Using the acronym “OMEGAS,” Dr. Dave Verhaagen offers a six-part plan to help young adults live happier and emotionally healthier lives. He previously wrote about Optimism and Mindfulness, but here he talks about the benefits of developing emotional awareness.

Why Should We Talk About Feelings?

A college student whose girlfriend had cheated on him once asked me, “Why does everyone say it’s important to talk about your feelings? It doesn’t change anything.”

It’s a good question. Therapists, parents, and spouses have forever been telling others it’s good for them to talk about their feelings. And yet the college guy is right. Talking about emotions doesn’t alter the facts. The breakup still happened. The betrayal can’t be undone. The loss is still real.

So, why talk about your feelings at all?

Here’s a solid and compelling answer: emotion registers in a dumb, unthinking part of the brain. It’s only when we bring it up to the front, smart part of our brain and put language around it that we can make sense of it. And it’s only when we make sense of it that we can effectively process it and manage it.

Understanding our emotions is a vital part of emotional intelligence and we know more emotionally intelligent people do better in relationships, in business, and in most of life. So becoming aware of what we are feeling leads to a whole range of goodies that enhance our lives.

How Do You Become More Emotionally Aware?

Even if you’re convinced that becoming more emotionally aware can be helpful to you, it still might be difficult to do. Guys in particular are often socialized to ignore or stuff their emotions, but both men and women can have difficulty with correctly understanding their feelings.

An approach I’ve found to be helpful is a framework I first wrote about in my book, Therapy with Young Men. It allows you to know what you are feeling and why.

You have four core feelings: joy, sadness, anger, worry. (We could also add disgust as a core emotion, but for our purposes, we’ll leave that one alone for now). How we got one positive core emotion and three negative ones speaks to how we need feelings to alert us to different types of problems.

Emotional Awareness: You have four core feelings: joy, sadness, anger, worry.

We have other secondary emotions, but they are usually variants of the primary emotions. For example, frustration is a form of anger; loneliness is a form of sadness; panic is a form of anxiety or worry.

Setting joy or happiness aside, this framework gives us a way of understanding each core emotion. Let’s start with sadness. You’d feel sad if you had a breakup or if your grandmother died or if your best friend moved away. What do all these have in common? They’re all forms of loss.

Now consider anger. You’d be angry if someone cut you off in traffic or if someone less qualified got a promotion or if your friend made a move on your dating partner. What do all these have in common? They’re all forms of injustice. Something happened that just was not right or just.

Finally, how about worry? You’d be worried if you found a mysterious lump on your side or if someone started following you down a dark street late at night or if no one could get in touch with your brother when he didn’t show up to an event. What do these have in common?

They all involve a threat of some kind. Now a final touch. Each of these three core emotions is rooted in time. Sadness is about something that has already happened, so it is rooted in the past. Anger is about a sense of injustice that affects the present moment (even if the event has already occurred). Worry is about something that may happen in the future.

Increase your emotional intelligence by understanding emotional roots.

Putting This Into Practice

To make this practical, let’s use an example that will allow you to sort out your emotions. You get a call that says your elderly Aunt Dottie has taken a turn for the worse and has been rushed to the hospital for surgery. You show up in time to find your family gathered in the waiting room.

What are you feeling right now?

Probably worry. It’s a threat (to your Aunt’s life and health) and it concerns something that may yet happen. Will she pull through?  After a couple of hours, the doctor comes out, pulls down his mask and delivers some bad news.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “We did everything we could, but she didn’t make it.” Now how are you feeling? Probably sad. There has been a loss. She has passed away.

But suppose you find out more information later. The doctors kept her waiting for over an hour. They gave her the wrong medication. There were other errors.

Now how are you feeling? Probably angry. Even though it is something that happened in the past, it is an injustice that is real in the present.

In this example, you can see how this framework can help you sort out your emotions, even in a complex situation. It can also help you understand mixed or hybrid emotions. For example, have you ever felt angry and sad in the same moment?

Perhaps someone treated you poorly in a relationship. Maybe you were accused of something you didn’t do. There’s an element of anger – an unjust accusation – and an element of sadness, which might include the loss of trust, respect, or the relationship itself. We have complex emotions all the time.

The same event causes us to feel more than one emotion at once. The framework allows you to break out the aspects of the situation that cause each part of the hybrid emotion.

In your head, you can say, “I feel angry because I was unfairly accused and I feel sad because I feel like I may have lost a good relationship with my friend.” The more you can put words to emotions, the more emotionally intelligent you become.

The more you can put words to emotions, the more emotionally intelligent and emotionally aware you become.

The Final Word on Emotional Awareness

When you talk about your emotions – either out loud or in your own head – you begin to understand what you are feeling and why you’re feeling it. And the more you do that, you become more emotionally aware, which leads you to become more emotionally intelligent, which then leads to a happier and emotionally healthier life.

Using the framework I’ve given you here, you can develop your emotional awareness. If you’re not sure what you’re feeling, you ask yourself, “Is there a loss? Is there an injustice? Is there a threat?” That can help you become more clear.

By the way, after I explained this framework to the college student, he pondered it for awhile and then said it made sense to him.

He came back a week later and said he had been able to talk about this sore subject with some friends at school and it seemed to be helpful to him. He wasn’t having bad dreams like he had before. He was able to concentrate in class again. A month later he was talking to another girl.

There’s a lot of power in becoming in touch with your emotions. It allows your brain to process what it needs to deal with, then it frees you up to move forward in your life. It’s one of the best ways to live a full and happy life.

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Dr. Dave Verhaagen
Dave Verhaagen is the author or co-author of eight books, including Therapy with Young Men and Parenting the Millennial Generation. As a licensed psychologist who earned his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he has served as clinical director for three mental health agencies and is the founder and former CEO of Southeast Psych, a large psychology practice in Charlotte, NC. He is one of fewer than 5% of psychologists in the U.S. to be certified by the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) and he is a Fellow of both The American Board of Clinical Psychology and The American Board of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology. His work has been featured several times in USA Today, Newsweek, and dozens of newspapers around the country. He works almost exclusively with young adults (16-29 year olds) in his clinical practice. Dave is a popular speaker at local, state, and national conferences. He has been married to Ellen for 26 years and they have four young adult children: Daniel, Christy, Maddie, and Abbey.Fun facts: He once broke a finger tucking in his shirt and broke another finger making his bed. He worked in radio for seven years on-air. He is a bad magician. He still dresses up each year for Halloween. Do with this information what you will.

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