is nothing physically wrong with you, and you still don’t have any ‘get up and go,’ you might be depressed. When you are more emotionally aware, you can tune into these feelings and make a change for the better.
“The people I’m interested in aren’t interested in me.”
Relationships are hard, but you can have an easier time meeting people and creating lasting bonds when you become more emotionally aware.
“I can’t seem to get ahead, even though I’m smart and work hard.”
Sometimes, getting ahead in your career requires more than book smarts and effort. Becoming more emotionally aware can help you communicate better and advance your position.
“They call me a robot.”
There is such a thing as too much control over emotions. If you’ve reined yourself in so much that you show no emotion whatsoever, you might benefit from becoming more balanced with your feelings.
Evaluating your Emotional Awareness
Although emotional awareness is the basis of emotional health, good communication, and solid relationships, many people remain relatively unacquainted with their core emotional experience. It is surprising how few people can easily answer the question: “What are you experiencing emotionally?”
What is your level of emotional awareness?
- Can you tolerate strong feelings, including anger, sadness, fear, disgust, and joy?
- Do you feel your emotions in your body? If you are sad or mad, do you experience physical sensations in places like your stomach and chest?
- Do you ever make decisions based on “gut feelings” or use your emotions to guide your decisions? When your body signals that something is wrong (stomach tightening, hair standing on end) do you trust it?
- Are you comfortable with all of your emotions? Do you allow yourself to feel anger, sadness, or fear without being judgmental or trying to suppress them?
- Do you pay attention to your ever-changing emotional experience? Do you notice a variety of emotions throughout the day or are you stuck in only one or two emotions?
- Are you comfortable talking about your emotions? Do you communicate your feelings honestly?
- Do you feel that, in general, others understand and empathise with your feelings? Are you comfortable with others knowing your emotions?
- Are you sensitive to the emotions of others? Is it relatively easy for you to pick up on what other people are feeling and put yourself in their shoes?
If you didn’t answer “usually” or even “sometimes” to most of these questions, you’re not alone. Most people are not emotionally aware, but you can be, even if you have avoided some of your feelings for a long time.
By learning to recognise, manage, and deal with your emotions, you’ll enjoy greater happiness and health, as well as better relationships.
When we can’t manage stress, emotions may overwhelm us. You can’t manage emotions until you know how to manage stress. Emotions are unpredictable. We never know what will trigger an emotional response, and when stress strikes, we don’t always have the time or opportunity to get back into balance by going for a run, for example, or taking a hot bubble bath. What you need are tools that allow you to manage stress quickly and in the moment.
Emotional awareness depends on your ability to rapidly relieve stress. Emotional awareness requires the ability to manage stress as it’s happening. The ability to quickly reduce stress allows you to safely face strong emotions, confident in the knowledge that you’ll be able to stay calm and in control—even when something upsetting happens. Once you know how to calm yourself down when you start to feel overwhelmed, you can begin to explore the emotions that seem disagreeable or frightening.
Be a Stress-busting Detective
Emotion is a double-edged sword that is meant to help but can also hurt.
If you’re a person who doesn’t know how to manage your emotions, or have lived with such a person, feelings can seem frightening and overwhelming. Fear and helplessness may cause you to freeze, act out, or shut down—inhibiting your ability to think rationally and causing you to say and do things you later regret.
Common ways of controlling or avoiding uncomfortable emotions:
- Many addictive and inappropriate behaviours are rooted in the inability to take emotionally stressful situations in stride.
- Distracting yourself with obsessive thoughts, escapist fantasies, mindless entertainment, and addictive behaviors in order to avoid emotions you fear or dislike. Watching television for hours, playing computer games, and surfing the internet are common ways we avoid dealing with our feelings.
- Sticking with one emotional response that you feel comfortable with, no matter what the situation requires. For example, constantly joking around to cover up insecurities or getting angry all the time to avoid feeling frightened and sad.
- Shutting down or shutting out intense emotions. If you feel overwhelmed by your emotions, you may cope by numbing yourself. You may feel completely disconnected from your emotions, like you no longer have feelings at all.
The upside of unpleasant emotions:
- Anger can be both deadly and restorative. Out-of-control anger can run amok endangering others and ourselves. But anger can also protect and preserve life. Anger is an emotion with a lot of energy that can be used to save life by mobilising us and inspiring determination and creative action. Anger is a normal emotion just like all our other emotions. It’s how we deal with our anger that can be problematic.
- Sadness can lead to depression but also supports emotional healing. Sadness is a call to slow down, stop thinking and surrender to what we are experiencing emotionally. Sadness asks us to open up, trust, and allow ourselves to be vulnerable in order to heal and recover from loss.
- Fear that overwhelms us is debilitating but fear also triggers lifesaving reactions that protect us from harm. Fear is a deeply rooted emotion—often the cause of chronic anger or depression. Overwhelming fear can be a barrier that separates us from others, but fear also supports life by signaling danger and triggering life-preserving action.
Why Avoiding Unpleasant Emotions isn’t the Answer
We are all born with a capacity to freely experience the full range of human emotions—including joy, anger, sadness, and fear. Yet many people are disconnected from some or all of their feelings.
People who were traumatised in early life often disconnect from their emotions and the physical feelings they evoke. But when you try to avoid pain and discomfort, your emotions become distorted, displaced, and stifled. You lose touch with your emotions when you attempt to control or avoid them, rather than experience them.
The consequences of avoiding your emotions:
- You don’t know yourself. This is one of the most important consequences. It includes understanding why you react to different situations, how much or how little things mean to you, and the difference between what you think you want and what you really need.
- You lose the good, along with the bad. When you shut down negative feelings like anger, fear, or sadness, you also shut down your ability to experience positive feelings such as joy, love, and happiness.
- It’s exhausting. You can distort and numb emotions, but you can’t eliminate them entirely. It takes a lot of energy to avoid having an authentic emotional experience and keep your feelings suppressed. The effort leaves you stressed and drained.
- It damages your relationships. The more you distance yourself from your feelings, the more distant you become from others, as well as yourself. You lose the ability to build strong relationships and communicate effectively, both of which depend on being in touch with your emotions.
By avoiding emotions we dislike, we distance ourselves from delightful emotions.
When we disconnect from emotions we dislike – emotions that we find frightening and overwhelming – we automatically shut down intensely positive emotions like joy, laughter, and playfulness that sustain us in difficult and challenging times. We can overcome loss and great challenges, but only if we retain our ability to experience joy. These joyous, uplifting emotions remind us, in the worst of times, that life is worthwhile and can be wonderful as well as terrible.
Make Friends with All Your Emotions!
If you’ve never learned how to manage stress, the idea of reconnecting to unpleasant emotions may be frightening. But even traumatised people can heal by learning to safely navigate their emotional experiences. You can change the way you experience and respond to your emotions.
The process of raising emotional awareness involves reconnecting with all of the core emotions, including anger, sadness, fear, disgust, surprise, and joy via a process of self-healing. As you start this process, keep the following facts in mind:
- Emotions quickly come and go, if you let them.
- You may be worried that once you reconnect to the emotions you’ve been avoiding, you’ll be stuck with them forever, but that’s not so. When we don’t obsess about our emotions, even the most painful and difficult feelings subside and lose their power to control our attention.
- When our feelings are freed, the core emotions of anger, sadness, fear, and joy quickly come and go. Throughout the day, you’ll see, read, or hear something that momentarily triggers a strong feeling of some sort. But if you don’t focus on the feeling, it won’t last, and a different emotion will soon take its place.
Your Body can Clue you in to your Emotions
Our emotions are closely aligned to physical sensations in our bodies.
When you experience a strong emotion, you probably also feel it somewhere in your body. By paying attention to these physical sensations, you can understand your emotions better. For example, if your stomach tightens up every time you spend time with a particular person, you can conclude that you feel uncomfortable in their presence.
With the exception of a headache, physical feelings are usually experienced somewhere below the bridge of the nose. Examples include:
- Sensations in your stomach;
- Tension in your muscles;
- Subtle urges to move body parts;
- Flashes of insight or “gut feelings”.
You Don’t have to Choose between Thinking and Feeling
Emotional awareness functions like instinct. When it’s strongly developed, you’ll know what you are feeling without having to think about it—and you’ll be able to use these emotional signals to understand what is really going on in a situation and act accordingly. The goal is to find a balance between your intellect and your emotions. The fact is that emotional awareness will help you set healthy boundaries, communicate well with others, predict what others are going to do, and make better decisions.
Developing emotional awareness takes practice. Like building muscles in the gym, the more you flex your emotions, the more “emotional muscle” you’ll build. You wouldn’t expect to be a bodybuilder after just five minutes. The more consistently you practice, the greater the changes you’ll experience in the way you feel, think, and behave.
How will you know when you’ve practiced enough? You’ll know when you feel in control of your emotions, rather than the other way around.
Author: Merryl Gee, BSocWk, AMHSW, MAASW, MACSW, MANZMHA, MPACFA.
Merryl Gee is a psychotherapist working from a strengths-based, person-centred framework. With over 30 years’ experience, she has a particular interest people who have experienced trauma such as sexual assault or childhood sexual abuse.
To make an appointment with Brisbane Psychotherapist Merryl Gee try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129 or Vision Psychology Wishart on (07) 3088 5422 .