Learning to Identify—and Release—Your Core Emotions
For those of us to whom “feelings” don’t always come readily, there’s a familiar Catch-22 when it comes to trying to go about the business of feeling them. The more they’re hurting us, the more they’re holding us back, and the more deeply we feel them, the less inclined we are to acknowledge them—let alone embrace them and let them go.
Psychotherapist Hilary Jacobs Hendel doesn’t talk about that resistance pejoratively: She calls it creative. “These defenses are genius ways that we prevent ourselves from really going mad,” she says.
After years of practicing accelerated experiential dynamic psychotherapy, she finds that her most important work is helping people find ways to recognize those defenses and the inhibitory emotions (shame, anxiety, and guilt) that often accompany them.
On the other side is the wisdom in the emotions our bodies are hardwired to feel—and ultimately, a state where we are most authentically ourselves.
A Q&A with Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW
The core emotions are sadness, fear, anger, joy, excitement, sexual excitement, and disgust.
Evolutionarily, we’ve developed these emotions so that we can react to our environments faster than our thinking brains can comprehend. A core emotion is set off in the limbic system, in the middle of the brain. Before we have any conscious control of what is happening, the limbic system is firing up the lower brain to stimulate the vagus nerve, which is the largest nerve in the body connecting to virtually every part of our body. And this is how a particular emotion—let’s say anger—so quickly affects the body and prepares us for an emotional response to help us survive, like fighting off an attack. That’s the purpose of core emotions: to make us automatically and quickly take action that is meant to be adaptive for survival.
Most of us understand this about fear: If right now a wild bear were to bust into your home, you would run for your life before you knew that you were scared. Your legs would start, and you would take off. Then when you were halfway safe and you could slow down a little bit, you’d assess for danger. It’s only at that point that you would be able to register that your heart was beating fast and that you were experiencing the core emotion of fear.
What many of us don’t understand is this basic idea that core emotions just happen. They’re not under conscious control. I don’t know about you, but I was raised in an environment where I was told that I was able to control my emotions. I was expected to be better than them, bigger than them. That meant I was “together.”
But emotions just are. They’re programmed from birth to do their thing. We feel them physically. When our parents do affirm them as we grow up, we come to recognize: Oh, this heavy feeling in my chest—I know I’m sad. Or: This burning red heat in me is anger.
Emotions are meant to make us move toward things that are good for us and away from things that are bad for us. When we can run from danger, that’s what fear is for. When we can’t run—and we have to fight because we are attacked and insulted and we can’t get away—we have anger, which is a catalyst for change. Because love and connection are so fundamental to survival, we have sadness when we experience loss—when we lose what we want, whether it’s a connection to another person or a connection to an object. When we see something we like and are interested in, we feel excitement in our bodies and it moves us; it brings us forward. And when we feel joy, we feel expansive and we want to share it.
Core emotions are quick-acting programs to tell us what’s good for us and what’s bad for us. They’re all about us. They’re not about what’s good for other people—that side of it develops when we become socialized. What happens is we begin to learn about our emotions through how the people who raise us react to our expression of them, both verbally and nonverbally.
How our parents tolerate our feelings tells us so much because we’re so intently wired for connection. All of us learn in the beginning what we can express safely; we learn what keeps us connected. For example, if I show anger, do I experience discomfort or anxiety from my parent? Do I experience a slight break in the connection? Or does my caregiver validate my anger?
Our families and cultures determine the relationship we have with emotions. Do we accept our emotions or reject them? Do we listen to and make good use of them or push them down?
The goal is to stay connected to our caregivers because that’s how we survive. If we experience a break in connection as a result of an emotion, we learn to inhibit our expression in favor of the connection. There’s a clash between what I can’t express and what my body naturally wants to release. If there’s a fundamental conflict between our emotions and our desire to connect with the people around us—first with our family and then in our peer groups—we learn to split ourselves; we wire and grow around the trauma.
If, as children, we have overwhelming feelings and there’s nobody there to help us process, calm, or soothe them, we are alone with our emotions, without mature coping skills. As a result, the mind and body are forced to resort to creative ways of dealing with emotions on our own. These defenses are the genius ways that we get through emotionally overwhelming moments. Defenses like numbing and dissociation prevent us from experiencing unmanageable pain and distress, even though our body holds the traumatic stress and our nervous system remains dysregulated. Over time, there is a cost for relying on defenses.
Defenses are anything we do to avoid feeling core or inhibitory emotions. There are many, but some common ones are joking, sarcasm, perfectionism, blaming, criticizing, spacing out, procrastination, negative thinking, ruminating, misguided aggression, working too much, overexercising, overeating, undereating, addictions, and depression.
We also have what are called inhibitory emotions—shame, anxiety, and guilt—which we develop to block core emotions. They come into play when:
1. Our core emotions are in conflict with what pleases those we need—like parents, peers, and partners.
2. Our core emotions become too intense and our brain wants to shut them down to protect us from emotional overwhelm.
The neural networks we form as a result of adversity stay sequestered. These parts of us, often stemming from childhood adversity and trauma, get triggered and cause us a lot of distress and trouble in daily life. They can be healed when they’re tended to. And they need witnessing. What I do in my work is help people move aside their defenses, which are often one and the same as their symptoms, like depression, for example. By creating safety from the get-go, I help them work their way back to their bodies; back to being able to lower their anxiety, guilt, and shame; to being able to name their core emotions, experience their feelings, and move through them to relief.
Processing core emotions is a powerful catalyst for change because it works to reintegrate those sequestered neural networks. People who didn’t have a lot of trauma can process emotions on their own. When there is a lot of trauma to work through, people need a safe other to be with as they learn the tools in therapy. Eventually they can start to process emotions for themselves throughout their lives. Everybody has a different level of what they can do on their own, what they may be able to do with even a friend or in a very secure love relationship or in an emotionally supportive peer support group.
The work boils down to what I call the change triangle (you can see a visualization here). It’s my version of a concept that’s used in the modality of therapy I practice, accelerated experiential dynamic psychotherapy.
When the core emotion is triggered, we can block it and then move toward our defenses—anything we can do to avoid feeling emotional discomfort. And then to the other angle, we block it with inhibitory emotions: anxiety, guilt, and shame. These inhibitory emotions work in their own ways, but they all serve to push down and suppress core emotions, which want to come up and tell us something. Core emotions are like a compass for what we need and want.
So we have two choices: We can block the emotion, in which case we’re now traveling up and around the triangle over to the defenses—or oscillating between the two corners at the top of the triangle, between our defenses and anxiety, guilt, and shame. Or, if we know how to work with emotions, we go down, we go into the body, we validate, and we name. We can tolerate the experience. Like, Okay, I know what sadness feels like in my body. I don’t have to be frightened of these sensations. I know that they’re sadness. I can stay with these sensations and listen to them, tolerate the impulses without acting on them, and let that emotional energy flow up and out. There’s no action that’s taking place in the outside world; I’m just fully experiencing my feeling. And when the emotion comes up, a pure core emotion, it’s like a wave. It’s similar to when you stub your toe and you’re waiting for the pain to crescendo. It reaches its maximum like the top of a wave. Then you know it’s going to subside and that’s what it’s like when you allow a good cry. It’s hard to get to, but then it comes and there’s relief at the end.
Your nervous system comes back into balance. You’re not overaroused and you’re not underaroused. You’re at this place on the change triangle that I call the openhearted state of the authentic self. You know you’re there because you feel like you. And there are all these c-words that are clues: We feel calmer. We feel connected to ourselves and to others. We can summon the courage to try new things. We feel compassion toward ourself and others. This is where we ideally want to spend as much time as possible, but nobody spends all their time there.
So we rotate around the change triangle all day long. It’s a lifelong process. You get better and better at knowing where you are and knowing what to do to work your way down. And hopefully, over the course of a lifetime, we work the triangle to spend more and more time in this calm openhearted state. Not that we don’t experience triggers or have emotions, but we have enough distance that they don’t take us into traumatic wounds where we can’t see the other person correctly or can’t distinguish between what is a projection and what is real. We instead are better able to stay connected to our calm, confident self in the midst of life’s challenges. We are able to “feel, deal, and relate, all at the same time,” as we say in AEDP.
A lot of times, emotions come up all at once and it just feels like overwhelm. Part of the teaching of the change triangle is to be able to lower anxiety. Deep-breathing exercises help. And there’s an experiential exercise that I do: Once you’ve calmed down a bit, you move over the feeling of anxiety that’s in the body. Ask yourself, What core emotions am I feeling?
I still do this, too, by the way. I go through each emotion and try to sense it. Am I sad? Check. Am I angry? Check. Am I joyful? They can all be there at once. And we have to name them separately. As you take inventory, imagine that you grow bigger inside and hold each core emotion separately with lots of space and air around it. Work with one at a time. Because one emotion might pull you to move closer to someone, and another emotion might be pulling you away from that same person.
It can often feel as if you have these competing needs of wanting something from them and at the same time being so angry. Those cause a conflict, and the way we work with the conflict is to separate out the emotions and validate them one by one. In your mind, try not to go, I’m angry, but I love you. Instead, try to validate both emotions: I’m angry, and I feel love. Being with each one and making room for them one at a time can help clarify what each is telling you separately. Then after you’ve done all that, you bring your thinking brain back online to help negotiate these irreconcilable emotional conflicts.
The very last step is finding the most constructive way to use these emotions. Sometimes you’ll make use of your anger by asserting your needs or setting limits and boundaries toward somebody else—your boss or your friend or your partner. Other times you’ll know yourself, and you’ll be like, You know, this is my issue. I know this anger stems from my childhood. I became sensitized to this particular slight, and I’m going to process it on my own.
In AEDP therapy, I am tracking my patient from moment to moment. For example, if they are talking about something sad but they have a smile on their face, I notice that and gently ask if they notice that, too. Then we get curious about that smiling defense and explore what they might be feeling. I help them safely make space for their underlying emotions so that we can process them in the body, where core emotions live. Ideally, we’re discerning what emotions are happening fresh in the present versus what is pulling from past experiences. For example, let’s say you told me you’re having a feeling about someone you’re in a relationship with, and you need to say something, but you’re afraid to express your need. You tell me you think this bad feeling is a reflection of being too needy, or you feel guilty for having it. I might ask you, “Is this a new feeling or is this familiar? Is this a response you recognize from your twenties, your teens, or before?” That’s how we get a sense of something that needs healing from the past.
More often than not, someone will make a connection to something that’s happened before. Often, we uncover moments from the past that were traumatic but were never recognized as so. For example, our parent dismissing our emotions at an important moment or shaming us for being our true self. We take those emotions seriously in the session and allow them space to come out safely.
That’s the thing about this type of work: It’s two sides of the same coin. If one bad moment can change your life for the worse, then one healing moment can change your life for the better.
Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW, is the author of It’s Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self. She is a certified psychoanalyst and an AEDP psychotherapist and supervisor.
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