how does one work through emotions?
January 12, 2011 3:06 AM   Subscribe

What does it mean to "work through one's emotions"?

I've been doing some reading about coming to terms with the past and forgiving, and one idea that keeps coming up is "working through your emotions" before this kind of thing can happen, but no one seems to explain what that means. Is it just understanding what they are? Or getting past them somehow? If the latter, any suggestions about what that process might look like?
posted by SymphonyNumberNine to Grab Bag (10 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I think what is generally meant by that is to unearth repressed emotions. To admit to yourself that you felt vulnerable, ashamed, afraid, foolish, or whatever, and really feel that instead of burying it, so that you can learn from it.
posted by Nixy at 3:22 AM on January 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

It means consciously focusing on your present or past churning amorphous blob of emotion and then teasing it apart, putting it in words (whether these words are accurate or arbitrary or chosen for convenience is irrelevant), after which you can pat yourself on the back, stick the amorphous blob in some locked drawer, and go back to pretending it doesn't exist.
posted by tempythethird at 3:46 AM on January 12, 2011

What they're most likely talking about is considering how you feel about certain things, asking yourself why you feel that way, and giving some thought to how those emotions have affected you and how you might deal with them in the future. It's a bit of an open-ended phrase though - it could mean all sorts of things depending on the context.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 4:02 AM on January 12, 2011

As I understand it, when you haven't "come to terms with the past" or explored & understood how those early people/experiences affected/formed you, then your emotions can be unpredictable & confusing & irrational. So if for example you're quick to fly off the handle, get angry at other drivers or whatever, then working through your emotions would mean exploring your anger and tracing it back to figure out what you're really angry at. Supposedly once you understand the root cause, you can address it fully and then it's much easier to control it in other situations.

It can be kind of woowoo but it worked for me, sort of unintentionally. When I was in marriage counseling we were each seeing the counselor/mediator separately to talk about our own role in the relationship and he asked me about my early family life. As I was describing it to him, I immediately recognized how that foundation made my current relationship, and what I would tolerate in it, make sense. It wasn't a way of blaming the past for the present, but understanding how my early relationships influenced the choices I had made as an adult immediately helped me recognize and change certain thought patterns and behaviors in a positive way. It also took me out of my own head in a big way; now when I recognize that little flutter of emotion I just take a deep breath & relax, it's pretty amazing really.
posted by headnsouth at 4:12 AM on January 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

My Gestalt teacher's formula:

If you are sad, cry. If you are happy, laugh. If you are angry, shout. If you are afraid, shiver.
posted by bukvich at 5:15 AM on January 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

For me it usually meant admitting that I Had negative emotions, trying to name one or more of them (and how they might be related), Not Ignoring them by giving myself time (10 seconds or sometimes even more!) to feel them... and then finding they didn't hurt Nearly so much anymore.
posted by ldthomps at 5:50 AM on January 12, 2011

Best answer: It means consciously focusing on your present or past churning amorphous blob of emotion and then teasing it apart, putting it in words (whether these words are accurate or arbitrary or chosen for convenience is irrelevant), after which you can pat yourself on the back, stick the amorphous blob in some locked drawer, and go back to pretending it doesn't exist.

This is what it meant for me. For example, I was once in an unhealthy relationship, and the thought "Why do I even like this guy?" kept creeping into my head, closely followed by the even more unsettling answer "Because he liked me." I kept pushing it back down and continued trying to "work on the relationship." After it was over, I realized things would have been quicker and less painful if I had simply listened to my own feelings. I made myself a promise to always "think my thoughts and feel my feelings," and then I stuffed the memories of the relationship into that locked drawer.

Since then, I've used journaling with great success. If you do it right, it can be very difficult, maybe even as difficult as an intense therapy session. During difficult times, I've even stopped in the middle of an entry to take a nap. Then, I re-read it over and over until it no longer makes me cry. For me, that means acceptance, and an ability to move forward.
posted by SamanthaK at 7:38 AM on January 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

To me it means figuring out what's triggering your emotions, and then choosing to take a healthy course of actions to resolve your problems.
A made up example:

Initial Crisis:
"My husband doesn't care about me! He won't even go to the store to pick up a meatball sub for me, after I spent all day helping his brother move!"

Working through those emotions:
1) Recognize initial crisis is due to hunger, resolve to eat something before dealing with this further
2) Recognize that it is a problem your husband tends to his own needs and the needs of others before your own
3) Accept that you might not being completely rational, and he might be right that all the sub shops are closed at midnight
4) Recognize that you are feeling jealous of your husband because you are not as close to your family
5) Formulate a healthy, productive way to make positive improvement For this example, it might be through discussing problem 2 and 4 with your husband. If you were dealing with the death of a family member, it might involve letting yourself cry and be sad, but resolving to reconnect with other family members and continue to go to work.
posted by fermezporte at 8:23 AM on January 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

My take on this phrase is that when coming up on a topic that creates a strong emotional response, often the instinct is to steer away from it: immerse yourself in some distraction, or displace the reaction on some other issue that isn't really central (when she does that it makes me feel helpless like such and such did - but I don't want to think about that so I'm going to get upset about the dishes again!) or shut down/withdraw emotionally.

To work through the emotions means when the feelings start you don't back away, you keep thinking about whatever it is that's affecting you, you try to figure out where that emotional reaction comes from. This can involve the emotions becoming more intense and troubling, and if whatever is at the root of the feelings were easy to understand/integrate/deal with you probably wouldn't have avoided it so much in the first place - which is why it's "work" - but if you keep after it you might end up making peace with some long-festering wound in your past, or developing an understanding about yourself that makes dealing with some particular aspect of life easier and more effective, which is where the "through" part of it comes from.
posted by nanojath at 8:41 AM on January 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In the movie The Big Chill, Jeff Goldblum's character argues that rationalizations are more important than anything, even sex - "when was the last time you went a week without a rationalization?" He's entirely right. Rationalizations are little white lies we tell ourselves to get us through the day without having to experience the full emotional weight of our lives and full moral implications of our actions every step of the way. We're semi-conscious of the big, elaborate ones, like when we talk ourselves into blowing off something we really should get done. Most of the time, though, they happen so reflexively and fast that we're not even aware - like those automatic, illogical rationalizations that we use to get angry when we should be apologizing.

To me, the trick to "working through your emotions" is to take time to consciously strip away all of the rationalizations you've built up, peek through the comforting narrative you've created to spare your self-image, and try to get to the root about how you really feel.

It's difficult, because the rationalizations cover up feelings we're ashamed or embarrassed of. Our base feelings are usually pretty infantile and needy. If you strip away your anger at your boss, you realize that you're hurt because you don't feel he sees your value, and you need affirmation that you have some. If you strip away the frustration you feel in your relationship, you realize that you're just not happy about who you are, and are looking for someone to blame. It can get ugly at first. There are things about yourself and your real motivations for things that you will resist coming to terms with. Deep down, we are all needy, scared and selfish to degrees nobody wants to admit. But it's worth it, because all of the little lies use to comfort ourselves end up having us tilting at windmills, wasting our time trying to fix the problems we'd like to think we have with solutions that aggravate the ones we do.

Some people can do this on their own. Most of us can't. Therapy helps, if you're open to it. One thing that really helped me "work through my emotions," oddly enough, was reading commercial non-fiction about evolutionary and neuro- psychology. Learning about how the brain works and, the types of reasoning that our brains are naturally bad at and the types of mistaken assumptions we're hard-wired to make really helped me understand just how little of what we think we know is true, especially about ourselves.
posted by patnasty at 10:31 AM on January 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

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