How to Process Emotions: 4 Tips for Well-Being

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Codependent No More" by Melody Beattie. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you struggle with how to process emotions? How can properly processing your emotions help you overcome codependent tendencies?

Many codependent people tend to repress their emotions, because feeling numb is better than feeling pain. However, not processing your emotions can lead to a multitude of issues, including worsening your codependency issues. In order to gain back your self-esteem and work towards becoming more independent, you need to learn how to process your emotions.

Here are four tips for processing your feelings.

Process Emotions Healthily

An important strategy for overcoming codependency is learning how to process emotions healthily. This is a difficult area for a lot of codependents.

According to Beattie, most codependents repress their emotions because it seems safer not to feel anything than to risk being hurt again. (Shortform note: Repression can also be caused by a lack of confidence or a desire to keep a relationship.) However, repressing feelings doesn’t work. When you don’t process your emotions, they start controlling you. Repressed emotions act like quicksand, keeping you in place, unable to change or grow. Once you learn how to process your emotions, you can climb out of the quicksand and take back control of your life. In this article, we’ll look at some helpful concepts for processing emotions and then examine one of the most stigmatized and feared emotions: anger.

The Importance of Processing Emotions

How can you stop repressing your emotions? Margaret Cullen explains that the key is in feeling the emotions in the moment. Many high-pressure jobs, such as doctors and the military, teach people to suppress their emotions in favor of effectiveness. However, these methods don’t actually work. Allowing themselves to feel their emotions in the moment improved these experts’ effectiveness, as well as their overall health and sense of happiness.

Cullen suggests picturing your emotions like a wave: It comes and goes, and if you let yourself float along with the wave, you’ll return to balance. If you try to fight the wave, you’ll be crushed under the water. The wave controls where you go and if you can come up for air. Instead of fighting, ride the wave of emotion by focusing on the present moment, feeling the emotion, and then letting it go.

How to Process Emotions Healthily

Beattie suggests four main steps to processing your emotions healthily. In this section, we cover each of these steps and their importance.

1. Remember Your Emotions Are Important

According to Beattie, the first step toward processing emotions healthily is acknowledging that your emotions are an important part of who you are. Your emotions are not pointless or weak. They tell you things about yourself and your situation. Your emotions can alert you to a problem, motivate you, and improve both your relationships and health.

Are Emotions Really That Important?

Beattie emphasizes the importance of emotions, but does science uphold this claim? As discussed previously, emotions are a difficult field to categorize and understand. Experts have a number of different theories on how emotions are caused and how they affect you. There are four main agreed-upon components of emotion: stimulus, physical response, neurological response, and emotional response.

Though experts debate the order in which emotional, neurological, and physical reactions occur, they agree that emotion has a significant relationship with your physical state. This unanimous connection shows how important emotions are: They are inherently connected with your physical and neurological experiences.

These experiences provide information that your emotions help interpret. For example, you might intuitively recognize a problem and feel uneasy. Logically, you can’t explain why you feel the way you do, but the emotion tells you to look deeper, which lets you discover the problem. In the same way, happiness and excitement trigger motivation, and emotional intimacy releases chemicals like dopamine, which make you happier with other people and let you live longer.

2. Remember Your Emotions Don’t Define You

Beattie argues that the next step to processing emotions healthily is to realize that, though they’re important, your emotions don’t define you.

Your feelings don’t dictate who you are, Beattie maintains, your actions do. You can be angry when someone apologizes to you or happy when someone dies, as long as you’re not acting in harmful ways. Feeling emotions doesn’t make you bad or wrong. Feel your emotions without fear, and then allow yourself to move on.

Sometimes Your Emotions Lie

Though it feels like strong emotions define you because the emotions are all you can pay attention to, research upholds Beattie’s assertion that they do not. Your emotions cannot define you, partially because emotions aren’t always based on reality.

Emotions are closely tied to your perception of events. You might assume someone insulted you and feel hurt when they made a neutral statement, or you might worry about how someone looks at you. These feelings are still important because of the way they affect you, but they’re not based in fact. On the other hand, your actions have an objective effect on the world: They’re real, regardless of how you or others feel about them, which is why your actions define you.

When you feel overwhelmed by emotions, meditation can help you find distance. Don’t suppress your feelings, but step back and realize that you are more than the emotion you’re feeling. Look at the reality of the situation and people’s actions, rather than your subjective emotions.

3. Take Responsibility for Your Emotions

Beattie explains that the third step to healthily processing emotions is recognizing that you are responsible for your own emotions. The situation or other people’s behavior might influence your feelings, but you must accept responsibility for your reactions, rather than blaming others.

Beattie stresses that this doesn’t mean other people can treat you badly or vice versa. Everyone should be courteous of others, but the one responsible for processing and reacting to emotions is the person feeling them.

This dichotomy of responsibility can be confusing. Consider this example: Rebecca is talking with her friend Sandy about a party. Sandy mentions that Rebecca’s ex-boyfriend was there. Rebecca feels sad and angry at this reminder of her ex-boyfriend. If Rebecca handled her emotions unhealthily, she might say, “Why would you mention him? Now my day’s ruined.” On the other hand, if she handled her emotions healthily, Rebecca would remember that her feelings and reactions are her responsibility. She would allow herself to feel the sadness and anger, and then she would release them and focus on spending time with her friend.

For Sandy’s part, she wasn’t responsible for Rebecca’s feelings. It is her responsibility to be courteous toward Rebecca’s feelings, though. This could manifest as giving Rebecca a moment to handle her emotions, changing the conversation topic, or letting Rebecca talk about her feelings.

Beattie adds another element of taking responsibility for your emotions: realizing that your mindset can alter your emotions. If you believe that a situation is impossible to fix, you’ll feel worse. If you believe you can fix and learn from a problem, you’ll be happier and more hopeful.

(Shortform note: Changing your mindset is easier said than done, as your worldview forms over the course of your life. Activities like writing down things you’re grateful for, looking for the positives in every situation, and surrounding yourself with positive people can help. These changes make you look for the good in life, which gradually becomes the natural way you see the world.)

Taking Responsibility for Your Reactions Doesn’t Mean Letting Others Hurt You

While Beattie’s advice for taking responsibility for your emotions echoes some modern articles on the subject, she has an important distinction that they lack: She emphasizes the importance of feeling the emotions and then letting them go. In other words, you are responsible for reacting to your emotions.

Some modern articles miss this crucial distinction and end up victim-blaming. The valid mantra of “don’t let your emotions control you” becomes “they’re not hurting you, you’re choosing to be hurt.” People can take this as permission to treat others badly because, “I’m not the one hurting them, it’s their job to choose how to feel.” This idea removes responsibility from the hurtful party and shames the victim.

People can use it to justify racist or discriminatory language and behaviors. People can hurt you. Feel those emotions and hold those people accountable, just don’t allow those feelings of hurt to control your actions.

4. React Healthily to Your Emotions

According to Beattie, the final step in processing emotions is to react healthily to your emotions. She recommends distancing yourself from the emotional situation. Leave the physical location, distract yourself, or journal about your feelings. Calm down and come back to the problem when you are in a clear headspace.

Beattie also recommends learning from your emotions. What are they trying to tell you? Find the thoughts that underlie your emotions and look for patterns. Be honest about your feelings, and talk about them with your loved ones.

(Shortform note: An important part of reacting healthily to emotions is “emotional agility.” This means having a more precise and nuanced view of your own emotions. You can practice emotional agility by looking deeper into your emotions. If you feel angry, see what else is hiding behind that anger. You can also use emotional agility to recognize patterns of behaviors and the emotional reason behind your actions.)

Distancing Through Word Choice

Research supports Beattie’s recommendation of reacting to your emotions through distancing. Previously, we discussed distancing through meditation. You can also use second- or third-person pronouns when discussing an emotional experience. In other words, ask yourself, “Why do you feel this way?” or “How did Jack feel about that?” instead of “Why do I feel this way?”

The change in pronouns forces your brain to make a distinction between you and the emotions. Looking objectively at the situation lets you learn from your feelings and actions and have a productive discussion about them.
How to Process Emotions: 4 Tips for Well-Being

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Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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