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The Purpose of Emotions by Douglas G. Pierson, M.S., LMFT

Have you ever asked yourself “What is the purpose of my emotions?”

As a therapist, one of my roles is to help people accept and sit with their emotions. Yes, that means to feel them. We don’t generally like to feel our feelings, do we? Especially the negative ones. We either shove them down or numb them out with distractions. We might even fear that we’ll get judged if we show them. Or maybe we have experienced that others couldn’t accept our feelings. Most of us didn’t learn how to share our feelings growing up or in school. And we certainly aren’t good as a culture about revealing our true feelings to one another. In fact, we generally perceive vulnerability as a weakness rather than as a courageous action.

As Christians, we are more prone to focus on what we are doing than how we are feeling, which leads to neglecting our emotions. And yet, the scriptures, namely the Psalms, are full of emotions, especially the negative ones: sadness, fear, and anger. God is full of emotions. He is a jealous God. Jesus wept. And in Romans, the apostle Paul writes about how the Spirit intercedes for us with groaning too deep for words. (Romans 8:26)

Simply put, the purpose of emotions is to tell our story, first to ourselves, and then to others. By sharing our experience and revealing our truth, we connect our internal world to the external world. Each feeling word reveals a unique need. If I’m feeling sad, I need comfort. If I’m feeling afraid, I need reassurance. If I’m feeling angry, then I need to be heard.

Many people are familiar with words like “stress” and “anxiety” but they don’t realize that these are very general words for very specific feelings. Psychologists call the practice of labeling one’s feelings more specifically “emotionally granularity,” and by identifying feeling words we are able to more specifically identify our need. In fact, neuroscience shows that we can actually lower levels of stress hormones in the brain, namely cortisol and noradrenaline, the more that we practice emotional granularity. Isn’t that a miracle? Wouldn’t you like to feel less stress and anxiety in your life?

First, we have to learn the language of emotions as an internal awareness. I often use a feelings wheel (see below) to help my clients pinpoint the feeling word that best describes their experience. Then we must use that language for connecting to one another’s experience, which develops empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. If you struggle with empathy, don’t worry, it is a learned skill. We talk a lot about emotional intelligence, which is defined as “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.”

For those of you “feeling-fixers” out there, the truest way to help release feelings is to validate them. Acknowledge them, label them, and verbalize them. Then empathy can be felt and the emotion can pass. When our feelings aren’t acknowledged, we actually hang on to them more. And then they accumulate inside of us, triggering one another, causing us to displace our emotions in an unhealthy manner. Some might act out, while others might act inward towards themselves, which commonly leads to shame. Shame is the only emotion that I have found to not have a specific purpose. In fact, shame is isolating, darkening, and self-blaming. Therefore, we have to be aware of how we react to our feelings.

Feelings don’t blame or defend. They reveal. They reveal who we are and how we’re doing in life and in our relationships. They communicate what we need. And it’s through feelings that we can eventually find the solutions.

As Christians, we are well conditioned to look at modifying our behavior, but successful behavior change doesn’t occur until the heart changes. And in order for the heart to change, we must understand it. Feeling words are this very language to help us know our experience.

David Benner, author of ‘The Gift of Being Yourself’ clearly articulates this concept. He says “There is no deep knowing of God without a deep knowing of self, and no deep knowing of self without a deep knowing of God.” Therefore, if we do not accept our full range of emotions (especially the negative ones), then we do not fully know ourselves, and thereby we limit our knowledge of God. Furthermore, we lose sight of knowing how God sees us. Benner adds that “Genuine self-knowledge begins by looking at God and noticing how God is looking at us.”

There’s a difference between doing good and knowing deeply one’s proneness toward sin and darkness. This is all the reason why I encourage Christians to seek understanding of their emotional system. Knowing yourself more fully will allow you to know more how God knows you. And, in fact you’ll know God more by understanding more of what He has saved you from.

Unfortunately, the pain that has been experienced in relationship must be allowed to heal in relationship. That’s why He has given us community and that is why group process is so powerful. Therefore, we must increase our trust in the power of sharing our emotions and commit to refraining from escaping our feelings. Although it is tempting to run for the exits, we must fully embrace the power and wisdom of true feelings.

7 Comments

  1. Carlene Kertesz on October 23, 2018 at 7:37 am

    Very enlightening! I wish I could read the wheel. Is there a way I can get a more visible copy?

  2. Gregg A Makin on October 23, 2018 at 1:24 pm

    Could Doug say more about this as well as more examples? “Each feeling word reveals a unique need. If I’m feeling sad, I need comfort. If I’m feeling afraid, I need reassurance. If I’m feeling angry, then I need to be heard.”

  3. Annamae Sterling on October 23, 2018 at 7:24 pm

    Thank-you so much for this email ! Since it is so important to express our emotions , it does make me wonder why it isn’t taught in school .

    • Bob Rawlins on October 24, 2018 at 11:34 am

      your chart Is too small and too fuzzy! I couldn’t find “denial” in your chart.

  4. Terri Dietrich on October 24, 2018 at 5:47 pm

    OH MY GOODNESS! Thank you for this email and this information!
    I was truly told NOT to express what I was feeling – or to make choices… I was told what was doing or not going to be doing, and literally “not to speak unless spoken to”

    God has been leading me through a beautiful road to healing – and feeling my emotions, looking you in the eye, finding my voice (and using it) all beautiful amazing gifts from HIM. THANK YOU for confirming I am on the right journey.
    Bless you!!

  5. Lorraine on December 20, 2018 at 6:00 am

    Great article! Where can I get a better copy of the wheel and what other resources would you recommend to read on emotions and how to help someone start to even allow themselves to feel! Thanks

  6. Diane Dyck on April 11, 2019 at 1:50 pm

    Regarding shame, I believe this is a message that says someone is not glad to be with me. If the reason is constructive, something I can learn from, important feedback that can help me gain self awareness, then I call this a healthy shame message. Another word for shame is ‘overwhelm’ or the feeling of wanting to hide. I think shame has a purpose if it is not toxic.

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