Accepting Our Emotions: The First Step Towards Happiness
Emotions are relatively brief psycho-physiological states that we all experience. Their mission is to deliver a clear message to you: something is happening that needs your attention. It might be happening on the inside or on the outside, but it is related to you in some way.
For better or for worse, emotions move us and push us to take action. In fact, the term “emotion” comes from the Latin emotio, which means “movement or impulse” or “that which moves you toward”.
Emotional states happen when our brain releases certain neurotransmitters or hormones. These then convert emotions into feelings. Feelings, unlike emotions, last longer and we can verbalize them more easily.
We can classify emotions according to their value: healthy positive emotions (joy, well-being, calm…), unhealthy positive emotions (euphoria, mania, hypomania…), healthy negative emotions (frustration, sadness, anger, regret…), and unhealthy negative emotions (depression, anxiety, guilt…).
Normally, it’s easy for us to accept certain emotional states, especially if they are positive. But it is very difficult for us to tolerate negative emotions, healthy or unhealthy.
It seems that society has pounded into our heads the idea that we always have to be doing well. But that is completely unrealistic and unachievable.
Emotional states come and go depending on circumstances, our expectations, how we process information, etc. Perpetually existing in a happy emotional state is both non-adaptive and impractical.
Why is accepting our emotions so hard?
We live in a culture of well-being and consumption. We are constantly bombarded with unrealistic messages that put pressure on us.
These messages tend to tell us that this or that product will be the solution to all our problems. They also reinforce the idea that no matter what happens, we should always smile. Finally, they overestimate the amount of control that we have over our lives. They make it seem like we have to take all the blame for our sadness.
This irrational positivity just makes us feel worse. Demanding that we constantly be in a good mood can actually keep us from ever feeling that way. Then we end up disguising our true feelings, so that others only see the socially-approved ones.
We tell ourselves that we “shouldn’t feel this way” or “things affect me too much”. We even ask ourselves, “Am I weak because I’m anxious?”.
This attitude just makes us feel bad for feeling bad. It doesn’t help us come to any productive solution. This double “terriblitis”, as Albert Ellis said, causes negative emotions to last longer. In this context, even healthy negative emotions become unhealthy.
Society isn’t the only poor influence on proper emotional management. How we were raised has a lot to do with it. There is a glaring absence of emotional intelligence in schools and homes. For example, how many of us have been reminded that “men don’t cry”?
Strategies to learn how to accept our feelings
It’s important to learn how to effectively accept our emotional states, whatever they might be. If we do that we will feel, paradoxically, how negative emotions go away on their own.
What we want to avoid is feeding our emotions with more negative thoughts. Acting like the victim and other similar behaviors are just fuel to the fire. The point is that criticizing and judging ourselves when we experience anxiety, sadness, or anger is unproductive.
Here are some strategies we can put in place right away:
Forget about the should haves
When you hear your inner voice start with “I should…” replace it with a preference or a “I wish…”. We can’t constantly try to control everything, not even our emotional states. We can only change the thoughts responsible for them if we accept that we feel bad in the moment.
You are a human being and you have to accept yourself as such
You aren’t a god, or superman, or a perfect person. You are human and thus you will experience pleasant and unpleasant emotions. Accept the idea that you can’t fight against your own nature.
Feel the emotion in your body
Invite emotion to dwell in you. It can be uncomfortable, but it won’t kill you. It’s just some chemicals in your blood stream. Don’t give it more importance than that, don’t get dramatic. Love it, accept it. It’s part of who you are.
Normalize your emotional states
Just like we tell people when we’re hot, or cold, or in pain, we can talk about our emotions. Even when they aren’t the most positive. Accepting our emotions means normalizing them on all levels, including with other people.
It might mean that we’ll feel another common emotion: shame. But remember that shame is the result of trying to hide something bad. Is it bad to feel bad every once in a while?
Far from making you a weak person, your emotions actually just make you human. Don’t forget that. Don’t hide them; live them, experience them, learn from them, and let them inspire you.