Steps to help navigate your emotional world

 ‘In order to move on, you must understand why you felt what you did and why you no longer need to feel it.’ - Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven


This quote by Mitch Albom encapsulates why it is important to learn to understand and manage our emotions. If we don’t, we can get very stuck. The reason many of us haven’t mastered this yet is that it isn’t an easy thing to do, so if this is something you struggle with, you are not alone and there is nothing wrong with you.

If you are keen to learn to navigate your emotions to improve your well-being, you might like to consider the following steps. This process can be undertaken with a counsellor or therapist, but there are also measures you can take on your own.

The three steps are as follows:

  1. Accept that emotions are natural and learn to be compassionate with yourself.
  2. Learn not to place so much judgement on emotions.
  3. Learn how to be in touch with and understand your emotions on a day-to-day basis.

Let's explore these further 

Accept that emotions are natural and learn to be compassionate with yourself.

Many of us may have been taught to push down emotions or that showing emotions is wrong. Phrases like ‘stiff upper lip’, ‘don’t cry’ or ‘you’re being too sensitive’ might be familiar to some. People who have said these phrases to you probably did so because it is what they were told from a young age, but these phrases are counter to the fact that emotions are natural and they exist for many reasons, including:

  • they enable meaningful relationships and connection
  • signposting when there is injustice
  • letting us know what our wants and needs are
  • helping us to make decisions

It can be helpful to look at what has gone before so that there can be new intentions going forward. One example of this is that it may be helpful to acknowledge that your disconnection from grief may arise from early experiences of death in the family. Perhaps it was considered shameful to show that you were upset. Telling yourself that it is natural to grieve and that you need to do so to move forward with your life and to regulate your emotions can be an important step in navigating your emotional world. Similarly, recognising that your shame and disconnection around anger stems from the fact that anger was considered wrong in your family can allow you to explore your anger and start to disperse it.

Next time you feel difficult or overwhelming emotions, notice how you talk to yourself in those moments. If you beat yourself up for getting upset or chastise yourself for being confused by your emotions, catch yourself and try and be compassionate instead by saying something like ‘these emotions are a natural part of life’ or ‘it’s understandable that I don’t know how to navigate my emotions currently, but I am learning to do so.’ This can help us navigate emotions more helpfully and therefore improve mental health.

Learn not to place judgement on emotions

As already stated, feeling extreme or difficult emotions does not make you a bad person or overly sensitive. Perhaps it is understandable, however, that some emotions have got a reputation for being ‘bad’. People have assumed this with anger, for instance, because people who are angry sometimes lash out physically or do something malicious. It is important to point out that this is not a sign that there is anything wrong with anger; it is a sign that the person concerned doesn’t know how to process their anger. It is also worth stating that anger is an energy and whilst it might not always feel pleasant, it can be channelled in a positive way. For instance, if we see or experience injustice, we might be angry, and we can use this anger to gain greater justice.
It can be helpful to see emotions as a spectrum rather than as good or bad. It is the norm to see emotions such as anger, jealousy and sadness, for instance as ‘negative emotions’, and joy, happiness and excitement as ‘positive emotions’. This isn’t helpful because it results in us avoiding some emotions. It is undeniable that some emotions don’t feel pleasant, but the reality is that if we shut out the ‘negative emotions’, over time, we become less able to feel things like happiness and love. By shutting out the ‘negative emotions’ we are also denying the full human experience and depriving ourselves of learning and growth and perhaps even authenticity.
Endeavouring to see emotions purely as what they are rather than place a value judgement on them can help us to be curious about our emotions in a healthy way and assist us in understanding and navigating our emotional world.

Learn to be in touch with and understand emotions

If you are in a situation of having ignored or pushed down emotions in the past, starting to acknowledge them and navigate them can be confusing and difficult. You may have heard the phrase that we need to ‘just be’ with emotions. This isn’t terrible advice, but it can be difficult to know what that looks like. It is a good idea to welcome emotions when they arrive and let ourselves feel them.

Observing our emotions by getting in touch with the bodily sensations and any other impact they have on us helps us to get to know them. For instance, if you know that jealousy feels like a knot in your tummy you may recognise feelings of jealousy more quickly in the future and be able to identify something that you are missing out on that you want.
Allowing yourself to be with your emotions can seem daunting, in part because people often think it means they will suddenly start crying at work or when they bump into their ex-partner. This isn’t the case at all, in fact, the opposite is true. Being in touch with your feelings means that you are more able to take command of them. Being in command of your feelings means that you can acknowledge them and put them aside for later if necessary.
Here are a few more ways you could help yourself to be more in touch with and get to know your emotions:

  • Journalling around different emotions or about how you feel when big things happen in your life can help you to process and understand your emotions.
  • Using creativity can be very helpful. For instance, you can paint a picture of your insecurity or write a poem about your sadness.
  • Talk to friends or family about your emotional world if it feels safe.
  • If you are having difficulty describing or identifying your emotions, you can think about them in a metaphorical sense. For example, if they were an image, an animal or a song what would they be?

Getting more in touch with and understanding your emotions isn’t a fast or easy process. However, doing so can deliver benefits such as more authentic decisions, more meaningful relationships, and better mental health. Doing so can also mean we can more fully experience joy and happiness. Whilst it can take a while to master our emotions, and in many ways, it can be a life-long process, some of these benefits can be noticed early in the process.

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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Oxford, Oxfordshire, OX3
Written by Beth Roberts, Integrative Counsellor and EMDR Therapist MBACP (Accred).
Oxford, Oxfordshire, OX3

I am a fully accredited integrative counsellor and I work online and face to face in Oxford. I work with a wide range of issues including trauma, depression and anxiety.

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