Getting to Know Your Emotions
by Gudrun Zomerland, MFT
One of the most useful skills we need in order to be in good relationship with
others is the ability to identify our emotions or feelings. This article offers a jump-start to
learn this skill. What follows is an explanation for the meaning of the word "emotion", the
mechanics of emotions, and examples of specific feelings.
The word "emotion" has Latin origins and is made up by combining the prefix "e" and the root
"motere". Literally translated it means outward movement. Our emotions are called thus to indicate
that any sensations we experience in our bodies secondary to outer or inner stimuli
are supposed to move through and out of us. When the sensations get stuck, we
experience discomfort, disease, numbness or a variety of other states that we find undesirable or
others find undesirable in us.
Emotions are directly linked to our vulnerability on a physical level. Historically, before
primateslike usdifferentiated themselves from other mammals, our most vulnerable
parts, namely our soft underbelly and heart area, were usually hidden. Mammals expose their
bellies only as a sign of total well-being and trust or a sign of surrender to a stronger
opponent. Either way, such exposure renders the animal vulnerable, meaning it can get hurt. For us
humans, this underbelly/heart area is exposed all the time by virtue of our upright stance. Thus,
whether we want to or not, we are vulnerable at all times.
Whatever we pick up from our environment through our senses is transmitted to the nerves in our
heart and/or belly. If the signals are in any way alarming, we experience a fluttering heart,
butterflies in the belly, a sick feeling, or by extension to other areas of our body, a tight
throat, chills down the spine, sweaty palms or a myriad of other physical sensations. All of these
are called emotions. That's the bad news.
The good news is that through eons of evolving into the beings we are today, we have developed
language as a way of communicating. We have given our emotions labels that describe how we
feel. There are only three major feelings: happy, sad, and scared. There is
one other feeling, which all of us experience at times, and that is anger. However, anger is
a secondary emotion, because it only appears if we have first felt sad (i.e. hurt) or
scared. All other feeling words are descriptions of these four feelings in either a milder or
stronger form. For instance, "ecstatic" belongs in the happy category, "gloomy" in the sad
category, "reluctant" in the fear category, and "frustrated" in the anger category.
You have a right to your feelings, whatever they are. There are no good or bad feelings. There is
only constructive (good) or destructive (bad) behavior in the face of our feelings. By definition,
feelings are not rational. Rationality belongs to the realm of the mind; feelings belong to the
realm of the body. Even though it is useful and even desirable to engage the rational mind to deal
with emotions, it is not a matter of mind over body but rather of mind with body. Rational
thoughts help us choose our actions. The behaviors we then engage in influence our
feelings, but sometimes our bodies need their own time to process them. It's important to be
patient and accepting. Just like our heart pumps our blood without our nagging, so our body
processes feelings without us pushing. All we have to do is pay attention.
There is no prescribed time frame for processing feelings. It all depends on the strength of the
feeling and the individual's personality and history with emotions. My experience has shown me
that people are doing their best at any given moment. This is not condoning harmful behavior,
because obviously, if somebody cannot translate anger into constructive action but is rather
destructive, we need to protect ourselves. But all of us grab for the internal resources available
at the time. It takes practice, practice, and more practice to communicate constructively about
our emotions. The best first step in this direction is to learn to label what is going on and then
to say: "I feel . . . (followed by feeling word), when you . . .", or "I felt . . . when . . .
happened." If you cannot think of a particular feeling word, describe the sensation in your body
to the best of your ability. Now your partner has a chance to hear you, see you and hopefully,
There are many more challenges in the task of communicating, but being able to state what is going
on for us on an emotional level is a very good and important beginning. Good luck!