Why Are Emotions So Difficult to Manage?

“So, how are you feeling?” 


It’s a common and fairly innocuous question. And yet, it can prove frustratingly difficult to answer. While the feeling and experience are present, the words to communicate them may not be. We often resort to vague answers like ‘good,’ ‘bad,’ ‘okay,’ ‘fine,’ or ‘not great.’ 


These responses may be the result of social mores that don’t require our answer to be detailed. But the less we accurately identify what we feel, the less aware of our emotions we become. And difficulty identifying our emotions limits our ability to manage and deal with them – especially when they are broader, more complex, and more nuanced – leading the way to mental health struggles.


What makes identifying and regulating emotions difficult


A range of biological, psychological, and interpersonal factors determine our ability to identify and regulate emotions. And these all coincide early in life to establish or inhibit our ability to identify our emotions and cope with them in lasting ways.


The human brain is equipped with a built-in system for regulating emotions. In fact, the simple act of naming the feeling we’re currently experiencing switches it on. But we have to learn how to use it. 


Instead, many of us learned very different emotional lessons in childhood that have stuck with us.


We learned to judge our emotions.


How we think about our emotions depends on our pre-existing biases. It may be difficult to admit – let alone say out loud – that we feel ‘sad’ because feeling ‘sad’ may have other preconceived connotations that we may not be willing to accept. For instance, from subtle or overt experiences in childhood, we may have internalised the message that our parents only like us when we’re happy. that feeling sad is a sign of weakness, or that crying is simply not acceptable. 


Therefore, an individual brought up in a certain culture or family type may have difficulty identifying what they feel – they just know they don’t want to feel it. On top of that, they may not feel comfortable discussing or expressing emotions that have been stigmatised for them. All of this contributes to difficulty managing these emotions.


We learned to deny, suppress, or fight our emotions. 


When our home environments are not open to conversations about and expressions of mental health, we may learn to deny, suppress, or fight negative emotions. This then often leads us to develop unhealthy coping mechanisms and difficulty talking about how we feel.


For instance, someone who grew up internalising the message that a ‘real man’ is always calm and collected may have difficulty acknowledging when they feel stressed, angry, or scared. They may even pride themselves on not experiencing these emotions ever – when really, they’re just denying their true emotional state.


We learned to express emotions violently.


A person who has faced abuse and trauma during early life can develop an inability to manage their own emotional responses. Children growing up in such chronically stressful environments often become more emotionally reactive adults and face greater challenges with regards to emotional regulation. 


They may also develop difficulty gauging emotions in others – for example, they may perceive others as more upset or angry at them than is accurate. Relationships with romantic partners, friends, and colleagues are often affected, as these adults struggle with managing intense negative emotions that arise from conflicts. 


How to improve our emotional regulation skills


Despite the challenges, people always have the ability to determine and regulate their emotional responses – but they may need help learning how to use their brain’s built-in system for it. Emotional awareness and social cognition play a key role in this. This means:


Learning the language of emotions


Expanding our emotional vocabulary is the first step in better regulating our feelings. Being able to label our emotions accurately is associated with lower levels of anxiety and depression. It allows us to better navigate and communicate in a complex world. 


Sitting with our emotions 


Acknowledging and accepting what we feel can be a powerful tool for personal growth. Emotions are signposts for the things that matter to us. Thinking and discussing these either in an informal or formal environment can be greatly beneficial. 


This also means not judging our emotions – not labelling any as good or bad. Even if emotions are negative and difficult to deal with at times, it is important for us to experience them. 


Building our coping and mental resilience skills


Cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness, exposure therapy, social engagement, and more help us build techniques for recognising our emotions, responding analytically, and coping in healthier ways. 


Successfully regulating emotions is critical to our mental health and well-being. Being able to regulate emotion is not just about being in control. It is about managing our emotional experiences, identifying them, and finding ways to express them in healthy ways. It facilitates constructive and long-term relationships. 


By contrast, not developing our emotional regulation skills puts us more at risk for developing mental health disorders, impulsive behaviours, a loss of control, a sense of isolation, and feelings of being overwhelmed. 


The next time someone asks, “So, how are you feeling,” how will you answer?



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