Recognizing Your Emotions

“What did you feel?”

This is probably the most common question counselors ask. So much so that it is part of the comedy of being a counselor. Many times, after I tell someone I am a counselor, they ask me, “how does that make you feel?” But we ask this question because it is uniquely important.

We rarely consider our emotions.

Emotions are not something the average person spends time considering during the day. We have a feeling come up and we react to it. Little thought is involved. We get mad, we yell. We get sad, we cry or withdraw. We get happy, we laugh or hug someone. Most of the time we react to our emotions without much thought. When we do this, we use a pretty small part of our brain that is adept at doing things the way we always have done them. But what if the way you have always done them is causing you problems.  Often times in counseling, I’ll also ask people why they did something. People struggle to answer this question. When you are operating on autopilot, you don’t worry about the “why” of things. You just react. When we react, we are using some of the same parts of our brain that house our fight or flight responses. This is a great way to escape danger, but it is a terrible way to navigate relationships. Fight and flight are all about protecting yourself from danger. Putting up walls and being as safe as possible. Relationships necessitate us being vulnerable and that is unsafe. These great, life-saving reactions actually work against our goal when we use them in relationships. So, instead of reacting to an emotional trigger, we must first ask ourselves what emotion are we feeling. That single question takes us from using a small, relatively unintelligent part of our brain to using the most logical and intelligent part of our brain (prefrontal cortex).

What exactly is an emotion?

A second roadblock we run into is being able to identify the emotion we are feeling. This can happen for two reasons.

  • We don’t try to consider our emotions enough. This makes identifying them difficult. This is a skill that must be built over time. Keep asking yourself “what emotion am I feeling?”
  • We don’t have the correct vocabulary to express what emotion we are feeling. When asking what someone is feeling, often times the response will begin with “I think….” This is immediately a thought and not a feeling. (Later we will discuss the 8 core emotions to begin helping you grow your emotional vocabulary.) Again, using feeling words is a skill that must be cultivated.

By simply focusing on naming the emotion you are feeling, you will begin to better decipher the feelings you are having. Identification is the first step in deciding on appropriate next actions for your emotions.

So, what are the different emotions?

This could be a long series of posts in itself. However, I will limit this post to a basic description of 8 core emotions.

  • Anger has many faces, but it is some degree of intense negative feelings toward someone or something. Anger focuses on needs not being met in the past. Anger brings strength and usually moves you to some kind of action.
  • Fear is tied to anger. It is typically a result of some level of anger. Fear is focused on the potential that needs won’t be met in the future. Fear can be good in our lives and foster things like wisdom and preservation when managed in healthy ways.
  • Pain is the emotional bucket for things like sadness, hopelessness, and loneliness. Tears, isolating or grief are all contained in the Pain emotion. Pain can bring healing through grieving properly. It also fosters personal growth and awareness after experiencing something harmful.
  • Joy is another big bucket that includes things like happiness, joy, excitement, etc. Joy can foster things like hope and gratitude.
  • Passion while the first four emotions are usually thought of as good or bad, passion (for me) is the first of these 8 that can go either way. Passion is all about energy and excitement toward accomplishing a goal. It can be fueled by another emotion, but in itself, passion is all about energy and movement towards something.
  • Love encompasses belonging, selflessness, and compassion. Love is a big category and means a lot of things to a lot of different people. In the most basic sense, it is a positive feeling toward someone or something that usually involves some kind of willingness to sacrifice.
  • Guilt is a negative emotion tied to our actions. It is the belief that someone has done something bad, so they deserve punishment.
  • Shame is often confused with guilt. It is the belief that there is something inherently wrong with me, so I do not deserve anything good. Shame is deceptive and pervasive. Everyone feels this emotion at some time in their life. A significant amount of the counseling I do is dealing with this single emotion.

Keep in mind, this is a basic framework to understand emotions. This way of thinking about emotions covers most emotional experiences someone will have in their lifetime, but it by no means includes everything. For example, I can say emotions of pride would likely fall under passion (for self), but you might think there is a better place for it. Remember, this is a tool to increase your understanding of your emotions and your ability to communicate about them.

Why is this important?

Is it really worth the work to understand your emotions? Say you put in all this work and really try to get a handle on what you’re feeling from moment to moment, then what? You stand to gain more than you might realize. Emotional Intelligence (that’s what are are really talking about here) is used in almost every moment of your day. It will help you

  • Enjoy life more by understanding your own emotional needs and how to meet them.
  • Have deeper friendships, because increasing your personal EI will help you better empathize (understand how they are feeling) with friends and family.
  • Perform better at work. For example, understanding emotions will make you a much better salesperson, HR representative or counselor!

These are just a few of the benefits I have seen in people as they gain a better understanding of emotions and how they affect us. Be sure, it will be work to grow your EI. However, I promise it is worth it. Being able to understand why you are down instead of wallowing in your negative feeling can be a game changer for people struggling with depression. Understanding why you are still hurt from what your friend said to you at that party will keep you from stewing over a misunderstanding and allow you to get back to enjoying a deep friendship. Everyone struggles to understand themselves, and emotions often get put on autopilot. You can begin to change this by being more mindful of your feelings and asking yourself, “what’s going on here?” You will be surprised by the rapid change in your life and relationships!


Kyle Purcell is a counselor based in the Conway, Arkansas area, specializing in helping those who struggle with shame and other kinds of relational issues.

(501) 358-7607 Ext 104


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