Bottling emotions can have a destructive impact on our physical health, emotional health, and spiritual health, creating unhealthy coping mechanisms that wreak havoc all over our life. In this article, Laura Fleetwood draws from her own experience to share three ways we can clean up our emotional baggage and experience emotional freedom.
One day I woke up and realized that I couldn’t remember the last time I felt joy. Eight years and a hundred therapy sessions later, the most surprising thing I’ve learned about navigating emotional life well is the destructive impact that bottling emotions has on our physical health, emotional health, and spiritual health. As females, we are frequently taught that some emotions are good, while others are bad. The pressure to keep negative feelings bottled up creates unhealthy coping mechanisms that wreak havoc all over our life.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way. You can harness your emotions to work for you instead of against you. You can learn healthy coping mechanisms and have emotional freedom. Living this way reduces stress and all the symptoms that come along with keeping feelings bottled up. Symptoms like headaches, stomach pain, insomnia, anxiety, and IBS are greatly reduced when you let go of bottled emotions. This article will show you three ways to do just that.
WHY WE BOTTLE UP EMOTIONS
In God’s original design, Adam and Eve fully experienced all of their emotions, and it was good. It wasn’t until sin entered the picture that humans became ashamed of certain emotional feelings. Ever since that point in time, humans have learned how to express or repress emotions based on their family of origin and key societal influences instead of from God.
If you’re tempted to believe that some emotions are bad and others are good, just take a look at the life of Jesus. Both fully human and fully divine, He is the perfect example of how to live on this side of Heaven. And guess what? He experienced every single emotion we do—even anger, sadness, betrayal, fear, and anxiety. The difference is that He experienced them in an emotionally healthy way. He did not bottle up emotions. He acknowledged them, felt them, shared them, and moved on. You can learn to do this, too.
THE DAMAGE CAUSED FROM BOTTLING EMOTIONS
The only reason I can write on this topic is because I have personal experience with the destructive consequences of bottled up emotions. As a child, I internalized a core belief that negative emotions must be avoided at all costs.
Fit in. Don’t cause waves. Be the good little girl that is always happy and content.
The world rewards this kind of behavior. So, for 37 years of my life this is how I lived. But a bottle is only so big. And just like a bottle will begin to overflow when filled to the brim, our body, mind and spirit will crack and explode when bottled up emotions take up too much room within us.
Additionally, the body remembers. When you experience emotional trauma (which we all do), the emotions from that trauma become part of your body. If you do not express them and move through them, they will reappear when memories of the trauma are triggered. New research shows just how much our bodies remember even when our conscious minds do not. Letting go of our bottled emotions also helps release them, so they do not return later in our life.
CHOOSING EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE OVER BOTTLED EMOTIONS
Emotional intelligence (otherwise known as emotional quotient or EQ) is the ability to understand, use, and manage your own emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathize with others, overcome challenges, and defuse conflict.
I wish they taught emotional intelligence in every school around the world! It’s a life-changing skill that can be learned and developed throughout your life. There is such freedom in learning how to effectively use your emotions as tools and information to help you thrive in life instead of hiding them away where they will eventually erupt in negative ways.
Throughout the rest of this article, you’ll learn how to increase your emotional intelligence and begin cleaning up your emotional baggage. This is not a one-time event. It can take time to deal with the emotional wounds of the past and learn how to begin processing emotions in a healthy way, but it is worth the sometimes uncomfortable feelings and pain that comes with change in behavior. You (and your loved ones) will be so glad you did.
THREE PRACTICAL WAYS TO CLEAN UP EMOTIONAL BAGGAGE.
1. Become a Noticer
The first step to releasing your emotions from the bottle is to notice them. You have likely been conditioned to repress your emotions (especially the ‘negative’ ones), burying them so deep within that your mind doesn’t recognize them occurring. So I want you to become an emotional detective. Frequently assess how your body is feeling, how your mood may have changed, and common triggers that flare an emotional response.
Recognize when you enter a default state of fight, flight, or freeze. Is there a pattern?
Use all of your senses in this detective work. Some of us are well-tuned to our emotions. Others of us need to be more intentional about it. At this point, you’re not assigning a label to any of the emotions, you’re simply noticing and looking for commonalities. You can even make it into a game.
At the end of each day, examine your waking hours and think about when you felt up and when you felt down. Schedule time in a quiet place to think about the past year, the past decade, even your childhood. What events or triggers evoke any kind of emotional response in you? Keep a journal and write them down.
This is holy work. Do not rush this step. Becoming a noticer of emotion in yourself is a critical starting point in the path to emotional intelligence. Give yourself time to make it a habit.
2. Identify and Verbalize
Once you begin noticing your emotions, the next step is to identify them and speak about them out loud. Both of these actions can initially feel intimidating, so let’s break it down. Over the past century, research has varied on the number of emotions a human being can experience.
During the 1970s, psychologist Paul Eckman identified six basic emotions that he suggested were universally experienced in all human cultures. The emotions he identified were happiness, sadness, disgust, fear, surprise, and anger. Since that time, his list of basic emotions has served as a good starting point for emotional education. However in 2017, Alan S. Cowen and Dacher Keltner, PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, identified 27 distinct categories of emotions, listed as follows.
27 categories of emotions
- Aesthetic Appreciation
- Empathetic pain
- Sexual desire
Expanding your emotional vocabulary to include this level of identification is highly beneficial. You can purchase emotion wheels and even emotion pillows that list all of these emotions to help you distinguish which emotion or emotions you are feeling. It’s important to note that many emotions can be felt simultaneously—even emotions that seem to be on opposite ends of the spectrum.
Remember that identifying your emotions is purely informational. One emotion is not better than another. They are all equal and have nothing to do with your value as a person. Just because you are feeling angry, does not mean you are an angry person or have less value than someone who is happy.
Notice your feelings
So, keep a list of these emotions handy. When you notice a feeling begin to show up in your body, take the time to identify which emotion or combination of emotions it is. But don’t stop there. Verbalize how you are feeling out loud.
Telling someone about your emotions (even if you’re talking out loud to God) is a critical step in releasing them. It’s one thing to think about your feelings. It’s entirely another level to share them. I like to do this by walking and talking to God. I go on a walk with my headphones in my ear, and I verbally tell God about what I’m feeling. If anyone sees me, they just think I’m talking on my phone!
I try to be as specific as possible about the emotions and not judge them, but simply share them with the One who loves me most. This has become a treasured way for me to spend quality time with God and let my emotions out of my bottle. You can do the same thing with a trusted spouse, family member, therapist, or friend. Just make sure that person understands you are simply sharing the information and they do not have to judge, fix, or help you change anything.
3. Move It Through and Let It Go
Over the past decade, experts have recognized the importance of a more integrative approach to emotional processing that includes body, mind, and spirit. Perhaps you’ve heard about somatic processing. This is when you work through emotions on a body-based level instead of just a mind-based level to avoid emotions getting trapped in physical sensations.
You practice this by moving your body in a way that corresponds to the emotion you are working through. My favorite way to move through an emotion is via music. I choose a song with the same vibe as the emotions I’m experiencing and dance it out. So, during a sad time, I might play a slow, somber song and move my body gently. During a happy time, I might jump and leap and raise my hands to my favorite tune. Other ideas include shaking your arms and legs, stretching, tapping, and massage.
In general, just think about feeling the emotion and moving it through the body instead of keeping it stuck. How you choose to do that depends on you. It may feel silly the first few times you jump or dance around, but I promise that it really does help you let the emotion go.
Remember that God gave you emotions for a reason. He wants you to experience the full spectrum of feelings in your body, mind, and your soul. Emotions are tools that help us understand our experiences and deal with both the good and bad we encounter in this world. So, practice working through your emotions instead of stuffing them into a bottle where they build up and become destructive. Allow them to work for you, instead of against you.
As you let go of your emotional baggage, you are setting a powerful example for the next generation in your family, allowing past wounds to heal, and paving the way for a healthier future for everyone whose lives you touch.
Photography by: Julie Jablonski | @juliejabo
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Two feelings that I experience, embarrassment and shame, are not listed as emoticons- are they known as something else?
This was a very informative article that is so much needed! This is the direction I’m wanting to go in my writing and speaking. I am definitely adding you to my email. Thanks for sharing this.
Shame, humiliation, and embarrassment, all different degrees of a similar emotion, are listed on emotional charts that I have seen.
Great article. And something we need to teach our children so they can express their emotions better than we can.
My therapist always talked about stuffing emotions in a black garbage sack. You can stuff and stuff, and then your bag starts to bulge, and the plastic thins and stretches, but eventually if you don’t stop stuffing, boom, the sack will explode, and garbage starts spewing forth.