Can I just say right at the start of this article that it’s not so much a question of “can you”, but rather the more effective question here would be, “When can you trust your emotions?”
It’s like asking if you can trust a thermometer. Yes, you can when it’s working correctly. No, you can’t when it’s faulty!
It’s the same with emotions, if you know how to trust them, you can trust them, and if you don’t know how to then you can’t! The good news is everyone can learn how.
This article will explore the idea of “trusting” emotions by diving deeper into the truth behind what emotions really tell us, and when and how to/ not to listen to our feelings and emotions.
You may have heard this before – emotions are messengers. But what messages do they carry? The core role of our emotions is to help us see the weather in our inner world. That’s it. Every emotion tells us what’s happening for us within – this feels good/ not good, safe/ unsafe. You can 100% trust your emotions on telling you the exact weather conditions within. Are they also accurate in interpreting the reality of the world outside? Not always. Because the world outside is co-created by you and others, thus, it can’t be accurately predicted by you alone. Does this make sense? Let’s tease this out further.
Emotion V/S Meta-Emotion
First and foremost, it’s important to discern between the emotion that has come up, and the emotion that you feel about the said emotion!
Let’s understand this with an example. Let’s say I struggle with perfection, and when I feel something is less than perfect it creates anxiety in me.
When I feel anxious I get anxious about my anxiety, or maybe I get angry, or maybe I feel afraid of it.
The anxiousness (about anxiety), anger, and fear, are all meta-emotions – they’re how I feel about the primary emotion that has come up. They’re how I relate to this primary emotion.
If you were to pause and reflect, you’ll realize that during most emotional struggles you never really engage with the primary emotion. You’re almost always reacting to the meta-emotion.
Meta-emotions only really tell you that you’re uncomfortable with that particular primary emotion!
Now that we’ve made this distinction, let’s see why you probably struggle to directly engage with the primary emotion and instead engage with meta-emotions.
Why Do I Struggle With Emotions?
Many people have a tough time understanding emotions, especially some of the difficult emotions.
It’s not because they are difficult to understand. It’s simply because we as a society have declared emotions to be a problem that needs to be fixed.
Since we see it as a problem to be fixed, we don’t invest in seeing the potential value in them. In fact, unfortunately, some critical thinking books (and people) advise us to shrug off emotions in 90 seconds!
In a way, our mental models around emotions are full of negative judgment about how they are “bad” in some or the other sense. Thus, when an emotion that I consider “bad” rises in me, I feel uncomfortable.
The irony here though is that in trying to suppress/ avoid/ shrug off the emotion, you end up feeling more emotions, because now you’re feeling the primary emotion(s) & the meta emotion(s)!
The Truth About Emotions
Are you ready for the truth?
Emotions are always there. Whether or not you’re aware of them is a different matter! It’s like, maybe the weather is not too hot, not too cold, not too pleasant, not too ___, but it’s always there. Weather exists whether or not you notice it!
Emotions are the weather in our inner world. Most of us only notice it when there’s some intensity of turmoil, just like we usually talk about the weather in the outside world when it’s off the usual.
Misconceptions About Emotions
There are many misconceptions about emotions because we haven’t invested in truly understanding them. Some of these misconceptions, along with the truth, are:
- You can’t trust your emotions: Yes, you can. You need to understand how to.
- Listen to your emotions they always tell you the truth: No, they don’t always tell you the reality of a given external situation.
- Don’t make a decision based on your emotions: You can’t separate logic & emotions, they always go together. You may suppress one or the other which then leads to other issues.
- Being emotional is a weakness: It is a weakness right now because you don’t have the skills to work with them yet.
- You must always listen to your gut: Nope, again! The gut can feel queasy for a number of different reasons, like unresolved trauma from the past, and could be sending off incorrect signals.
What Do Emotions Really Tell Us?
All that our emotions are really telling us is what’s happening within us. And if we listen in, they will take us to the truth.
For instance, if I feel hurt because of a comment someone made, or because of someone’s tone, the hurt I feel is true in the sense that it is true I’m hurt. Is it true that the other wanted to hurt me? Maybe, maybe not.
If I accept feeling hurt, then I can explore within – what about the given situation makes me feel hurt. The answer might be I feel betrayed by the person, or I feel inferior, or I feel unworthy, or something else.
The next layer of exploration would be whether this is the first time a comment or tone like this has made me feel this way.
As I continue this process of exploring my inner world through my emotions, I’ll start understanding myself better – my core wounds, my mental models, and my mind’s tendencies.
Thus, emotions tell us the truth about ourselves – the way we perceive things based on our beliefs formed from our experiences.
Do Emotions Reflect Reality Of The Outside World?
They don’t necessarily show us “reality”, however, they can help us navigate and maneuver our external reality in a much more effective way as they can be great guides for our wants and needs.
When Should You Not Trust Your Emotions In The Outside World?
While our emotions don’t necessarily show us the reality of the world outside, understanding where our emotions are pointing us in our world inside can help us comprehend external situations.
However, when there’s unresolved trauma your emotional signals might be misread by your mind.
It could be a big T trauma – a major traumatic event – an accident, a sudden loss, death, an incident of abuse, etc.
Or it could be small T trauma. Small T trauma refers to incidents in the past you might think to be nothing major as single events but when repeated often enough tend to leave scars.
Childhood emotional neglect (CEN), or emotional neglect as referred to under ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) is one such small trauma.
Many adults who experience emotional neglect as children find it difficult to call their childhood experiences traumatic because they believe they had pretty good parents.
Most parents try their best to be their best for their children. However, many parents have their own trauma histories.
An article in Healthline shares that CEN occurs when:
“…a child’s parent or parents fail to respond adequately to their child’s emotional needs. Emotional neglect is not necessarily childhood emotional abuse.
Abuse is often intentional; it’s a purposeful choice to act in a way that is harmful.
While emotional neglect can be an intentional disregard for a child’s feelings, it can also be failure to act or notice a child’s emotional needs.
Parents who emotionally neglect their children may still provide care and necessities. They just miss out on or mishandle this one key area of support.”
When we have unresolved trauma we tend to relive the unpleasant emotions that were prominent during the past traumatic event(s) even if the present event isn’t unsafe.
This is basically our survival instinct, or the amygdala in the brain, kicking in to keep us safe.
In such moments, believing what the mind says based on our emotions can be misleading.
When Can You Trust Your Emotions In The Outside World?
Every single person operates with mental models through which they see the world and perceive situations.
If your mental models are outdated, you might need to review & edit them. Only when you do the work within will your emotions be able to guide you in the right direction.
For instance, as a child, your parents didn’t appreciate your opinion and so you built a mental model that said, “My opinions don’t matter.”
As an adult, if you still carry that mental model you might feel anxious about sharing your views and may think to yourself, “It’s better to keep my thoughts to myself because my opinions don’t matter”.
Now, what the emotion of anxiety is trying to tell you here is, “Hey, something here is not okay”.
However, if you haven’t invested in exploring your inner world you will hear your outdated mental model – my emotions don’t matter.
You can only truly trust your emotions when you do consistent inner work of listening deeper to what your emotions might be hinting towards, and exploring the landscape of your mental models & narratives.
When you do the work the same anxiety can take you deeper where you begin to untangle the past where your parents didn’t appreciate your opinions, from the present you who knows everyone’s opinions matter.
Now when someone brushes off your opinion, instead of thinking your opinions must truly not matter, you’ll be able to see that maybe the other person doesn’t yet have the skills to listen to other viewpoints.
Do We Need To Sit Down With Every Single Emotion?
Yes, and no. We experience feelings every minute of every day. As noted above, just like the weather emotions are always present.
So, no, you don’t need to sit and analyze them all the time. And, yes, it’s good to be aware of their presence – of the weather within.
If you know the weather within, you can accordingly prepare for a storm when it’s building up, or you can simply revel in the moments when the weather within feels like “a perfect day”!
You can also choose to understand the conditions that lead to both, the storm & the perfect day.
- You can trust that your emotions are guiding you to your inner world’s truth.
- Unless you invest in understanding your emotions and exploring your mental models & narratives, your mind can be misled by emotions.
- Emotions are always present whether or not you’re aware of them.
- Emotions don’t necessarily give us an accurate read of external circumstances. They can only be our guides to our worlds inside.
So, what do you think? Do you have the skills to trust your emotions? What helped you build these skills?
If you don’t have effective emotional wisdom skills, what kind of struggles do you have?
As always, please leave your thoughts, suggestions, & questions in the comments below!
P.S. You might find Emotional Needs specific to women, beyond their romantic relationship needs, an interesting next read.