Why We Can't "Get Rid" of Emotions
Updated: Oct 30, 2022
If you try to boil down what an emotion is into one sentence, you probably can’t: that’s because feelings are complex. Not only are they complex, they are powerful and have the ability to influence our moods and behaviours. In this article, we will dive deeper into what emotions are and how to make more room within ourselves to deal with uncomfortable emotions.
What Are Emotions?
Emotions are complex psychological states which involve three components: subjective experiences, a physiological response, and a behavioural response.
Although emotions are often talked about interchangeably with moods, they are not the same. A mood is your state of mind at a given time that is influenced by your emotions. Moods are longer lasting than emotions and can last for hours or even longer, especially in people with depression or bipolar disorder. We can be in a "bad" mood, for example, and feel a variety of emotions like sadness, anger, or frustration.
In contrast to moods, emotions are temporary and impermanent. This means they are constantly changing and won't last forever. This is actually good news because it means our feelings cant "hurt" us; we may feel uncomfortable and unpleasant emotions, but they eventually go away.
All emotions begin with a subjective experience. This means we each experience emotions uniquely in response to some kind of event, such as an argument. During an argument, one person may feel anger, whereas the other may experience sadness. We also experience emotions at different intensities than other people.
Emotions always have a physiological component. For example, we may have muscle tension when we are stressed, grit our teeth when we are angry, or have a fast heart rate when we are feeling anxious. These are all physiological experiences that occur as a result of emotions and explain why we can have aches and pains without reason- our body is impacted by emotions we may not even be aware of or are suppressing.
Finally, emotions also always have a behavioural component. A person’s behavioural response to an emotion relates to their visual display of emotion, such as their body language. For example, laughter is a reaction we have when we feel happiness, and tears often occur when we are feeling sad or upset.
Why do we have emotions?
There are many theories on why we have emotions. Some say emotions are for survival purposes, while others say they help us understand other people or give us motivation.
From the perspective of evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin, emotions likely evolved in humans because they have a survival benefit. For example, experiencing a fight-or-flight response helps protect us from danger, improving our likelihood of survival. We feel emotions as a result of our environment, and depending on how pleasant or unpleasant, we know whether we should pursue or avoid that situation or thing again. Emotions act as signals to our brains to essentially say, "yes, do that again" or "no, run away!".
Emotions help us communicate our feelings to other people. This happens through both verbal and non-verbal signals. For example, if someone is making eye contact and smiling in conversation, you can tell they are interested in what you are saying. If someone is crying, you can see they are upset and can comfort them. Emotions help us connect to others which is a basic human need.
Experiencing emotions also helps us to get things done. For example, if we feel happy when we engage in a hobby, we are more likely to participate in it again, and if an activity causes us dread, then we are less likely to continue it.
"How Can I Stop Feeling Like This?"
So now that we know more about what exactly emotions are and why we have them, let's talk about some of the challenges people face in dealing with emotions. We have all experienced unpleasant emotions like anger, sadness, anxiety, grief and so on, and I'm sure we have all had thoughts like "when will I stop feeling like this" or "I just want to turn off my emotions".
You are not alone in wanting to avoid the "bad" emotions. But the reality is, emotions are unavoidable (unless you are a robot). To help illustrate the problems we face in trying to "stop" or "get rid" of difficult emotions, let's dissect a typical conversation with clients:
Client: My partner dumped me a few months ago and I've been having a lot of trouble getting over the breakup.
Therapist: I'm sorry to hear you have been struggling. It sounds like the breakup has been very hard for you. Can you tell me more about what you have been experiencing? Client: Well, it was 3 months ago. I should be over it by now. How pathetic am I to still be feeling sad and depressed. I just want to stop feeling like this.
Therapist: You're feeling upset over the end of your relationship. That is understandable. Losing anyone or anything is never easy.
Client: Sure, but it's been ages and I still find myself crying and thinking about them. Something must be wrong with me. How do I stop feeling so sad over this breakup and move on?
Therapist: How have you been trying to improve your feelings and "move on"?
Client: Well, I either try to sleep it off or I sometimes distract myself by watching TV. Maybe I'm not doing enough to try and get rid of these feelings. There has to be something that won't make me feel this sad. I can't stand it!
Therapist: Perhaps in the moment there are ways to ease the feelings of sadness, but eventually, the feelings come back. What do you make of that?
Client: I guess that these feelings are here to stay. I will never get over my ex and feel horrible forever.
Therapist: Not necessarily- we know that the feelings are temporary. Which is good because it means you have moments that are more tolerable. But then you feel sad again, probably when you think about your ex and the breakup. Emotions come and go; it can be a rollercoaster sometimes!
Problems with trying to get rid of emotions
In this example, you see that the client is struggling with a number of different elements of emotions. They think that they "should" or "shouldn't" feel a certain type of way, and in a certain timeframe, and so they think that there is something "wrong" with them for feeling such emotions for so long. As well, they believe that the emotions will last forever and they try to avoid feeling the emotions, only to then be frustrated with themselves that the emotions resurface at times. Lastly, they also believe that if they "try harder" to get rid of the emotions, they will somehow stop.
Any of this sound familiar? It's normal to not want to feel poorly, but we need to accept the fact that emotions are natural and harmless experiences in life. If we don't, we will only end up hurting ourselves in the long-run by creating unhealthy emotion regulation habits. Here are some problems we often run into when trying to cope with our emotions.
Problem #1: We try to problem-solve emotions:
Sometimes we try to find a logical way out of our feelings rather than letting them just be. We try to talk ourselves out of feeling an emotion rather than being present with our feelings. Not only is this invalidating, it is also a subtle way we avoid our emotions because it is too distressing to feel them, which ultimately blocks us from ever processing the emotionally difficult situation.
Problem #2: Avoiding uncomfortable emotions:
Emotions can be hard to tolerate. This is why some people will spend excessive time scrolling through social media so they don't have to confront how they are feeling. People might also abuse substances to avoid feeling emotions or binge eat. However, when we try to avoid our emotions or suppress them, we actually increase their intensity and they tend to persist. In other words, we can't bury our emotions forever; eventually they will surface, and probably in forms you don't want if you have a history of avoidance, such as panic attacks, crying spells, angry outbursts, or "mental breakdowns".
Problem #3: Believing emotions won’t go away:
It is easy to think you will never feel better in the middle of experiencing a strong emotion. But our emotions do pass, which is why we must remember to practice mindfulness strategies during times of distress. Emotions themselves can’t hurt us; they may just be uncomfortable. But by believing they will last "forever" just fuels avoidance behaviours and distress associated with them.
Problem #4: Judging emotions as good or bad:
We often label our feelings as good or bad, but emotions themselves are not inherently good or bad. They are a normal part of being human. By constantly judging our emotions in this way, we end up creating a lot of internal shame and negative self-talk if we experience the "bad" emotions.
Problem #5: Thinking we shouldn’t experience certain emotions:
This issue is related to judging our emotions as "good" or "bad" and trying to logic our way out of certain emotions (usually, the "bad" ones). When we assign an evaluation to our emotions that is "bad" and "illogical" we end up invalidating ourselves which can affect our self-esteem and ability to regulate emotions in a healthy way (we might, again, resort to avoidance tactics to not feel). The reality is, emotions are natural and valid in any circumstance.
Strategies for dealing with difficult emotions
It’s essential to understand the fact that emotions are unavoidable, temporary, and natural in order to develop a healthy relationship to our emotions. As well, here are some coping strategies for emotion regulation:
1) Try not to bottle up your emotions. When you bottle up your emotions, it can lead to mood swings and unhelpful behaviours. It’s important to process your emotions or be able to talk to someone when emotions become overwhelming; consider journalling or talking to a therapist or a trusted friend.
2) Acknowledge and label the emotion you’re experiencing. When you state and identify the emotion, it holds less power over you and can help us better understand why we are feeling the way we are.
3) Validate the emotion. It’s okay to be angry, sad, or upset. If your upbringing has taught you that it is unacceptable to feel or express unpleasant emotions, you must unlearn that and remember it’s okay to feel what you are feeling. Bring compassion to your emotions as you would to a friend or child who is struggling emotionally.
4) Ride the wave of emotion. Riding the wave of emotion is a way to accept your emotions as they are and cope with intense feelings. Just as ocean waves can be peaceful at one moment and turbulent the next, emotions work the same way. But the storm won’t last forever, so don’t fight it—ride out the emotion until it passes.
5) Practice deep breathing. When you focus on your breathing, you are practicing mindfulness, and being open to the present moment. The intensity of your emotions may be distracting, but if your mind wanders, just gently redirect your attention back to your breath.
The bottom line
We all feel emotions, but we each experience them at different intensities. Unpleasant emotions naturally make us want to avoid them, but if we accept and validate our emotions, we can develop healthier ways of coping and will feel better in the long term.
If you are struggling with emotion regulation or are trying to process a difficult situation that is stirring up uncomfortable feelings, therapy can help. Our team of online mental health therapists can help you learn how to cope with your emotions and start feeling better. Book a free 15-min consultation to get started!