All emotions have their purpose and are natural reactions to thoughts, physical sensations or external circumstances. Emotions are there to keep us safe, help us connect and be used as a tool for problem-solving.
An example of emotions keeping us safe would be an external danger triggering fear. We would then be hit by the physical and mental cues to escape danger - the age old caveman concept of fight/flight/freeze/fawn/flop.
"If your emotions are the weather, then your mood is the climate. Emotions come and go, but mood is the general trend".
Emotions can be helpful even when they are uncomfortable or upsetting. For example, grief at the loss of a loved one may help you to process your thoughts as well as encouraging you to connect to others who also feel this.
Emotional facts as therapeutic tools
These are all basic principles I’ve often encountered in therapy. If you are very mentally healthy, you may experience some difficulties with your emotions and their causes. But when you become mentally ill, these reactions often diverge from logic and stop being helpful, on the whole.
This could look like feeling a strong sense of shame as a minor incident. Mental illness can also change the intensity of the emotion you feel.
I have had this experience before when my mental health was at its worst; I spilled a few drops of milk whilst making coffee.
I instantly felt upset and ashamed of myself in the midst of a distorted, emotional reaction. In my mind it wasn’t a small slip up, it was "proof" that I couldn’t do even the simplest thing. I ended up crying on the kitchen floor for quite some time, totally unable to articulate just what was so upsetting.
Emotional about emotions
Emotions can also be the cause of a second emotion. In this situation I first felt sad, then I felt ashamed both at the mistake and how I was reacting to it. This can sometimes be where the problem lies, too: you may judge your emotions, or your feelings about your emotions could become distressing.
Again, these principles are found in therapy. In Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT), I spent some time working on the physical and mental causes of emotions and how these emotions interact.
When I first learned this I was utterly terrified. I did not recognise the concept that emotions have their causes within myself, so I thought that I was "broken" for not having "normal" emotions and that I was the problem. At the time, I was also confused what the difference was between emotion and mood.
This was later explained to me very simply and effectively. If your emotions are the weather, then your mood is the climate. Emotions come and go, but mood is the general trend.
As I began to work more on my emotions as part of therapy, and over time since my various therapies have come to a close, I have started to accept these facts. I no longer view them as a sign that I am broken but as a sign of hope.
Reframing my thoughts
It takes time and I am still in the process of reframing my thoughts. Like anything, practise creates habits and ways of being. There is no way of waking up and suddenly being in full acceptance of everything I’ve spent years being insecure about.
But now, I am beginning to understand that my emotions are not wrong but they are traits of mental illness.
At this point, it’s easy to fall into the next thinking error, which would be that it’s not emotions but mental illnesses that make me feel like I am wrong.
Using logic and facts, though, I can understand that there is a difference between a mental illnesses being difficult and someone with them being a problem. Just because you have a problem, it doesn’t mean you are a problem.
So when I feel myself falling into this trap, I can tell myself "something is wrong". The sentence ends there. By not adding "with me" to that statement, I am finally realising that I am not to blame for being unwell.
Whilst mental illness is not the "right" way - and we should not have to accept it as the way things are - it is not "wrong" in the moral sense. It is not inherently evil or bad. Instead, I am trying to view it as something that is not quite right that I can work on with others to help me.
Yes, emotions are natural and are there to help us, but sometimes they go wrong and don’t serve us well. Or our interpretation of them can be illogical.
But before we can find out where things have gone wrong, we need a head clear of judgement.
So I tell myself: I am not bad, broken, wrong or evil. The problem is happening within me and impacts me a lot, but is not caused by me. It is not a moral problem. It is very simple - it’s just a problem.
Some days I have to constantly repeat these things to myself. And that’s okay.
- See more: What worked for me: Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT)
- See more: I may be overweight but I still have anorexia
Once I’ve told myself this, I can then begin to work through the basic emotional facts and processes to find which of my emotions is causing me a problem, and what is causing the emotion itself.
The aim for me now is to try to work using these facts, secure in the knowledge that emotions that are doing their job and they help me be safe, connected, and able to problem-solve. Those may not always be emotions that make me feel comfortable or positive, and it’s okay to have uncomfortable emotions. But when they are rooted in lack of reason, they are likely to cause bigger problems.
My emotions are not bad. When I accept them for what they are, and myself who who and how I am, I can begin to work on what to do about them.