Any overanalyzers in the audience? You’re not alone. Some of us try to “think” ourselves out of pretty much anything - including our emotions. While this is adaptive in some contexts (you definitely want to be able to look past your emotions to formulate and implement a realistic plan of action when you’re in a potentially dangerous situation), often in our everyday lives we get too comfortable ignoring what our emotions are trying to tell us. Some of us even “think” our feelings! What this means is that we interpret a situation, recognize an emotion bubbling up, then formulate an argument in our heads as an antidote to this feeling.
Here’s an example: we give a presentation we’re proud of at work to an important client, and our boss doesn’t provide any praise afterwards as expected. We might initially feel hurt and anxious about our performance, but we’ll quickly recall as much evidence as we possibly can as to why they probably didn’t say anything and that our jobs are likely still secure because of other good work we’ve done in the past. Now, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with this process - in fact, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy relies on the connection between thoughts, feelings, and behaviour. For those of us, though, that live predominantly in our heads, this kind of explaining away our emotions can easily morph into a regular habit of ignoring our emotions. There is an important difference between catching yourself in negative thought patterns with little to no evidence supporting them, and learning to cope with feelings in such a rational and two-dimensional way that they lose the qualities that make them feelings in the first place.
We’ve (literally) been in survival mode 24/7 for the last year. We’ve been strong, reassuring, and rational for our kids, for our partners, for our parents, and especially for ourselves. We likely have been forced to tune out or ignore our emotions because we don’t have the time or energy for them, or deep down we’re afraid of what will come out if we loosen the cap on them a little bit. In other words, we don’t trust ourselves enough to be genuinely honest. What this means is that we likely have a lot of emotional repression bubbling beneath the surface that will absolutely come out sideways at some point in the near future. Our bodies are highly intuitive and often are indicators of how we’re feeling before our minds have caught up. Emotional health is a hugely vital piece of our overall wellness - here are some ways to get back in touch with your emotions:
Take regular note of any situational overreactions
When emotions are not addressed, processed, and then let go, they simmer. They dissipate into our bodies and minds implicitly and are later triggered in seemingly unrelated ways. For example, it’s not unusual to snap at your partner over a minor house chore not being done, or cry out in exasperation at yourself (if you live alone) when you’re struggling with something, whether it be professional or personal. Overreacting to situations is a major red flag that you’ve got some emotional work to do.
Remember that what’s on the inside will spill out eventually
A great analogy for emotional health is a coffee cup. Imagine someone bumping into you in the hallway while you’re holding a full cup of coffee. Before you know it, the coffee sloshes out over the side and there’s nothing you can do about it. This is how emotions work too. Imagine the emotions bubbling inside of you as the coffee, and your body and mind as the cup. When the going gets tough, whatever is swirling around emotionally on the inside of you will uncontrollably spill out just as the coffee does. This is why it’s important to stay in touch with what’s inside your coffee cup.
Take just 2 minutes a day to sit and do nothing
We mean it - nothing. Even though our schedules may be a little less full lately, it doesn’t mean we have tons of free time. In some ways, we have more on our minds than ever before. Because we’re spending more time in fewer places, boundaries between work and home and within our relationships and ourselves have likely been blurred at least a little. Take just 2 minutes a day to sit alone, sans phone, music, tv, or kids/partners/roommates hollering in the background. Close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths and just notice the feelings coming up for you, not the thoughts. Tapping into your emotional health requires that you dig into your more guttural and instinctual systems, and these don’t live in your head.
Pay attention to inconsistencies between your body language and emotions
In psychology we call this incongruence. Is the way we’re feeling being appropriately expressed on our faces? In our non-verbal signals and posture? Are we smiling and laughing while we’re expressing a deeply sad feeling to a trusted friend? Ask yourself why. Is it because we’re uncomfortable being vulnerable even in front of the support pillars in our lives? Or is it because we don’t want to make the other person uncomfortable with our darkness and so we laugh it off? Reminder - this isn’t true vulnerability. Being vulnerable means showing up authentically and trusting another to handle your self-disclosure. Don’t waste your time (and others’) thinking you’re connecting with someone when your body language and words don’t actually match.
Notice when you’re rationalizing your emotions
Emotions often get pushed to the side as our brains analyze their way out of them, or ignore them in the effort of achieving our goals for the day. Rationalizing your emotions means that you might be mindful about them to start; you’ll notice them, but then immediately try to explain them away or provide a logical explanation to yourself as to why they’re present. Emotions can’t always be rationalized because they often have more wisdom than our brains can consciously understand. As tempting as it is to try and break down our emotions in an attempt to learn more about ourselves and grow, sometimes emotions exist in a non-cognitive dimension. Meaning, we won’t always understand why we’re feeling a certain way and that’s ok. We just need to get comfortable with feeling and not necessarily explaining. Sometimes we need to simply let ourselves feel and express that emotion (even if that means just crying) before we can eventually let it pass and continue on. There doesn’t always need to be something that was “learned.”
Cutting yourself off from your emotions opens up routes for depression, apathy, imposter syndrome, burnout, and a whole host of other mental health issues - not to mention not being able to nurture true, authentic happiness and fulfillment in your life. Ignoring emotions does not make them go away. They will always come out unpredictably down the road, in ways that may be more harmful to either yourself or your relationships than if you’d just addressed them when they surfaced.