Getting to Know Your Emotions

One of the most useful skills we need in order to be in good relationship with others is the ability to identify our emotions or feelings. This article offers a jump-start to learn this skill. What follows is an explanation for the meaning of the word “emotion”, the mechanics of emotions, and examples of specific feelings.

The word “emotion” has Latin origins and is made up by combining the prefix “e” and the root “motere”. Literally translated it means outward movement. Our emotions are called thus to indicate that any sensations we experience in our bodies secondary to outer or inner stimuli are supposed to move through and out of us. When the sensations get stuck, we experience discomfort, disease, numbness or a variety of other states that we find undesirable or others find undesirable in us.

Emotions are directly linked to our vulnerability on a physical level. Historically, before primates—like us—differentiated themselves from other mammals, our most vulnerable parts, namely our soft underbelly and heart area, were usually hidden. Mammals expose their bellies only as a sign of total well-being and trust or a sign of surrender to a stronger opponent. Either way, such exposure renders the animal vulnerable, meaning it can get hurt. For us humans, this underbelly/heart area is exposed all the time by virtue of our upright stance. Thus, whether we want to or not, we are vulnerable at all times.

Whatever we pick up from our environment through our senses is transmitted to the nerves in our heart and/or belly. If the signals are in any way alarming, we experience a fluttering heart, butterflies in the belly, a sick feeling, or by extension to other areas of our body, a tight throat, chills down the spine, sweaty palms or a myriad of other physical sensations. All of these are called emotions. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that through eons of evolving into the beings we are today, we have developed language as a way of communicating. We have given our emotions labels that describe how we feel. There are only three major feelings: happy, sad, and scared. There is one other feeling, which all of us experience at times, and that is anger. However, anger is a secondary emotionbecause it only appears if we have first felt sad (i.e. hurt) or scared. All other feeling words are descriptions of these four feelings in either a milder or stronger form. For instance, “ecstatic” belongs in the happy category, “gloomy” in the sad category, “reluctant” in the fear category, and “frustrated” in the anger category.

You have a right to your feelings, whatever they are. There are no good or bad feelings. There is only constructive (good) or destructive (bad) behavior in the face of our feelings. By definition, feelings are not rational. Rationality belongs to the realm of the mind; feelings belong to the realm of the body. Even though it is useful and even desirable to engage the rational mind to deal with emotions, it is not a matter of mind over body but rather of mind with body. Rational thoughts help us choose our actions. The behaviors we then engage in influence our feelings, but sometimes our bodies need their own time to process them. It’s important to be patient and accepting. Just like our heart pumps our blood without our nagging, so our body processes feelings without us pushing. All we have to do is pay attention.

There is no prescribed time frame for processing feelings. It all depends on the strength of the feeling and the individual’s personality and history with emotions. My experience has shown me that people are doing their best at any given moment. This is not condoning harmful behavior, because obviously, if somebody cannot translate anger into constructive action but is rather destructive, we need to protect ourselves. But all of us grab for the internal resources available at the time. It takes practice, practice, and more practice to communicate constructively about our emotions. The best first step in this direction is to learn to label what is going on and then to say: “I feel_____(followed by feeling word), when you_____”, or “I felt _____ when_____ happened.” If you cannot think of a particular feeling word, describe the sensation in your body to the best of your ability. Now your partner has a chance to hear you, see you and hopefully, understand you.

There are many more challenges in the task of communicating, but being able to state what is going on for us on an emotional level is a very good and important beginning. Good luck!

About this ContributorGudrun Zomerland, MFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist with offices in Santa Rosa and Petaluma, CA.  She writes: “I grew up in post-war Germany and moved to the US in my mid-twenties. The exposure to two cultures has given me an appreciation for diversity, its riches and challenges. Because I was affected by the immense destructiveness of war just prior to my birth, I have a particular sensitivity to personal as well as historical trauma and the deep fear, pain, rage and/or guilt some of us carry inside. I find personal self-exploration, interpersonal discovery, artistic expression, a spiritual belief, and humor of utmost importance in people’s achievement of mental health. I see inner well-being as a life-long task.”  

To learn more about her work, please visit her website

  1. Thank you Gudrun. Even as a student of biology, I had never before realized that the underbelly is more exposed in bipeds. Ha, I have this jacket that is white on the front, and I always feel super self-conscious when wearing it…apparently my brain is interpreting the whiteness as an exposed belly.
    Also, thank you for the linguistic analysis of emotion – the concept that emotions should move through, rather than get stuck, is super helpful!

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