Understanding emotions: what do they really mean?

Often what motivates clients to contact a coach or therapist is that they cannot understand – make sense of – why things are as they are. They might know they are stuck or in difficulty, but the ‘why’ is shrouded in mystery. Before seeking professional support, clients will often spend a lot of time trying to work things out by themselves or with their existing support network. This often results in a  wild goose chase of looking in all the wrong places. Exhausted and demoralised, they pick up the phone to a coach or therapist.

What if there was an easier way to make sense of why things are as they are? Well, there is an easier way: understanding emotions, which is the subject of this post and extract from my upcoming book How To Transform Your Life With IMPACT: Unlock The Best Of You.

Why things are as they are

What do I mean by ‘things’? Anything someone has become aware of to greater or lesser degrees is difficult or challenging somehow. Examples include:

  • intrusive thoughts, unsettling feelings or unpleasant physical symptoms
  • harmful or destructive behaviours such as obsessions, compulsions or addictions
  • emotional states such as stress, anxiety and depression
  • self-esteem/worth, low self-confidence
  • identity and sexuality
  • social and cultural factors
  • difficulties in important areas of life such as family, relationships and work
  • difficulty making progress in life personally or professionally
  • a life that lacks meaning and purpose
  • a combination of the above

The trouble is that simply knowing that a problem exists does not automatically explain and resolve it. If it were that simple, there would be no need for coaches and therapists.

Understanding emotions: making sense

I see ‘making sense of‘ as the active process by which someone seeks to explain the existence and presence of some or all of the above ‘things,’ which they have become aware of to greater or lesser degrees. Sense-making can be a solo effort when we are alone with our thoughts. It can be a shared experience when we seek answers from others. And it can involve gathering information from books and websites, film and television.

An inability to make sense of our experiences makes it hard to articulate what we are going through both to ourselves and others. How many of us, when asked by a partner or friend, “What is wrong? What is the matter?” have replied, “I don’t know.” Human beings are a sense-making species, and our ability to thrive and survive depends on this ability. While we don’t always need an exact explanation (even if one can sometimes be extremely helpful), we need to make enough sense of our difficulties and challenges to resolve and overcome them.

An emotional mystery

Being unable to make sense of why things are, as they are, generates emotions such as stress and anxiety. Such emotions are how our mind/body system complains when it notices we haven’t a clue what is going on when we really need to. Being in a state of mystery or ignorance sets in motion a vicious circle. For example:

  • stress caused by our difficulties and challenges
  • stress caused by our inability to make sense of them
  • stress caused by the resulting deterioration in our quality of life

Looking in the wrong place

Understandably, there can be an energy-sapping focus on what is known, the effects and symptoms of our difficulties. These come in various forms and are often the catalyst for people to act or for others to comment. Some common examples include:

  • physical symptoms such as chest pain and headaches
  • negative, intrusive thoughts
  • problematic behaviours such as procrastination and over-indulgence (eating, drinking, drug-taking etc.)
  • difficult emotions such as anxiety, depression and anger
  • relationship issues such as irritability and intolerance

A focus on effects and symptoms is understandable, especially as they can be highly distressing, but doing so will only prove effective if someone can make sense of them. If they can’t, then the person struggling and anyone else they are talking to are looking in the wrong place. How do you know if you are looking in the wrong place? Because effects and symptoms persist and worsen as to the difficulties that cause them.

Looking in the right place: emotions as messages

When it comes to looking in the right place, when we are able to make sense of why things are as they are, emotions are a great guide. I have always subscribed to the idea that in understanding emotions we need to think of them as messages, a form of communication containing vital information to help us thrive and survive. As a practitioner, I encourage my clients to respond to their emotions like any other meaningful message: make sure it is received, make sense of, and respond.

Difficult emotions such as stress, anxiety, depression and anger contain messages indicating our ability to thrive and survive is being threatened or hampered somehow. Positive emotions convey the opposite message.

Introducing your Emotional Self

If emotions are messages, then who is the sender? Let me introduce you to your Emotional Self. I have worked with thousands of clients over the years, and my ’emotional self’ has proven to be one of my most effective concepts. People quickly grasp the idea of an ‘Emotional Self,’ who is sending messages because sending and receiving messages is a normal part of our daily lives. When we feel an emotion, our Emotional Self is inviting us into a conversation or dialogue with them. Once this is understood, we can become active participants in some of the most significant conversations we will ever have. Understanding emotions means understanding you have an emotional self.

Trying to be helpful

It is essential to understand your Emotional Self is ALWAYS trying to be helpful. After all, its job is to help us thrive and survive. With positive emotions, it is easy to think of a helpful Emotional Self, but with difficult emotions like severe stress, anxiety or depression? How is that being helpful? I accept this is a tough sell. You won’t need me to tell you about the adverse effects that difficult emotions such as depression can have on people’s lives. They remind us something is wrong while often taking away our ability to do anything about it. Again, how is that being helpful?

When it comes to difficult emotions, I am encouraging you to look beyond the effects and symptoms to their purpose to help us thrive and survive. Human beings do not experience these emotions for no reason. There will be an explanation, and something can be done to help most people. Therefore, we must befriend our Emotional Self. Yes, they might deliver vital messages in really unhelpful ways, but an Emotional Self that feels listened to is an Emotional Self that will be kind to us in return.

Understanding emotions: a two-part emotional message

There are two critical parts to our emotional messages about which our Emotional Self wants us to know. The first part is about the causes of our emotions. These can be internal or external to us—or both. Internal causes of difficult emotions include low self-esteem, self-criticism and self-sabotage. External causes of difficult emotions include insecure employment or living in a threatening and unsafe environment. The message is plain and simple. Difficult emotions mean something is wrong, do something about it. Positive emotions mean something is right, please continue. (For the complete list of causes, go back to the list at the start.)

The second part of the message indicates how near or far our Emotional Selves think we are from overcoming the causes so we can thrive and survive. The further away our Emotional Selves believe we are, the more intense and difficult the emotion. The closer we are, the more intense and positive the emotion.

Serious and determined

Our Emotional Self takes its role very seriously and is determined to carry it out at any cost because our thriving and surviving are important. If there is one thing our Emotional Selves hate more than anything, it is being ignored. They hate it so much that being ignored makes them dig in their heels. What they want, and are determined to get, is us—their owner—in conversation. Our Emotional Selves WILL NOT STOP until its message is delivered, made sense of, and responded to. If you want to appreciate how loud and determined our Emotional Selves can get, you only need to look at the extreme end of the mental health spectrum. This is why understanding emotions is SO crucial.

Understanding emotions: mystery solved

So now you know what your emotions mean. They are messages sent from your emotional self and are about your thriving and surviving. That’s all. Plain and simple.

I hope you have enjoyed this extract from my upcoming book, and it has shed light on the subject of understanding emotions. If you would like to find out more either about my book or anything else to do with mental health and wellbeing, please get in touch as I would love to hear from you.