If you’re struggling with how to get in touch with your emotions, the best way is to pay attention to what’s happening in your mind and body, to recognize common emotional triggers, and to challenge yourself to identify underlying emotions by going one level deeper.
When I was a teenager, I spent a lot of time feeling annoyed.
Of course, this is pretty typical among teenagers.
But feeling “annoyed” isn’t emotion; it’s a reaction to an underlying emotion. It places the blame for how you’re feeling on someone else, rather than requiring you to take responsibility for your own emotions.
For me, annoyance became a crutch. I felt negative emotions, but it wasn’t my fault; the world around me was to blame.
What was actually underneath that annoyance? Was it fear? Shame? Anger? Sadness?
I never asked myself that question.
Accessing your emotions isn’t easy. Society often teaches us to repress, rather than reveal, what we’re feeling.
Let’s dive into why it’s so darn hard to get in touch with your emotions, the eight emotions you should focus on identifying, and a few specific strategies for understanding your emotions.
Why understanding how you feel is hard
Today, as an adult, I’m lucky to be supported by a thoughtful, considerate partner and by friends and family who help me process my emotions on a deeper level.
But as a teenager, the reinforcement I got from society and my peers was unhelpful, bordering on toxic.
A few factors come to mind in the context I grew up in:
- Gender norms. Gender norms for men were (and largely continue to be) to avoid discussing emotions, and especially, to avoid being vulnerable. Anyone breaking this rule by crying or by struggling emotionally was mocked.
- Societal norms. In the south of the United States (where I grew up), being polite was more important than saying what you meant or being true to your emotions. Emotions and vulnerability caused discomfort and probably a change of topics.
- Avoidance. Because of these gender and societal norms, it was difficult to get practice identifying emotions. Over time, I learned to avoid being vulnerable and revealing my emotions, even with people I considered emotionally safe, like my parents.
Perhaps your story and background is different from mine, but many people share elements of this history of emotional repression. It’s the default cultural script that most societies operate from.
Self-compassion is key here.
You learned what you learned in childhood and young adulthood in order to survive in those contexts. You did what you did in order to protect yourself the best way you knew how.
If being vulnerable and sharing emotions didn’t feel safe when you were young, it makes total sense that you would struggle to do so later in life.
How could you be expected to get in touch with your emotions without practice?
How do I get in touch with my emotions?
To get in touch with your emotions, you need to find ways to notice what your mind and body are feeling.
You also need to dig deeper to understand what underlying emotions are causing those feelings. Often, there’s more going on than the first emotion you identify.
Here are a few specific approaches:
- Pay attention to your body and mind. It all starts with paying attention. Not only to the thoughts going through your head, but to the feelings coming up in your body. Often, emotions manifest first in feelings of mental or physical tension.
- Meditate. Meditation can help you to practice the skill of paying attention to what your mind and body are feeling.
- Avoid escapism. Are you using television, sleep, video games, the Internet, substances, work, or other forms of escapism to avoid what you’re feeling? Notice if this is happening and instead, try to sit with the emotional discomfort.
- Journal. When it feels like you’re thinking in circles, sometimes writing can help.
- Simplify by using the emotional color wheel. When it’s tough to pin down exactly what you’re feeling, try using the emotional color wheel. I like the simplified version used for kids. Red is angry, yellow is anxious, blue is sad, green is happy. Talking in terms of colors can help depersonalize your emotions.
- Use the eight primary emotions. Your emotional landscape can feel complicated. When identifying your emotions, try sticking to the eight primary emotions. We’ll review those in the next section.
- Notice triggers over time: When you notice you have an emotional reaction that feels disproportionate, ask yourself if the situation may have activated an emotional trigger for you. Over time, getting to know your triggers can help you understand what you feel, and the emotional history generating that feeling.
- Go one level deeper: Often, the first emotion you identify isn’t the underlying emotion causing you distress. Challenge yourself to go deeper.
- Depersonalize your emotions. Remember: you are not your emotions. The feelings passing through you are simply feelings, not an integral part of who you are. When we personalize emotions, it’s easy to fall into a cyclical pattern where we feel one emotion because we feel another (for example, feeling ashamed that you feel angry).
- Talk to someone. Talking to trusted friends and family, or to a counselor, can help you notice patterns in your thinking. Often, by expressing your emotions out loud, the truth of what you feel becomes apparent.
Identifying the eight primary emotions
If you don’t have much practice identifying emotions, it can be a struggle to know what you’re feeling. Just as some teenagers (like me) defaulted to feeling annoyed, it’s easy to identify a mental state or a secondary emotion – instead of the underlying emotion.
Practice linking your emotional state to one of the eight primary emotions1:
- Anger: fury, outrage, wrath, irritability, hostility, resentment, violence
- Sadness: grief, sorrow, gloom, melancholy, despair, loneliness, depression
- Fear: anxiety, apprehension, nervousness, dread, fright, panic
- Joy: enjoyment, happiness, relief, bliss, delight, pride, thrill, ecstasy
- Interest: acceptance, friendliness, trust, kindness, affection, love, devotion
- Surprise: shock, astonishment, amazement, astound, wonder
- Disgust: contempt, disdain, scorn, aversion, distaste, revulsion
- Shame: guilt, embarrassment, chagrin, remorse, regret, contrition
Sometimes, in an emotionally activated state, it can be tricky to think through these.
That’s why I love the simplified emotional color wheel system. Often used for kids, this system links emotions to colors and has just four choices: green (happy), blue (sad), red (angry), and yellow (anxious or agitated).
Understanding secondary emotions
Secondary emotions happen when you feel one thing because you felt another.
It’s a kind of “loop” where emotions cause other emotions. It can take practice to understand when this is happening.
Here are a few examples:
- You feel ashamed because you got angry
- You feel angry at yourself because you’re afraid (and you wish you weren’t)
- You feel disgusted at yourself for feeling pleasure (due to conditioning)
So, when you notice which emotions you’re feeling, also take time to notice if they are secondary emotions or primary emotions.
How to unlock your emotions
Unlocking your emotions can be the journey of a lifetime, especially if you were taught when growing up that it wasn’t safe to share your emotions or to be vulnerable.
Getting in touch with your emotions starts with paying attention to your mind and body. Notice areas of physical and mental tension, see if you can link those feelings to one of the eight primary emotions. Make sure to dig deeper so you’re aware if some of the things you’re feeling are actually secondary emotions that are reactions to your primary emotions.
Exercises like journaling, meditation, avoiding escapism, and noticing your triggers can help refine your capacity to notice your emotions over time.
If you have someone in your life who you feel safe to be vulnerable with, consider talking to them about how you feel. The encouragement you get from them can help motivate you to keep investigating and sharing how you truly feel.
Remember, above all, that you are not your emotions.
But by noticing them, you can more quickly resolve them, integrate them, and move forward with your life.
- James Madison University Counseling Center – About Emotions
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Hi there—my name is Ryan. My mindfulness practice kicked off in 2016 after I joined a ten-day silent retreat. I started Mindfulness Box because thinking about what makes humans happy, calm, and peaceful is endlessly fascinating to me.