What are emotions
Emotions are often how we first become aware of how we feel about an event, such as feeling happy, sad, or afraid. This can happen even before we become aware of our thoughts about an event. By attending to what our emotions are telling us, we can consider what actions to take. This enables us to live according to our values and beliefs, and provides us with the wisdom to guide our lives and our actions.
How emotions work
Our ability to sense, interpret and regulate our emotions, as well as to sense the emotions of others, is referred to as emotional intelligence. This ability is a complex and sensitive mechanism that meshes memories of past experiences, our thoughts, our personality traits, and other aspects of ourselves into a single sensation. By experiencing our emotions, we can decipher their meaning for us and then choose an action or response that suits. When we say: I just know, or, I have a gut feeling, or, It feels right; this indicates that both emotion and reason have combined to guide our decisions and actions. We probably do this more often than we realise; it can occur almost instantaneously.
Emotions alert us
Emotions also act as an alert system for our survival and our well-being. They let us know that we need to do something, e.g. if a person is threatening you and you are feeling scared, you need to decide whether to calm the person, leave, or stand up for your rights. If you choose to stand up for your rights, your Assertive anger will provide the determination and clarity to do this.
In Emotion-focused coaching, we work with both your thoughts and feelings to make sense of what is happening to you, what meaning the emotions have for you, and what you need to do. This can help you become more aware of what is going on within you, to put the feelings and thoughts into words, to make sense of them, then work out what the emotion is guiding you to do. However, sometimes, because of past life experiences, healthy emotions can become unhealthy, maladaptive, or toxic, so they no longer provide helpful information. We need to work out which emotions are healthy and can be trusted and followed, and which are unhealthy and unhelpful and need to be transformed into healthy emotions.
Difficult or negative emotions need to be explored either to discover what is underneath them, to find which emotions need to be regulated or transformed, and when to do each of these. We have the ability to choose what we will do with our emotions, whether we will express them, work to change them, or simply experience them. But we first need to experience them, identify, value and accept them for what they are telling us, instead of ignoring, suppressing, or avoiding them. We can avoid experiencing emotions in many ways, such as by keeping busy, watching TV, working too hard, using alcoholic or other substances, or playing lots of sport, eating, or just about anything.
Ways of working with emotions
There are different ways that you can work with emotions. These include:
- Experience the emotion, learn what it is telling you and what you want or need to do.
- Examine your thoughts (your self-talk). If they are unrealistic, negative, or catastrophic, challenge them and consider what is more likely and realistic.
- Self-soothe – Learning to calm and soothe yourself can be very helpful. If you are feeling overwhelmed by emotion, you can quickly calm yourself by taking a slow, deep to calm yourself then choose a way to comfort yourself. This might be by phoning a friend and talking about it, going for a walk, playing with your pet, relaxing, playing music, or writing in your journal. You can decide what you want to do about what caused your feeling when you’re calmer.
- Distraction – if it’s not a convenient time to attend to the feeling, acknowledge it, then push it aside by concentrating on other things until you have time to work through it. This temporary solution does not resolve the emotion, so it is likely to surface again.
The coaching approach was introduced by Dr Lesley Greenberg. His book is: Greenberg, L. S. (2002) Emotion-focussed Therapy: Coaching Clients to Work though their Feelings. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. His website: www.emotionfocusedtherapy.org