Experiencing and Expressing Emotion

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Emotions are part of our everyday lives. Sometimes, it can feel like our feelings control how we think and act to the point where we feel like we’re not in control. Experiencing and expressing emotions are integral parts of life. But, for many people, emotions remain mysterious, confusing, and difficult to express constructively. This brochure provides information about learning to incorporate emotions into your life in healthy ways, including how to express them in ways that are conducive to building healthy relationships.

Accepting and Valuing Your Feelings

Often, there is a strong relationship between the events in your life and your feelings–for example, to feel sadness in response to loss, or to feel happiness in response to something desirable. Sometimes, feelings relate to past events or even to expectations for the future. For example, sorrow about something that happened recently may bring up sadness about other past losses. Many students may feel anxious about their future career choices. Rather than ignoring or impulsively expressing your feelings, it is important to think about them so you can learn and improve your reactions. When you are feeling something, consider asking yourself the following kinds of questions:

  • What is this feeling?
  • What is this feeling telling me about this situation?
  • Why is this feeling happening now?

Identifying Feelings

Learning to identify the connection between your feelings and specific events (or stressors) in your life can take time, but it’s important in learning how to address emotions in a healthy manner. Here are some things to consider when learning to identify your feelings:

  • You may notice a physical or bodily reaction to an emotion (for example, fear may feel like a knot in your stomach or tightness in your throat; embarrassment may cause you to blush).
  • Your bodily responses may indicate a pattern (for example, feeling jittery prior to beginning every exam).

Feelings are also connected to your behavior. If you aren’t sure how you feel, but you realize that you are acting in a way that sends a clear message to others, you may be able to infer what you are feeling from your behavior. For example, if you have an angry facial expression or tone of voice when you are talking with a particular friend, it may be that you are angry or frustrated with that person without recognizing it. Making the connection between life’s events and your feelings is very useful. Continuing with this same example, once you recognize your feelings, you may then more clearly understand and articulate your concerns with your friend.

Interpretations and Perceptions

Often feelings relate to your interpretations of events more than to the events themselves. While it’s natural to think that you are responding only to the events of your life, you make interpretations or judgments of these events based on your perceptions of the event or person. When you stop to think about it, each event could yield a variety of emotional responses; your interpretation of the event helps link a particular emotional response to that event.

Your interpretations can seem so rapid (or automatic) that you may not realize they are happening. When your emotional reaction is disproportionate to the event, it is likely due to your rapid, undetected interpretation of that event, more than to the event itself. Examining this further may help you gain perspective of your emotional reactions. Here are some common, recurring self-defeating interpretations:

  • Dichotomous thinking. In this way of  thinking, you interpret events as in extremes (all or nothing). In other words, events are wonderful or terrible, with no recognition of the grey areas in between.
  • Excessive personalization. Here, someone concludes that another’s behavior or mood is because of them. So when a friend is in a bad mood, the person assumes it must be their fault.
  • Overgeneralization. This is when someone gives more impact to something than it really has. For example, someone may assume they are a horrible student because they do poorly on one test.
  • Filtering. This is when we magnify negative events and discount positive ones. For example, a student may only pay attention to one negative comment after a class presentation rather than considering many other positive ones.
  • Emotional reasoning. This involves confusing your emotions with the truth. For example, if you feel lonely, you determine you’re not worthy of relationships or friends.Acknowledging these self-defeating tendencies can be difficult but do not define you as a person. They can help us learn how to express our feelings more accurately and productively.

Expressing your Feelings

Cultural backgrounds, family values, and many other factors can influence how we express emotions. Typically,  we learn to express our emotions in two primary ways: either directly expressing them to someone else (e.g., in a personal confrontation), or hiding the feelings and keeping them to ourselves. Learning ways to express our emotions that are aligned with our cultural values, while still attending to our need and feelings, can be helpful both for ourselves and in our relationship with others.

For example, consider the scenario of a close friend planning to move away. You may feel sad, disappointed, or even frustrated about this change. There are numerous ways you can react:

  • You may be so upset you want to avoid the friend until they move.
  • You can stay busy, or anxiously pursue new friendships so you will not feel lonely or sad.

However, you also have options for expressing your emotions more productively:

  • You may tell your friend you will miss them.
  • You may make special effort to see them more before they move.

Here are some useful questions to consider when deciding how to respond to your feelings:

  • Does the intensity of my feelings match the situation?
  • Do I have several feelings that I need to pay attention to?
  • What interpretations or judgments am I making about this event?
  • What are my options for expressing my feelings?
  • What are the consequences of each option for me?
  • What are the consequences of each option for others?
  • What result am I hoping for?
  • What do I want to do?
  • What if I do nothing?

Even doing something like taking a deep breath or going for a walk to think can be a way of responding to your feelings. Remember that you have many options when it comes to expressing emotions.

Understanding the Impact of  Your Culture and Family

As previously mentioned, our families and cultural background help shape our attitudes about emotions, our abilities to identify emotions, our ways of interpreting events, and our ways of expressing emotions. Many people do not recall being taught “family rules” concerning emotions, but such teachings occurred, whether directly or subtly. A subtle example might be where a parent distanced themselves from you or left the room whenever you got angry, thus indicating that expressions of anger were unacceptable. In other families a parent may yell, “Don’t raise your voice at me,” suggesting a rule against the child’s expressing anger, but subtly conveying the rule that expressions of parental anger are permissible. Sometimes, by learning or identifying your family’s and culture’s rules can help you begin recognizing your own reactions and beginning to make changes.

  • Some common examples of learned/unproductive rules for emotions:
  • Always treat other people’s feelings as more important than your own.
  • Never do anything that might cause conflict or negative feelings for someone else.
  • Don’t express anger.
  • Use anger to get attention.
  • Ignore your feelings.
  • Don’t trust others with your feelings; keep them to yourself.
  • Never trust your feelings; trust only your logic.
  • Be happy all the time.

Sometimes, we also learn “acceptable” emotional reactions based upon our gender or sexual identity from our families when, in reality, healthy emotional expression is important for everyone. As an adult you have more options, including replacing those rules which are not helpful.

Final Note

Learning to experience your feelings fully and expressing them in ways that are adaptive and healthy is not a simple process, but there are some key components that can help. In general, it is important to become a good observer of your feelings, to accept and value them, and to attend to what they signal to you. Pay attention to how your interpretations and thoughts affect how you feel and also how the lessons learned in your family about emotional expression continue to influence your behavior. When deciding how to express how you feel, give some thought to all of your options. And most importantly, be patient. Don’t become discouraged when you find yourself struggling with this process. Learning to experience and express your emotions is a life-long process.

Want to Know More?

Firestone, Lisa (2018). How Emotions Guide Our Lives. Psychology Today. Retrieved from psychologytoday.com/us/blog/compassion-matters/201801/how-emotions-guide-our-lives

Beck, Julie (2015). How to Get Better at Expressing Emotions. The Atlantic. Retrieved from theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/11/how-to-get-better-at-expressing-emotions/416493/.

David, Susan (2017). The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage[video file]. Retrieved from ted.com/talks/susan_david_the_gift_and_power_of_emotional_courage.

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