Emotions Get a Bad Name-It’s All About “The Context”


Emotions can be difficult to understand, let alone talk about openly. They’re abstract, subjective, complex, and invisible. No two people feel the same emotion in exactly the same way due to no two people sharing the same experiences with the same brain. Many emotions are uncomfortable and others are highly sought after, but one thing is clear...they are a fundamental part of being human.

Many people seek therapy because they believe their emotions are a problem.  It makes sense...we’re given plenty of messages that invalidate our emotional responses to events in our lives. Parents that tell us that we “have no reason to be scared,” or “I had it worse in my day.” Friends that may say, “don’t worry about it, there’s a lot of fish in the sea” after a break up or the media that portrays us as flawed and abnormal if we aren’t persistently happy. In fact, our emotions are rarely considered within the contexts we experience them. Instead, they're considered as irrational ways of being that point to some underlying mental health problem or disorder. Emotions being placed into categories of ‘good or bad,’ and ‘positive or negative’ is a symptom of this perspective and it leads to us trying to rid ourselves of any uncomfortable emotions we experience at all costs (avoid, numb, distract, etc…).

Looking at Emotions in Context

One of the most extraordinary aspects of my work is watching someone’s perspective shift toward greater compassion and self-acceptance of their emotions. It’s common for a first therapy session to begin with someone saying that there is something wrong with how they’re feeling or that they ‘feel too much.’  As therapy progresses, we explore the context around their emotions as responses to their experiences, and it becomes clear that their emotions actually make a lot of sense and essentially confirms that they are human. It becomes increasingly apparent that there is a great deal of wisdom behind their feelings.

When we don’t describe the context surrounding an emotion, we’re far more likely to view our feelings with a negative bias.  Rather than seeing our emotions as responses to our experience, we see them as the result of apparent underlying psychological problems. Context helps things make sense and without it, the view looks distorted and our emotions make less sense.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

John is a 12-year-old boy attending middle school. About 4 months into 7th grade, his mother and teachers notice that he’s been increasingly sad and irritable. He’s increasingly withdrawn, taking less interest in hobbies and activities he was once excited about. He is frequently late for school, because he struggles to fall asleep and wake up in the morning. He tends to go back and forth between tearfulness and emotional flatness.

From a therapeutic perspective, John is likely depressed.  There is an underlying negative assumption that his emotional state is a problem and needs to be fixed. After all, it is interfering with his ability to function.

Now consider this: John’s parents divorced a year ago and conflict has been high between them. His father has been opting out of scheduled visits with John, spending time instead with his new girlfriend. When he does see John, he’s telling him to tell his mother that he’d rather be living with his dad. Finally, a group of boys have been bullying him.

After reading more about what John is responding to, did your perspective change at all?  Did it make more sense as to why he might be withdrawing, struggling with sleep, eating less, and is frequently tearful?  When we look at our emotions as meaningful responses to events in our lives, they become far more understandable and normal. In John’s case, I would be more concerned if he wasn’t responding to those circumstances as he is.  When we respond to adversity in these ways, it shows we have a pulse and are reacting to something that is important to us.

Emotions and Meaning

A big factor in why we feel the way we feel in response to events has a lot to do with the meaning or value we give it. Generally, the more important something is to us, the more intense our emotional response will be. Producing meaning is a very individual and personal process.   Take a grief response for example...the experience of loss could mean something very different to two people. One person could respond by shedding a few tears (or none at all) and feel “over it” after a week, while the other could be in mourning for years. It all depends on what the loss means to each person.

It’s way too oversimplified to conclude that the way someone is feeling is “distorted,”  “irrational” or even pathological. When we do this, we imply that people are deficient, and their responses are abnormal (the stigma attached to therapy is based on this). This is why, in my work as a therapist, I work to allow clients to avoid placing rules on themselves about ‘normal’ and help people heal on their terms, within the context of their very unique lives.

Emotions Are Valuable

Our emotions can work like a compass, pointing to things we need to consider and address in our lives. Instead of fruitlessly working to stop experiencing our feelings, we can look at the things our emotions are pointing to and make meaningful changes in those areas. Counseling and therapy can be helpful when it comes to understanding troubling aspects of our lives in a new way. Many people talk to therapists to redefine the meaning they make of events about which they feel distressed. For example, I’ve helped men who were subjected to sexual abuse as children, who then feared that they too would offend against children as adults. These men came to understand that their distress actually demonstrates that they take a firm position against perpetrating sexualized violence. Once they felt secure in that understanding, their levels of distress were far less disturbing for them. Examples like this show how understanding circumstances and our responses to them more thoroughly can help us increase acceptance and feel more comfortable with our emotions.

If you, or someone you know, would like help in working through the process of increasing acceptance and compassion of emotions, consider contacting me at (717) 288-5064 / gregghammond@restoringbalancelancaster.com and schedule an appointment today.