Why tuning into emotions can be helpful

Published Categorized as emotional literacy, Understanding emotions

In our somewhat over-rational world that I suspect would happily obliterate unenjoyable emotions if it could (in the name of optimal function), emotions often get completely ignored. I think this is exactly why they are prone to causing havoc!

As I consider emotional intelligence more and more (slightly obsessed you might say!), I realise that it is both simple and yet so complicated. The simplicity is that we just need to:

  • be able to recognise what we are feeling in any moment,
  • link the emotion to its trigger, (and those on the advanced programme(!): check to see if the trigger and response has not been distorted by an individual sensitivity/inaccurate self belief etc)
  • accept the emotion and
  • work out how to respond to the emotion resourcefully and appropriately.

The complications can arise from:

  • a general reluctance to even focus on emotions as the significant things they are,
  • the fact many people are extremely uncomfortable around negative emotions, want to ignore them (and move on) and rarely consider how to manage them in themselves or others
  • not always believing our emotions are justified as they are rarely validated,
  • inability to see that relying on entrenched automated responses to emotions (e.g. aggressive outbursts when feeling vulnerable) could be changed beneficially or that it’s necessary to do so,
  • a lack of want of awareness of how we manage different emotions individually and the helpful insights these can give us about ourselves,
  • the tendency with powerful, unenjoyable emotions, of many people going straight to the behavioural response with no conscious acknowledgement of the emotion. This response steals the show and the underlying emotion and its trigger doesn’t get a look in!
  • a disbelief that unenjoyable emotions could have any benefits and a belief that they are best just avoided or ignored.

There is no doubt emotions can be extremely powerful things that have the capacity to sabotage our day to day lives – especially if they are pretty much strangers to us. I will admit that there are aspects of emotions that can be extremely unhelpful in our modern lives as they were evolved for a time when we lived in quite a different way (fear in particular – with its links to worry, anxiety and stress – seems like an emotion many of us could do with a little less triggering of) but that’s not to say emotions are completely redundant. No, emotions can be extremely useful if we learn to recognise what they are telling us, regulate them effectively and see them as an indicator that we might need to do a bit of problem solving.

Let’s have a look at what some emotions might be trying to tell us and why.


Triggered by

What it usually makes us feel like doing

Why this helped the cavepeople

What it could be indicating


A threat or something that gets in the way of us achieving a goal Fight or attack Gave them a burst of energy to fight There’s a threat to our wellbeing that needs addressing


A danger – real or perceived Run away or avoid the thing triggering fear Kept them safe We need to make ourselves safe or we need to face a hurdle that’s making us anxious


A loss – which includes something that we hoped for, not happening 1) Withdraw at first and later, 2) look for a way to replace the loss or feel better about it 1) to protect what they still have

2) To get help from others

We need to take time to recover from the loss, expect to feel sad and eventually find ways to move on.


Something revolting! Can be physically or – to us – morally repulsive. To move away quickly from what disgusts us Prevents them being poisoned – or contaminated by unacceptable ‘deviancy’ e.g. incest We need to avoid certain things and/or look at our values and check we’re not being prejudiced against something that won’t hurt us.


When we have done something that goes against the understood ‘rules’ of the group we belong to To redeem ourselves and made amends for our wrongdoing Prevents our behaviours from being so terrible that the tribe wants to kick us out We need to look at our behaviour and probably modify it for the future.

And just so it’s not all negative:

Happiness (the joy version)

When we experience pleasure Seek out more of what triggered the pleasure Helps find things that are beneficial

Helps connect with others and be part of the tribe

We can work out what we enjoy – does it serve us well? Some things that trigger joy are not great for us!

It can help us become self-aware as we learn what we value.

As this table shows, many emotions are uncomfortable and for good reason. They can drive us to address situations that need sorting. Unfortunately, we can become scared of the discomfort of emotion in itself. As a result, we can suppress emotions or distract ourselves in attempts to avoid intense unenjoyable feelings. This often means the emotions won’t go away completely and can certainly be re-triggered when we find ourselves in the same situation again and also, that they will emerge in unpredictable ways elsewhere: snapping at a partner, unconsciously avoiding something, becoming defensive. A better approach would be to get to the point of recognising each emotion as they arrive, accepting them, not attaching extra baggage to them (such as I am ‘bad’ for feeling angry’), explore what they might be telling us and then aim to solve the problem the emotion is indicating we might have.

So why have I written this somewhat rambling post? I guess it was just good counter-culture PR for developing emotional literacy! And to say: pay attention to emotions!

So if you’re teaching your children emotional intelligence then – yay!