If you’ve ever felt the anguish of a breakup or felt angry at someone you deeply love (and would prefer to get along with), you may have asked yourself this question: Why do I have emotions? What is the point of having emotions when life seems like it would be so much easier without them?
I too have typed this question into Google’s search bar more times than I can count. Fortunately, both going to therapy and becoming a therapist taught me some of the answers. No more Googling and desperately asking the universe what I do with these unwieldy feelings—so let me share with you what I’ve learned about the purpose of our emotions.
To warn you, this is not going to be a neuroscience primer. That information is out there if you want it, but I’m going to break this down in terms all of us can understand. After all, that’s what most of us are really looking for.
First off: what is an emotion?
To begin, I’ll tell you about a funny conversation that almost all therapists have experienced with their clients. Here’s a common version of the conversation:
Therapist: So, this situation you’re telling me about sounds really stressful. I wonder, how does it make you feel?
Client: Well, I think that it’s just really stressful because there’s just too much going on, more than I can handle, and I’m not sure what to do about it all.
Therapist: Yes, that’s exactly what it sounded like when you were describing all of the details of the situation. But how does it make you feel?
Client: I think I’m just not doing well.
Therapist: Yes, that’s what you think. You keep starting sentences off with “I think.” But I want to know how you feel. When faced with this complicated situation, how do you feel? How does this situation make you feel—emotionally and physically?
Client: Oh. Uh… Hmm. You know, I’m not really sure. I never thought about it that way. I’m not really sure how I feel.
Therapist: I see. Well, that seems like where we need to go next—how you feel in the midst of this complicated and stressful situation.
The above conversation is a classic, and it’s a classic for a reason. You see, it points out a distinction that most of us do not make very often—the difference between thoughts (i.e. cognitions) and emotions. And if we do make this distinction, many of us tend to prioritize our thoughts and logic over our emotions, or vice versa. Sometimes we ignore our emotions entirely—to the point that, after a lifetime of ignoring our emotions, we cannot even recognize what our emotions are when we do feel them! And for others, we let our emotions make all the decisions in our lives—even when it means engaging in self-sabotaging or self-destructive behavior.
So, how is this hypothetical client supposed to know the difference between their thoughts and their emotions?
Well, thoughts are things that happen in your head, literally and figuratively. Emotions are physiological reactions that happen all over your body and typically make you want to do something (more on this later). The English word emotion comes from the Latin root emovere, from the prefix ex- (which means “out”) and the verb movere (which means “to move.”) So quite literally, the historical root of the word emotion means “to move out of.”
So, our working definition: Our emotions are physiological reactions we have to things that happen to us and excite us into action. Emotions want to move through and out of our bodies.
But what’s the point of having emotions?
You’re right—explaining what our emotions are doesn’t explain what their purpose is. But I’ve got you covered on that one too. You see, our emotions are like an inner compass for life. Emotions orient us to the world around us. You feel fear—you run away from that thing. You feel anger—you set a boundary with that thing. You feel love—you want to be closer to that person.
“Emotion focuses on what matters. It steers us to what is worthwhile, it steers us away from danger. It’s a survival compass. It’s tells us what we need.” – Sue Johnson
Frequently we ignore our emotions in favor of logic, what we think we “should” be doing, or in an attempt to prioritize what other people are feeling. However, we have evolved to experience emotions for a reason. Here’s a quick and easy chart with examples of some our most basic emotions, when they might arise, what they do in the body, and what purpose they’re here to serve:
Our Emotions And Why They Exist
|Emotion||Situational Trigger||Physiological Reaction||Purpose|
|Sadness||My partner said something that hurt my feelings||Tears, feelings of heaviness in the chest and all across the body||To grieve what happened and release yourself from those feelings|
|Anger||Someone cut me off on the way to work this morning||Heat and energy in the body, especially the arms, chest, and head||To set a boundary|
|Shame||I’m in 7th grade and other kids are making fun of me||Flushing as blood rushes to surface of the body, a desire to go and make oneself small or hide||To protect myself from further embarrassment and ostracization|
|Joy||I received an award for excellence in my career||Smiles, laughter, feeling of warmth all across the body, easy movement||To bask in feelings of self-esteem, pride, and connection|
Without our emotions, we would be swimming in a sea of data without any idea what direction we should go in.
So if you’re dealing with some tough emotions right now, I hope that this article has helped illuminate why we experience emotions in the first place and how to understand yours at the moment.
And if your emotions still feel too big to handle—or if you can’t feel them at all—I’ll leave you with some advice. While our emotions are a critical part of navigating life, it’s important to acknowledge that our emotions aren’t always correct or helpful for a given situation. Sometimes we’re drawn to people who treat us poorly, and other times we respond to anger by doing and saying things that are harmful. An experienced therapist can help you figure out what to do when your emotions are steering you wrong, or if what you do with your emotions is causing problems in your life.
Until next time,
Sophie Kosar, MS, MFT Resident provides couple, family, and individual therapy in our Sterling, VA office and virtually to those located in Virginia. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary consultation with Sophie!