How to listen to your emotions (and why it matters)

We all experience difficult emotions from time to time, especially in the more challenging times in our lives. And when we do, our knee-jerk response is often to suppress or fight against those emotions.

And while this is a completely understandable response to feeling something really hard to be with, a compelling body of research strongly suggests that these strategies are counterproductive.

In clinical trials, researchers found that people who suppress feelings or struggle against emotions have an increased risk of mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety. And those who mentally struggle against them unwittingly end up increasing both the intensity of the emotion and its duration.

Research indicates people fare better when they accept and listen to their unpleasant emotions, rather than try to fight or suppress them.

Hit play on the podcast below, or keep reading, to learn a three-step process for listening to your emotions. This practice will allow you to regulate emotions in a healthy and helpful way while also accessing the wisdom they may have to show you.

Emotions as signposts

Emotions are an energy within us that hold information – about our needs, our values and our wellbeing and what is ok and not ok for us.

These feelings push up to the surface for expression and to signpost – that is to tell us – where we may have unmet needs, need to put up boundaries or make adjustments in our behaviour. Some of our feelings stem from hard-wired survival patterns – biological forces that have evolved to keep us safe from harm and should not be ignored.

When we try to stem the flow of emotions because they are too uncomfortable, our minds and bodies still try to get the messages they hold through to us and may resort to alternative tactics, like mental and physical illness or amplified reactivity.

Many people block their emotions or fight against them with no awareness that this is happening. That’s why it’s so important to find a healthy way to relate to difficult emotions as they arise. Once we learn to acknowledge and listen to emotions, we can unwind inner tension, restore inner balance and regulating emotions in a healthier way.

I feel. I need. I will. A 3-step process for listening to your emotions

When we are in the throes of a painful or difficult emotion we need a simple, practical and quick method to diffuse unhelpful responses and help us deal with the emotions in a more empowering and skillful way.

When you feel a difficult emotion, You’re going to finish three sentences (you can do this practice out loud, mentally or with a pen and paper. Whichever works best for you).

First one is “I feel…”

Second one is “I need…”

And third is “I will….”

Step 1. I feel

“I feel” is where you name the emotion – a simple way of acknowledging it (instead of struggling with it or suppressing it). So here for instance, you might say to yourself, “I feel sadness.” Acknowledging the emotion helps us to unhook from it and get a little bit of mental space. Research shows that mentally naming an emotion in this way can reduce the intensity of an emotion by as much as 50%.

Step 2. I need

“I need” – here you explore what a potential unmet need might be in this moment.

So if the emotion was loneliness for instance. Maybe as you consider why you are lonely, you realise you have not got enough quality time with loved ones in your life. Maybe you would say to yourself, “I need some more connection in my life.”

To give another example, if you are feeling guilt. You may consider why you feel that way and reflect and realise that it’s because you had an argument with someone and you said something you wish you hadn’t. So, you might say to yourself, “I need to make amends.”

Or maybe you feel anger because your boss gave you extra work to do when you’re already overloaded. You might say to yourself, “I need to speak up and put better boundaries in place with my boss so I don’t get burnt out.”

Step 3. I will

“I will” gets you thinking about an action step you can take to help yourself get your needs met.

So in the aforementioned case of feeling lonely and needing more connection, in this step you might say to yourself, “I will call my friends tonight and ask them over for dinner.”

In the case of regret and the need to make amends, you might say to yourself here, “I will go to this person tomorrow, apologise and aim to communicate better from now on.”

And in the case of the anger and the need to put better boundaries in place, in this step you may say something like, “I will say no to my boss the next time she asks me to do more than I can realistically handle and explain to her that I don’t wish to work overtime as it is causing me stress.”

Your mental strength practice for this week

For the next week ahead see if you can give this practice a try a couple of times and see how it feels for you. The next time you feel a difficult emotion, use the three steps “I feel, I need, I will.”

When we listen to and respond to our emotions like this, they not only are regulated and expressed in a more healthy way, but they can also become our teachers and guides. We can use them to help us get clear on how to meet our own needs, follow our values and live in ways that help us stay happy, healthy and strong.

As always, thank you for your practice and your presence here.

Want to dive deeper into becoming mentally stronger? 

I have so many great resources to give you the support to do that.

Why not try my free 5-day Mental Strength Challenge? You can start it right away, and it’s designed to give you quick wins in your mental strength, wellbeing, happiness, and resilience.  

If you want access to ongoing tools to build your mental strength and a community to support you, join us in the Mental Strength School. For a dollar a day you can take care of your mental wellbeing once and for all with carefully crafted, cutting-edge and evidence-based tools to transform your mind for the better.

Read more from Melli on this topic

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