purpose of emotion

Chronic tiredness.
Feeling meh.
Frustration and annoyance mingled with worry.
Seeing the world’s problems and feeling ill-equipped to help, because it all feels like too much.
Reaching a breaking point—a tipping point where holding it all in becomes either fury or intense sadness.

This is what holding emotions inside of yourself, will do to your life. Like the proverbial frog in a pot of water, these symptoms of holding it all inside, and inside, and inside, and rationalizing all the reasons why it’s “pointless” to get angry or “won’t do anything to cry about it,” the heat will slowly rise. You will slowly cook in a stew of your own stuff.

Accessing the body is one of the hardest parts of The Courage Habit for me to practice (though it has become much, much easier). For years, I told myself and others that I didn’t “see the point” of feeling my emotions. Instead, when I was angry, my emphasis was on trying not to be. When I was sad, my emphasis was on outrunning my sadness.

Yet, despite those efforts, I was tired, irritable, meh, disconnected, frustrated, annoyed, worried, ill-equipped…until it would reach a breaking point.

Only when it would reach a breaking point—usually anger that overwhelmed me until I cried—did I go into emotion.

I would always feel better after I cried. It released something. If I screamed my anger into a towel, instead of taking it out on other people in the form of making snippy comments or passive-aggressive overtures, I felt better after releasing the anger. (Note: any time I released anger through taking it out on others, I definitely did not feel better).

The Purpose of Emotions

I couldn’t begin to truly dissect all the real reasons why our culture is so divorced from emotions. In a fundamental way, that’s not the work I’m called to understand or share about.

What I do know, in a very pragmatic way, is that you-me-everyone has learned and been conditioned to disassociate from our emotional selves.

Some level of disassociation is a good thing, otherwise emotions will run our lives. But most people would agree that we tend to fall into extremes with emotions, and those extremes run the gamut of either totally trying to live in logic, or being stuck in an over-sharing-please-witness-my-emotional-wounds-and-save-me kind of life.

The purpose of emotions is to feel what we feel…so that we can feel better. And, hopefully, upon feeling better we will do what needs to be done so that others can feel better.

The purpose of emotions, I think, is to create a ripple effect.

Re-Learning Emotions and Catharsis

We need to re-learn the purpose of emotions and catharsis. If we deny our emotions, we become bots and the tired-irritable-meh unhappiness comes into play. Sure, we can live our lives that way. We can get by, but it’s not a great way to live. If we go into total catharsis, then the purpose of emotions gets lost in the catharting, which can become parasitic (parasites dissolve their hosts). I know we’ve all met the person (and at times in our lives, been the person) who wallows in some difficult emotional state for far longer than it’s useful.

To re-learn how to use the purpose of emotions to my benefit, here’s where my money and mouth are: beating them to the punch. Catharting them before they can become something I’m stuck in.

That looks like conscious crying. Or noticing those days where I’m irrationally angry and deciding to carve out five minutes for myself to punch the air in fury or scream into a towel.

This sort of behavior sounds totally nuts, completely crazy.

Yet I see far crazier behavior ensue when we don’t understand that the purpose of emotions is to feel…so that we can feel better. It becomes far crazier to live in a perpetual state of unhappiness or low-grade irritability or generalized “meh.” Research shows that even accounting for biochemistry or genetics, there are things that we can do to move the needle on how happy and grounded we feel on a regular basis.

What it Looks Like to Proactively Access The Body

When I’m proactively accessing the body, it looks like noticing when life is feeling a little grrrr or ugh or womp-womp, and then believing in my sovereign right to feel good.

Summary: notice what you feel. Believe in your sovereign right to feel good.

Then it looks like making some time for accessing the body. Five minutes can—really, truly—be enough. I prefer having about 20 minutes at my disposal.

Summary: you don’t need a lot of time (“not enough time” is always the biggest excuse).

Then it’s the actual venting. I’ve got playlists of sad music (you know, those songs that always make you wanna cry). Sometimes, I vent emotion after reading the day’s news headlines (there’s nearly always something in there that can help me tap into feeling kinda pissed). I’ll cry or vent some anger for whatever time allotted. I always end with something uplifting—music, dancing, laughter.

Summary: Feel the yuck stuff. End with the good stuff.

Afterwards, always, there’s a lightness and a relief.

Tiredness transforms into energy.
Irritability transforms into compassion.
Feeling meh becomes feeling hopeful.
Disconnection becomes connection.
Frustration and annoyance mingled with worry becomes willingness to do the hard work and trust in my basic capacity to hold the challenges.

It’s not just about “me” though. Seeing the world’s problems and feeling ill-equipped to help becomes making the phone calls, sharing the news bite that helps people to be more informed. (Dear representatives, you are always more likely to hear from me right after I’ve gotten into a little proactive catharsis). I call the friend who I know might need a little pick me up. I check in with my team and ask how I can support them. I offer the extra time or money or support. The clutter on the kitchen counter that felt like another overwhelming thing to clean up, becomes the stuff I’ll organize because my husband is a neat freak and it makes his day just a smidge easier.

Perhaps best of all, proactively deciding to access the body helps me to not need to reach a breaking point—in other words, to not break in a way that depletes me.

It seems counter-intuitive and perhaps a little navel-gazey and over-dramatic when I spell it out like this. That assessment was exactly what kept me from going into emotion, for years and years.

Now, I see it as counter-intuitive to try to logic my way through what I feel; I think it’s far more navel-gazey to spend years in therapy trying to talk through things that could be processed with five good minutes of screaming; it ends up being over-dramatic to keep cycling through the same back and forth cycles of white-knuckling my way through the difficult stuff and desperately hoping not to feel the awful stuff.

The paradox becomes that by going into what’s really difficult, we transcend what’s difficult. In that way, the purpose of emotion can take it’s rightful proportion in our lives.

P.S. One of the bonuses that’s included in The Courage Habit is an audio for processing “negative” emotions. It’s a short walk-through of the process I’ve described, here. Enjoy!