Written by Amy Beecham
In times of collective struggle, it’s easy to get lost, even within our own emotions. As Stylist’s Amy Beecham learns, there’s a very good reason why none of us know how we really feel at the moment.
As children, emotions are some of the first things we learn to express. We grow to understand our own cues, mental and physical, and whether they mean we’re happy, sad, frustrated or excited. So then, why as adults can it seem so hard to recognise what we’re really feeling? When the complexities of life come into play, the likes of resentment, anger and jealousy can fade into one another, making it hard to distinguish exactly how anxiety and stress differ from fear and overwhelm.
“Generally, some emotions, such as happiness or excitement, are more familiar to us than others and therefore can feel safer,” explains Dr Suzanne Azer, a clinical psychologist and senior lecturer at Exeter University.
“For example, for someone who feels anger will lead to a loss of control or rejection from others, might begin to feel anxious the moment they feel it. If this is a strong response, they may over time only notice and talk about their anxiety, neglecting the anger and other feelings.The reverse also happens where someone who can’t tolerate feeling vulnerable might immediately become angry as this can feel safer to them.”
And at this point in time, it’s no wonder we’re clinging to what feels safe. After the continued uncertainty of the pandemic, we’ve found ourselves plunged into a cost of living crisis that threatens both our mental and physical health. Our protection instincts are undoubtedly in overdrive, making everything we do feel simultaneously emotionally charged and confused.
As we grapple with new stresses while still feeling the impact of historic ones, this blend of reactions is completely normal, and according to Dr Azer, something we should take more notice of.“If we begin from a position of curiosity – where all feelings are welcome and of interest, we might notice that our feelings are often more complex and nuanced than we give them credit for,” she says. “For example, we may feel anger at a situation, then shame about feeling anger, followed by anxiety. It’s often not just one feeling we’re experiencing.”
“Unfortunately, when we treat some emotions as unacceptable or wrong, we tend to feel shame and that makes us feel much much worse,” she suggests. “We call this ‘feeling bad about feeling bad’ and it just leads to more suffering.”
Indeed, as we navigate an increasingly uncertain and destabilising world, the carousel of emotions we can experience can often lead to negative self-talk and shame spirals. It’s this idea of “good” and “bad” that Dr Azer implies is the most damaging.
We all know how easy it is to fall down the rabbit-hole: first comes the ‘bad’ emotion, followed by the immediate pangs of guilt. How could we think like that? Does this make us an awful person? Then comes the embarrassment, and the subsequent rumination on everything we’ve ever said and done wrong. Rinse and repeat.
However, instead of getting caught in the trap of beating yourself up for how you feel, Dr Azer advises considering what these emotions tell us, how they relate to our current situation and why they’ve taken us by such surprise. However, it’s not just about knowing what we’re feeling, but also interpreting our emotions correctly in order to manage them. After all, while embarrassment and guilt might manifest similarly, they need to be handled in different ways.
“Our emotions are complex, we think of them as occurring as a direct result of what we experience and tend to therefore assume that they are accurate and reliable,” psychotherapist Nova Cobban tells Stylist. “We also know that the reality is that often we appear to have no control over them as they appear from nowhere and often take us by surprise. We don’t fully understand our emotions and therefore find managing them a challenge.”
And so, despite the fact that we might be able to intellectually understand our emotional state – we can pinpoint why we’ve started to feel a certain way, for example – our minds are only giving us part of the story. “We tend to assume that our emotions are directly correlated to the situations we find ourselves in. But they’re actually working with a lot more information than we consciously realise,” Cobban explains. “They’re a response to every similar event you’ve experienced in the past as well, which means that sometimes they take you by surprise and the strength or depth of them can be unexpected.” The way that you may respond to a powerful emotion like humiliation or rejection, for example, might not be as off-the-cuff as you think. It has the memory of every historic break-up, embarrassing moment, failure and crisis of confidence behind it.
Misunderstanding– and therefore mismanaging – our emotions is a trap almost all of us will fall into, especially when we’re attempting to avoid certain feelings. But as Dr Azer reminds, we don’t get to control what emotions we have, they just ‘are’. So that overwhelming fear of the future we’re wrestling with, the nervousness to talk to our friends about money or resentment we might feel that someone else appears to be having it easier? It’s the emotional balancing act of life.
“That doesn’t mean we can’t work with them or try to change them but the initial feelings appear whether we like it or not,” she continues. “We tend to have received messages in childhood that some feelings aren’t acceptable and this can often be gendered – girls shouldn’t be angry and boys shouldn’t cry. We often conflate having feelings such as anger with ‘acting feelings’, such as being aggressive. Feeling anger isn’t harmful, though being aggressive might be. The censoring takes enormous energy and can lead us over time to edit so much that we no longer know how we feel or deny the feelings as they occur – sometimes that means we see feelings in others (and judge them for it) instead of noticing them in ourselves.”
While it’s incredibly tempting to self-pathologise and search endlessly for a concrete reason for why we feel the way we do, both Cobban and Dr Azer propose a different approach.
Instead of getting caught up with how we think we should feel, we should instead remind ourselves that, like every other species, we’re simply working with whatever signals and messages our bodies are giving us for the situation we’re in. Our emotional response is one of our most animalistic tendencies, and it’s when we stop judging how we feel that we can begin to notice that the things we consider ‘negative’ are merely a part of our ‘fight or flight’ responses to keep us safe.
“Changing how you experience and communicate about your feelings with others may feel new and risky,” Dr Azer adds. “Especially as other people in your life will also need to adapt to the changes. While this may be difficult at first, it will bring a greater sense of peace to your life in the long term.” An important lesson, indeed.
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