Emotions are beautifully complex. However, they aren’t always cared for properly out of fear of confronting them or denial that they exist. But by becoming more in tune with your feelings, you can learn how to lean into them for your well-being rather than pulling away from your emotions and suppressing them. Use these tips to make small steps every day toward better emotional awareness.
The core emotions
Many experts consider our core emotions, also known as primary emotions, to be joy, fear, sadness, disgust, and anger. These emotions are the base for all other combinations of feelings. It’s easy to identify when you feel just one of these emotions at any given time, but it can complicate the situation when you experience multiple core emotions at once. Return to the basics by becoming aware of your primary emotions to help you express yourself when you’re unsure of how you feel.
Joy is a feeling of pleasure and happiness. Your brain releases more dopamine and serotonin when you experience joy. We associate joy with things that make us feel safe, calm, and loved. Your body might feel light, and you might feel more connected to yourself and those around you. Oftentimes, joy is a state that also invokes higher energy levels.
When you fear something or someone, you can often confuse it with general anxiety. Anxiety is a consistent and excessive worry, but fear can be less obvious. If you have little control over a situation, your mind might prepare you for the worst possible outcome. This is natural, and you can feel it physically through muscle tension, perspiration, and an elevated heartbeat; this is because your body is preparing to protect itself mentally and physically. Don’t dismiss fear, even when it feels silly, because your body is telling you that it’s uncomfortable.
When you feel disgust, your body also wants to protect itself—especially from harmful things such as sickness or poison. So when you experience disgust, your body might respond with nausea or light-headedness to tell you to step away from the situation. Many feelings of disgust are natural and safe to have, such as being turned off by blood and other bodily fluids—most people aren’t ecstatic about those for good reason to protect their bodies.
One of the easiest emotions to recognize, sadness is a feeling of hopelessness or heaviness because of a loss or an inability to understand something. Physically, you might feel more tired than usual, have a headache, and withdraw from other people. Your mind may want to shut down, which can make you feel numb. These symptoms happen because your body is reserving its energy to help you heal. If you experience prolonged periods of intense sadness, it’s important to reach out to a professional to get the help you need.
Everyone expresses anger differently. Oftentimes, anger can be silent. When your mind is unprepared for something that occurs, it copes by shutting down parts of your rational thinking and inhibitions to bring you back to a comfortable place. You might experience muscle tightness, a red face or neck, and a clenched jaw. You might also say or do things you usually wouldn’t, and you might even feel physically stronger than normal. It’s important to recognize when anger crosses a line into hurtful territory.
How to understand your feelings
Remember, your brain makes different combinations of primary emotions that can be hard to vocalize, so be kind to yourself when you can’t pinpoint what you feel. However, there are simple techniques you can use to understand and interpret your feelings so you can grow, learn to know yourself better, and set yourself up for success.
Emotions can be intense at times and sometimes unexpected. It’s important to pause, remove yourself from the situation, take a deep breath, and perform an inventory of your feelings. Notice how your body feels and what your thoughts are. Pay attention to the combination of your physical and mental states. Sensations such as tension, shaking, high or low energy, and increased heart rate are common for any one of the core emotions, so it’s important to recognize the sensations most common for you.
It can be helpful to record your daily emotions to track them and discover patterns. Write down your thoughts, and try not to pass judgment on yourself so you don’t hold back. Use language like “I feel” and not “I am.” Ask yourself the following questions:
What happened before I felt that emotion?
- How did I feel?
- How long did I feel that way?
- Where did it happen?
- Were there other people involved?
- Did I have any physical symptoms?
- Did I accept my emotions or repress them?
As you journal more, you might notice that you have the same emotions while around a specific person or in a particular place. From there, you can embrace your feelings and learn from them.
Consult a professional
While it’s important to reflect on your own and voice your emotions to a loved one, it’s also beneficial to voice how you feel to an unbiased professional. A therapist can help you understand yourself, improve your habits, and offer recommendations that are solely focused on your goals. Your therapist will challenge you to master reading the messages that your emotions are sending to you about how to care for yourself and others.
Honor your emotions
The most significant aspect of achieving emotional awareness is to honor your emotions. Feelings cannot be controlled easily, and it’s not always healthy to do so. It’s not going to be easy—you will not always be proud of your emotions, but you should acknowledge their existence. Respect that your mind and body are different from anyone else’s.
It can be helpful to practice self-affirmation when you wake up and before you go to bed. Examine what you’re feeling and why you feel that way. Tell yourself that, regardless of how you might feel in the moment, you are deserving of love and respect.
Listen to what your body tells you to do and honor it. If your body and mind are telling you to take time to rest, then rest. If you feel like crying, then cry. If you want to enjoy time by yourself, then spend time alone. Don’t rebel against your mind to meet everyone else’s expectations. Embrace your emotions as a part of your human experience.