Why are some emotions more intense and painful than others?

There are numerous kinds of emotions and all emotions are important, but some emotions are deeper and more important than others. Our deepest and most painful emotions are called core emotions. They are core because they have two important features. First, they are the deepest and most basic emotions. Second, they are the only ones that can truly bring us “change” inside ourselves if we can honor them and feel them. There are five basic core emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Guilt. All emotions are subsidiaries to these emotions. It’s important to remember that there can be many other types of emotions that we would consider core, but these five are just a way to categorize all of our core emotions. For example, Sadness can be used to describe core emotions such as hurt, despair, or grief. Unfortunately, the core emotion (Joy) that we seek most of the time is often covered by our other more painful emotions.

Furthermore, sometimes these emotions can be intense and painful. Because of this we go into less painful emotions. These are known as secondary or counter emotions. These emotions are still hard to bear, but they are less difficult to face and our bodies are very aware of this. These would not be considered core emotions because keeping ourselves in these emotions can often lead to feeling stuck or overwhelmed. In addition, there is always a more painful and necessary emotion that we need to uncover underneath these emotions that can lead to healing. Some common counter emotions are frustration, anxiety, shame, depression, anger, and resentment. Anger is a little tricky because it can be a core emotion, but it is a secondary emotion most of the time. The other core emotions can also be acting as secondary emotions covering up something more painful and intense. Sometimes these emotions can be too much to bear so we put up defenses. These are things like intellectualizing, addictions, distractions, laughter, etc. Once we build all of our baggage of emotions on top of one another, we can feel overwhelmed or, on the other side of the spectrum, numb. Once we get to this phase, we have taught our brains to continue to seek relief through our defenses. Then the cycle of misery continues…

So when this happens, how do we get back to the joy? In order to do this, we need to move past our defenses, through our counter emotions and into our core emotions. This can be difficult when we have spent years repressing them. Once we can access them, we need to allow ourselves to feel them and deal with them. We know we have done this properly when our painful core emotions start to dissipate and we begin to experience Joy (i.e. love, peace, forgiveness, compassion, etc.). However, this might be equivalent to Mount Everest unless we receive guidance from a therapist trained in emotional work.

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The Value of Controlled Emotional Expression

photoRaising my two daughters has taught me a lot about parenting (considering the fact that my degree at BYU was in child development). My oldest (Rylie) can be a handful sometimes, especially since she is like me in most ways. Sometimes, she wakes up at night and will just cry for about 20 minutes then fall back asleep. Knowing that it is most likely Night Terrors that are the cause of this, I try to calm her down so she can go back to sleep. However, our youngest (Raelyn) sleeps in the same room as her and will sometimes wake up as a result of the crying. When this happens, it can be frustrating because now I have two crying children that I am trying to get back to sleep. I am sure many of you know what this is like. Recently, Rylie woke up crying again and in an effort to not wake Raelyn up, I appeared very anxious toward Rylie and encouraged her to calm down. This of course made things worse. After this, I kept on repeating, “Shhh” to Rylie in an attempt to stop the crying so she wouldn’t wake up the baby. After doing this several times, I had realized exactly what I was doing wrong. First, I was indirectly telling Rylie that Raelyn’s sleep was more important than her Night Terrors or how she was feeling. Secondly, I portrayed the message that sharing her feelings was not allowed in the family and that she needed to repress how she was feeling in order to prevent causing a stir with the rest of the family. Whether she interpreted the situation like that or not I do not know. I had realized that in spite of my good intentions I was teaching my daughter that expressing her emotions was not important to me. Of course, one situation like this is not going to cause an emotional disaster with Rylie in the future, However, I believe that an accumulation of the indirect message “Your feelings are not important right now” can very well teach my children to repress and not deal with what their bodies are feeling.

I see the affects of this with many of the people I see in therapy. Because of the messages that they might have received in the past, they have taught themselves that allowing one to experience core emotions such as sadness, fear, shame, or anger is not safe to do. Unfortunately, when we repress such emotions we begin to carry them with us in a suit case where ever we go in our lives. If you think you are effectively dealing with the issue in this case (pun not intended) I assure you it is not so. I have noticed that many of my clients are afraid of expressing an emotion such as anger, especially if it is towards a deceased family member. They feel that it is not their right to be angry at such a person especially since the family member is not here to defend themselves. However, They are already angry with the deceased member whether they accept this or not, and that by not facing the anger they are already holding towards the family member will most likely continue to tarry with them where ever they go and affect their relationships in the present and future. However, if we can learn to ACCEPT our emotions and the fact that they are part of us as human beings and begin to process through the anger (or other emotions) effectively , we do not have to let it control our lives or influence our relationships any longer. However, this processing can be difficult and dangerous to do and manage especially if you are not being guided by a trained therapist.

As for parenting, A book that really helps parents to teach their children the importance of processing through emotions is called, “Raising an Emotional Intelligent Child” by John Gottman. I recommend it to any parent who is interested in helping their children understand the importance of processing their emotions effectively.

Of course for my own parenting, despite all my mistakes (and future mistakes), as long as I continue to apply my own principles of parenting as best as I can (crossing my fingers) and most importantly as long as they know that I love them MORE THAN I LOVE MYSELF I would consider my parenting a success.