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Emotional Intelligence Toolkit

Step 3: Harness the Power of Emotions

Learn How to Build and Wisely Use Emotional Muscle

We have to recognize emotional overload in order to control stress. Probably nothing contributes more to chronic stress and anxiety than the overload created by emotional disconnection to ourselves and others. Moment-to-moment awareness of the influence your emotions have on your thoughts and actions is key to both managing stress and understanding yourself and others.

Watch the video: Developing emotional awareness

To read a transcript of this video, click here.

The power of emotional awareness and connection

Many people are disconnected from their emotions—especially strong core emotions such as anger, sadness, fear, and joy. This may be the result of negative childhood experiences that taught you to try to shut off your feelings. But although we can distort, deny, or numb our feelings, we can’t eliminate them. They’re still there, whether we’re aware of them or not. Unfortunately, without emotional awareness or connection, we are unable to manage our stress, fully understand our own motivations and needs, or to communicate effectively with others.

Our emotions, not our thoughts, motivate us. Without an awareness of what you’re feeling, it’s impossible to fully understand your own behavior, appropriately manage your emotions and actions, and accurately “read” the wants and needs of others.

Emotional awareness helps you:

  • Recognize and rein in your emotional stress
  • Understand and empathize with others
  • Communicate clearly and effectively
  • Make wise decisions based on the things that are most important to you
  • Get motivated and take action to meet goals
  • Build strong, healthy, and rewarding relationships

Evaluating your emotional awareness and connection

Although emotional awareness is the basis of emotional health, good communication, and solid relationships, many people remain relatively unacquainted with their core emotional experience. It is surprising how few people can easily answer the question: “What are you experiencing emotionally?”

What is your level of emotional awareness and connection?

  • Can you tolerate strong feelings, including anger, sadness, fear, disgust, and joy?
  • Do you feel your emotions in your body? If you are sad or mad, do you experience physical sensations in places like your stomach and chest?
  • Do you ever make decisions based on “gut feelings” or use your emotions to guide your decisions? When your body signals that something is wrong (stomach tightening, hair standing on end), do you trust it?
  • Are you comfortable with all of your emotions? Do you allow yourself to feel anger, sadness, or fear without being judgmental or trying to suppress them?
  • Do you pay attention to your every-changing emotional experience? Do you notice a variety of emotions throughout the day or are you stuck in only one or two emotions?
  • Are you comfortable talking about your emotions? Do you communicate your feelings honestly?
  • Do you feel that, in general, others understand and empathize with your feelings? Are you comfortable with others knowing your emotions?
  • Are you sensitive to the emotions of others? Is it relatively easy for you to pick up on what other people are feeling and put yourself in their shoes?

If you didn’t answer “usually” or even “sometimes” to most of these questions, you’re not alone. Most people are not emotionally aware, but you can be, even if you have avoided some of your feelings for a long time.

Do you avoid uncomfortable emotions?

If you're a person who doesn't know how to manage your emotions, or have lived with such a person, feelings can seem frightening and overwhelming. Fear and helplessness may cause you to freeze, act out, or shut down—inhibiting your ability to think rationally and causing you to say and do things you later regret.

Common ways of controlling or avoiding uncomfortable emotions

Many addictive and inappropriate behaviors are rooted in an inability to take emotionally stressful situations in your stride. Instead, you may try to control or avoid difficult emotions by:

  • Distracting yourself with obsessive thoughts, escapist fantasies, mindless entertainment, and addictive behaviors. Watching television for hours, playing computer games, and surfing the Internet are common ways we avoid dealing with our feelings.
  • Sticking with one emotional response that you feel comfortable with, no matter what the situation requires. For example, constantly joking around to cover up insecurities or getting angry all the time to avoid feeling frightened and sad.
  • Shutting down or shutting out intense emotions. If you feel overwhelmed by your emotions, you may cope by numbing yourself. You may feel completely disconnected from your emotions, like you no longer have feelings at all.

Why avoiding unpleasant emotions isn’t the answer

When you try to avoid pain and discomfort, your emotions become distorted, displaced, and stifled. You lose touch with your emotions when you attempt to control or avoid them, rather than experience them.

The consequences of avoiding your emotions:

  • You don’t know yourself. This is one of the most important consequences. It includes understanding why you react to different situations, how much or how little things mean to you, and the difference between what you think you want and what you really need.
  • You lose the good, along with the bad. When you shut down negative feelings like anger, fear, or sadness, you also shut down your ability to experience positive feelings such as joy, love, and happiness.
  • It’s exhausting. You can distort and numb emotions, but you can’t eliminate them entirely. It takes a lot of energy to avoid having an authentic emotional experience and keep your feelings suppressed. The effort leaves you stressed and drained.
  • It damages your relationships. The more you distance yourself from your feelings, the more distant you become from others, as well as yourself. You lose the ability to build strong relationships and communicate effectively, both of which depend on being in touch with your emotions.
  • You distance yourself from pleasant emotions. You can’t pick and choose which emotions you’ll feel. When you disconnect from uncomfortable or overwhelming emotions, you automatically dampen your ability to fully experience positive emotions like joy, serenity, hope, and love.

The upside of unpleasant emotions

  • The upside of anger. Anger can be both deadly and restorative. Out-of-control anger can run amok endangering others and ourselves. But anger can also protect and preserve life by mobilizing us and inspiring determination and creative action.
  • The upside of sadness. Sadness can lead to depression, but it also supports emotional healing. Sadness is a call to slow down, stop thinking and surrender to what we are experiencing emotionally. Sadness asks us to open up, trust, and allow ourselves to be vulnerable in order to heal and recover from loss.
  • The upside of fear. Fear can be debilitating but fear also triggers lifesaving reactions. Fear is a deeply rooted emotion—often the cause of chronic anger or depression. Overwhelming fear can be a barrier that separates us from others, but fear also supports life by signaling danger and triggering life-preserving action.

Make a list of so-called “negative” or uncomfortable emotions, including the three listed above. Then write down the benefits that might come with each emotion. If you’re having trouble thinking of an upside, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What might this emotion be telling me about myself or the situation I’m in?
  • Could this emotion motivate me to make positive changes?

Do you have trouble recognizing what you’re feeling?

If so, you’re not alone. Many people have a hard time recognizing and correctly identifying their emotions. But paying attention to your body can help.

Our emotions are closely aligned to physical sensations in our bodies. When you experience a strong emotion, you probably also feel it somewhere in your body. By concentrating on these physical sensations, you can start to understand your emotions better. For example, if your stomach tightens up every time you spend time with a particular person, you can conclude that you feel uncomfortable in their presence.

Your body can clue you in to your emotions

With the exception of a headache, physical feelings are usually experienced somewhere below the bridge of the nose. Examples include:

  • Sensations in your stomach
  • Tension in your muscles
  • Subtle urges to move body parts
  • Flashes of insight or “gut feelings”

Emotional awareness is a skill you can learn

Emotional awareness is a skill—which means that with patience and practice, it can be learned at any time of life. The process of raising emotional awareness involves reconnecting with all of the core emotions, including anger, sadness, fear, disgust, surprise, and joy via a process of self-healing.

Emotions quickly come and go, if you let them

You may be worried that once you reconnect to the emotions you’ve been avoiding, you’ll be stuck with them forever, but that’s not so. When we don’t obsess about our emotions, even the most painful and difficult feelings subside and lose their power to control our attention.

When our feelings are freed, the core emotions of anger, sadness, fear, and joy quickly come and go. Throughout the day, you’ll see, read, or hear something that momentarily triggers a strong feeling of some sort. But if you don’t focus on the feeling, it won’t last, and a different emotion will soon take its place.