What are our key feelings, and how can accepting them enhance our lives?

The vast spectrum of emotions can be a minefield. It can be hard to know how to express the things we’re feeling, in part because being ‘in touch’ with our own emotions doesn’t always come naturally – at least, perhaps in this day and age, when putting your feelings aside in favour of agreeableness is common practice.

The task of getting in-tune with our feelings can feel like a mammoth one, but the first step in doing so could lie in identifying our primary emotions, and going from there. The thinking varies slightly on precisely how many ‘core emotions’ we have, but one widely accepted theory from American psychologist Dr Paul Ekman presents six: sadness, happiness, fear, anger, surprise, and disgust.

On his website, Dr Ekman writes: “Emotions are a process, a particular kind of automatic appraisal influenced by our evolutionary and personal past, in which we sense that something important to our welfare is occurring, and a set of psychological changes and emotional behaviors [sic] begins to deal with the situation.”

When you put it like that, it sounds quite simple. Emotions are just things that happen to us, for the ultimate purpose of survival. Even so, many of us will be familiar with the experience of being ruled by them, as much as being out of touch with them. But does it have to be that way?

Getting to the heart of it

“In my 40s, I went through a rough patch in my life, experiencing depression and panic attacks for the first time,” says Fiona McAlister, an integrative trauma-informed psychotherapist. “Out of these experiences, I learned much that lifted me from those states, and introduced new practices into my regular routine that enable me now to maintain a well-balanced emotional and physical state. Crucially, this changed mindset, my more awakened understanding, and nourishing practices have supported me to find blissful peace of mind – a peace based securely on the knowledge that I am safe, no matter what happens in my life.”

As Fiona explains, at the heart of her philosophy was the understanding of humans’ primal need for safety – when we don’t feel safe, we cannot function fully and healthily. Just like Dr Ekman explains, our emotions are there to keep us alive, to alert us to things that aren’t safe, and it’s for that reason that getting to know our core emotions, learning our individual signs, and our triggers, can set us free. For Fiona, that’s achieved with four key steps…

The six universal core emotions

An upsetting emotional state that is linked to other feelings like grief or disappointment.

Pleasant feelings that can lead to joy, fulfilment, and contentment.

An emotion designed to keep us safe, which triggers our fight-or-flight response.

When we feel frustrated or hostile.

A positive or negative emotion after experiencing something we didn’t expect.

Feelings of repulsion.

Begin with education

“In order to understand why I was having anxiety and panic attacks, I started learning more about my body, and my physiological responses to the world,” Fiona says. “I learned about the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which runs through the brainstem to the spinal cord and organs, and regulates our internal state, largely through the polyvagal nerve. Essentially, the ANS manages our so-called fight/flight/freeze responses to external stimuli, and sometimes to our internal thoughts.”

This information prompted Fiona to accept that the sensations she was feeling – for example, tension in her body and a shortness of breath when she was scared of something – were just a normal part of her physical processing. From there, she was able to accept them and, eventually, with time, even begin to welcome them.

“Learning about the ANS will help you realise and accept that the physical pain or tension you experience during difficult emotions is part of your body’s normal safety response system,” Fiona adds. “Accepting this will give you a powerful way to listen to the safety messages your body is sending you.”

Try a somatic awareness practice

Somatic awareness is all to do with directing your attention to the sensations in your body for the purpose of self-healing. Fiona recommends the following exercise to get you started:

Close your eyes and breathe, letting the breath be whatever the breath is in that moment, and tuning-in to the inhales and exhales, moment after moment.

Allow your body to relax, feeling supported by the chair under your legs and behind your back. Let your body sink into the seat, let it hold you, you are safe.

Now, focus your attention within your body, seeing if you can find any sensations therein. You might notice tension, tingling, looseness, warmth, or cold – anything at all that rises in your awareness.

Just be with that sensation – there’s no judgement, no right or wrong, there is only this, whatever sensations you’re feeling. You might breathe into the sensation, feeling your inhale moving to that part of your body. You might want to fill the sensation with colour or warmth. Just let it be.

Then, when you’re ready, start to come back to the room. Tune back into the noises around you, feel your feet on the floor and the chair solid underneath you. When you’re ready, rub your hands together and gently place them on your face to bring yourself back to the room, back to your environment and present. Open your eyes.

Dealing with negative emotions towards others

Next time you feel a perceived ‘negative’ emotion towards someone else, Fiona recommends saying the following lines to yourself:

1. Yes, I’m angry with them. I believe they let me down. That makes me feel bad and now I feel a pain in my chest as I think about what they did. I am not ready to forgive them.

2. However, I accept all of this. I accept that I feel bad, that I feel angry. I accept that my chest hurts. I accept it all without judgement – how I’m feeling is not right or wrong, it’s not good or bad – it just is. How I’m feeling right now is just how I’m feeling. All feelings and sensations are welcome.

3. In accepting these feelings and sensations, I accept who I am and I let myself be who I am.

4. I can love all the parts of myself that are talking to me right now. I can be with myself and love myself. I am OK.

Yin Yoga

If you haven’t yet stretched into the world of yoga, it may not be the first thing you think of when considering ways to connect with your core emotions – but it might be time to think again.

“For those of you who are more active, mindful movement is a beautiful way to contact the body and create that space for the body to be heard,” Fiona explains. “In my experience, there’s no better activity for this than yin yoga – a practice that takes your body gently and slowly through a series of asanas (or postures), giving time to hold each posture for two to five minutes.”

You may be able to find classes in your area, but many are also available online. The practice is all about being very mindful of the things that you are feeling, both emotionally and physically.

Finally, find acceptance

“For me, all these practices lead towards that magic ingredient: the bliss of acceptance,” Fiona says. “Just to be clear, acceptance is not the same as forgiveness. If someone has hurt you, you may not be ready or able to forgive or forget. Acceptance is about accepting that all aspects of the experience are real and OK.”

In the moments when you’re rooted to the spot by your emotions, or when the pursuit of the ‘right’ emotions prevents you from being present, seeing your emotions as a survival tool, and detaching them from ‘right or wrong’ is freeing. And, it turns out, your body may hold the answers you seek.

To find out more about connecting with your emotions, visit the Counselling Directory or speak to a qualified counsellor.

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