We seek happiness, often numbing or ignoring painful feelings. We power through distress, thinking that if we ignore it, it will go away. Sometimes the pain does disappear if we tune it out, but more often than not, it seeps into other parts of our lives and makes us miserable. So many of us run from emotions, not understanding what they mean, thinking we would have it easier if we could avoid them.

In truth, emotions are messages, a source of inner guidance. All feelings exists for a reason; they are always informational. If your hand gets too close to an open flame, you’ll feel a burning sensation, which alerts you to the fact that you’re in danger, and take your hand away from the fire! The messages that your emotions send you are not unlike those that your physical sensations provide.

The first step to figuring out what your feelings are telling you is to decipher precisely what emotion you are feeling. Pay attention to your thoughts and bodily sensations. What are you thinking? Oftentimes, thoughts run through people’s minds so fast, that unless we stop and try to listen to ourselves, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what’s going on. It can be helpful to jot down some thoughts for yourself. Notice, too, what’s happening in your body. Are your muscles tensing up? Is your skin getting hot? Do you have butterflies in your stomach?

Once you name the emotion, make sure that it really fits with your situation. For example, you may think you’re angry, but perhaps anger is masking another deeper feeling. Often, as author Liza Palmer said, “Anger is Sad’s bodyguard.” Anger generally means that I or my values have been attacked. Sadness means something was lost. Anxiety, there is something I am afraid of. Happiness means I gained something. Multiple emotions can surface at once, and it’s helpful to realize that you can be feeling two, even dichotomous, feelings at one time.

We all have an emotion that is our “go-to,” a feeling that we experience most often, a filter perhaps for other emotions we experience. For many people it is anger, because anger is relatively safe. It’s external; it allows us to blame others for how we feel. For others it is anxiety, an unease or apprehension about everything. When you learn to listen for your messages, your emotional range will expand.

There are emotions that we feel as a result of things that happen to us, like trauma, loss, injustice, etc., and there are those that we create by how we judge and and treat ourselves. Thus, it is helpful to ask yourself the following: are you ignoring your needs? Is someone being unloving to you? Is something dangerous or wrong? Do you need to make major changes in your life? You may not always know the answers to these questions, but in your journey of discovery you will find contentment. When you address the emotion and thereby comprehend the meaning behind your emotional discomfort, the feeling resolves.

This post was written by Rivka Rochkind, LCPC