How to effectively attend to your emotional needs

Imagine you are a cat happily minding your own business when a ferocious dog starts running towards you. You feel terrified; this dog could kill you. What do you do to cope with this threat? You go and eat something. Sounds silly. But this is what humans do when we don't hear what our emotions are trying to tell us. We use unhelpful coping strategies to distract us, and this can cause us to get stuck. So how can we effectively attend to our emotional needs instead of trying to suppress or control them? By listening to and accepting them.


Unhelpful coping strategies

Our emotions are powerful motivators. We need to invite them to the table, listen and respond to all of them. Not just the ones that make us feel good, like delight. As cave people, life was tough. We needed to adapt to survive the harsh conditions. We would have a limited chance of survival if we did not procreate, eat, drink, shelter and defend ourselves. If we were not part of a group, we were in danger of being isolated and more vulnerable to attacks from other animals, other people, the elements, thirst and hunger. Emotions have evolved to steer our actions, and listening to our emotions is necessary and adaptive.

But all too often, social norms, previous negative experiences and the need to be in control can cause us to suppress our emotions and stop listening. And so, instead of responding to emotions like anger by assertively setting boundaries, we might dismiss our feelings as silly, avoid confrontation and go to the pub instead. In this way, we do not allow our emotions to pass as they should. We don't deal with the issues and end up dwelling on things. 

As a child, were you allowed to get angry and express yourself? What would happen if you told your caretakers you felt sad? When you felt stressed, what were you meant to do instead? The adults in our lives too often told us to forget about it, calm down, don't cry; you're okay! Rejecting these narratives and recognising the restorative power of negative emotions can help us to embrace them instead of pushing them away and using avoidance tactics.

Natural emotions

Anger is a natural emotion that serves the purpose of protecting and defending ourselves. It creates a sense of urgency and a desire to take action. It can save us from danger and harm, from bullies and those making unfair demands on us. It can motivate us to take decisive action and draw the line when people cross essential boundaries. When we experience anger, the underlying need is to advocate for ourselves. It is necessary for survival since we live in tribes and must defend ourselves against predators and other aggressive people.

Guilt is a sentiment experienced when someone feels they have done something wrong or hurt someone. It is a natural emotional response that encourages individuals to make amends, seek forgiveness and strive to correct their wrongs. Ultimately the purpose of guilt is to help us learn from our mistakes and to motivate us to make positive changes for the future so that we can live in harmony with our tribe. Guilt is necessary for survival since if our group decides to disown us, we become more vulnerable to danger.

Sadness is a reaction to the loss of something that was once precious to us, a signal that things are not okay and that we need to adapt to change. It helps us seek comfort and form close bonds with other people. When you see another person cry, you instinctively want to hug them and hope to help. Sadness draws people together. It also motivates us to slow down to gain clarity and make sense of defeat and loss. Sadness is necessary for survival since it draws us closer to our tribe and helps us to re-evaluate and grow through change. 

Fear helps us protect ourselves from danger. When we are fearful, the fight or flight response is triggered. Your brain releases adrenaline and cortisol, and your heart rate and blood pressure increase, preparing your body for action. Your pupils dilate, and your muscles tense, making you more alert and agile, ready to fight or flee. At the same time, your digestive and immune systems become suppressed, as they are less relevant for immediate survival. Fear is necessary to survive in a dangerous situation since it can help you respond quickly and take appropriate action by fighting or running away from the danger.

Jealousy helps to motivate us. When we are jealous of someone, it can be a potent motivator to strive for success. We may feel compelled to work harder and achieve more to prove our worth and become better than the person who inspired our jealousy. It can improve connections because we can sense when something or someone threatens our close bond and boosts us to defend and fight for our mates. Jealousy is necessary for survival as it helps us preserve our relationships and it helps us to succeed.

How can I identify my feelings and challenge unhelpful behaviours?

Journalling, meditation and speaking to a counsellor can help us identify our feelings and unhelpful behaviour patterns. Once we are more aware of our thoughts, emotions and habits, we can figure out what helpful strategies to adopt. So the next time you find yourself diving into a tub of ice cream or spending a week's wages in the pub, stop for a moment and figure out what emotions you might be suppressing. They could be trying to tell you something.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Edinburgh EH12 & Balerno EH14
Written by Eleanor Pickett, CBT Therapist, MBACP, MNCPS Acc., Dip (Couns)
Edinburgh EH12 & Balerno EH14

I am a fully qualified cognitive behavioural therapist who can help you identify your emotions, thoughts and behaviours to produce lasting change. If you would like to find out more, please visit my profile.

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