Learning how to process emotions might be the most important skill one can learn. Every single day emotions get activated within us. Sometimes those emotions are triggered for obvious reasons and sometimes the reasons those emotions come up can be a bit more mysterious. Either way, digging in and processing difficult emotions and feelings increases our self-awareness, helps us process and move through it, rather than getting stuck in it!
This article will not only educate you on how to process emotions, we will walk through an example of emotional processing. In an effort to help you get started on processing your emotions, download the worksheet PDF with an outline of the steps to help you navigate the deep waters of your heart. Check out the following questions that will be addressed in this article.
1. What does it mean to process emotions?
2. Why is emotional processing important?
3. Signs you are ignoring your feelings.
4. What happens when you don’t process emotions?
5. What are the five steps to emotional processing?
6. What is an example of emotional processing?
7. Check out a few other emotional processing techniques.
8. Why do I take so long to process my feelings?
9. How to process emotions quickly.
Emotions are Signals or Alerts
Recently, I was driving my car to work when a signal beeped, alerting me that my car would need an oil change soon. Nothing that caused too much alarm, so I continued on my way. Within a week another light alerted me on my dashboard. The low tire pressure light. Again, I felt no sense of urgency… I planned to knock that problem out when I got the oil change. But the third light required immediate attention – low fuel. I knew I wouldn’t get far if I ignored that alert/signal.
Our emotions work the same way. They are signals to something going on in our heart. Emotions can be positive or negative. Additionally, this can be big or small. However, the longer we ignore our emotions, the signals will start popping up. Emotions are a blessing – they alert us when we need to take a closer look at what is going on in our heart, so we can begin to process emotions.
What does it mean to process emotions?
Processing emotions is how we become increasingly self-aware. It is navigating our heart and mind. Our heart is the control center of all information. The mind is how we filter and evaluate our experiences through our five senses. We must learn how to understand, reconcile and face emotions in healthy ways. Processing our emotions is just that – taking a series of steps to gain insight into the emotions that are coming up within us through noticing, evaluating and taking action.
Psychologist, Paul Ekman has identified six basic emotions that everyone experiences: surprise, anger, disgust, fear, sadness and happiness. He later added on: pride, shame, embarrassment and excitement. This brings us to 10 core emotions and from these emotions, feelings are produced.
Why is emotional processing important?
Learning how to process emotions is vital to living a full and satisfying life. When we are processing emotions, we are able to grow and transform. Emotions and feelings are the outpouring from beliefs we hold about ourselves, our world, others and God. Beliefs will guide the lens with which we see and evaluate our life. Therefore, it is critical to pay attention to the signals our emotions are giving us. As beliefs guide our thoughts and self talk, our emotions rise up within us. Consequently, we respond and react with behavior or action. As we get good at emotional processing, we become experts on ourselves, our heart and our mind. Then we can begin to evaluate if we are operating based on truth or lies. This information will guide how we proceed. This deeper awareness helps us navigate our heart, our relationships and world in healthier ways.
Guard your heart above all else, for it determines your life. Proverbs 4:23 NLT
Signs You are Ignoring Your Feelings
The human race is pleasure driven. We do things we enjoy and avoid things we don’t. When we experience uncomfortable feelings, our propensity is to avoid dealing with those difficult feelings and emotions.
Distraction is a sign of avoiding feelings and this can play out through an over scheduled life, scrolling social media mindlessly or working lots of overtime. Lack of self-care in general can be linked to ignoring your feelings, as well. For example, refusing to slow down enough to be present, mindful and attentive to your needs.
Engaging in unhealthy patterns such as overspending, over eating, or overmedicating are some ways we ignore our feelings and emotions. More extreme behaviors related to addiction such as drugs, alcohol, sex or food can be an indication of avoidance as well. Over reactions are another sign you are ignoring your feelings.
This is not an exhaustive list – there are so many ways we avoid distressing emotions and feelings.
What happens when you don’t process emotions?
The cost of avoiding hard emotions and feelings is quite high. First, when you don’t process emotions it can have a negative effect on your body. Physical symptoms can include stomach problems, weight gain, headaches and migraines and even a shorter lifespan.
The emotional and mental impact includes difficulty experiencing peace and joy in your life. Increased negative emotions that aren’t processed can cause those over-reactions we talked about earlier. Finally, relationships can become increasingly strained as emotions are denied, minimized and bottled up. While it can be hard to process uncomfortable emotions, it can be even harder to pay the cost of avoiding emotions and feelings- choose your hard!
While it can be hard to process uncomfortable emotions, it can be even harder to pay the cost of avoiding emotions and feelings- choose your hard!
What are 5 steps to emotional processing?
When learning how to process emotions a simple five step process is helpful. First, identify what happened right before your emotions sent you an alert or signal. Second, simply notice what is happening inside you. Take notice of mind, emotion and body. Third, be present with what you are noticing inside yourself. This requires you to be still; ask God to help you navigate the deep waters of your heart and mind. Fourth, begin processing emotions and feelings. This is where we sift, gather and evaluate our next steps in response to those emotions. Fifth and finally, come to conclusions and take action. Let’s break this down a bit more.
Step 1. Identify the activating event
Ask yourself what started everything? What happened right before you noticed your emotions alert or signal you? It’s important to reflect on these events because they can be clues to help you identify thoughts, emotions and feelings.
Step 2. Just notice
Our second step is to take notice of what we are feeling. Name the feelings. It might be helpful to Google a feelings list to help you name those feelings. Notice any thoughts that come up. What are you saying to yourself? Inner self talk is powerful and impactful. Pay attention to what you are saying to yourself. Be attentive to what you are feeling in your body. Some people experience emotions in their body such as tension in your muscles or tightness of the chest. Be mindful to notice what physical feelings or sensations you have. Resist the temptation to judge thoughts or feelings. Instead, simply be curious and just notice. We tend to tell ourselves we should or shouldn’t feel a certain way – try to avoid judging your thoughts or feelings. Instead, just notice.
Step 3. Be present
This can sometimes be the most challenging part of the process, but try to sit with your thoughts and feelings. If you’re feeling sad, give yourself permission to feel sad. It might be helpful to turn notifications off your phone and simply be still. Start with a few minutes, with practice, work your way up to 15 to 20 minutes. Experiencing uncomfortable emotions is hard, but so is avoiding them.
Step 4. Processing Emotions
This is where we begin to ask ourselves the hard questions. We have noticed and named thoughts and feelings. Then we sat with and experienced the hard thoughts, feelings and emotions. Now we want to get to the root cause of the emotions. Evaluate and understand your desires, expectations and boundaries. Determine if boundaries have been violated. Take responsibility for your part. Be aware of events building up and resulting in strong emotions. In summary, understand your expectations, motives and desires. Be the expert on you.
Step 5. Take Action
Now we are taking the insight and understanding and determining necessary action as a result of our evaluation. Action could be, but is not limited to, confessing and receiving forgiveness, reestablishing a boundary, adjusting expectations or even simply letting go of the emotion.
Taking the time to process emotions is time well spent! Doing this heart check will lead to spiritual and emotional maturity as you gain increasing emotional self awareness.
How to process emotions worksheet/PDF
Learning how to process emotions is hard work and heart work. Like any new thing you step into, remember practice over perfection. When we do a new thing, it can feel overwhelming and challenging. Especially if you have historically disregarded, minimized or ignored your emotions. In an effort to help you navigate the deep waters of your heart, I have created a worksheet with these four steps as a general guide. Take a look at the prompts in the five step process below and don’t forget to download your printable worksheet!
What is an emotional processing example?
Sometimes it is helpful to see an example of what emotional processing may look like. Let’s walk through one together that one of my clients has shared.
The first step is to use our emotions as a signal or alert that something is coming up in our heart. It can be helpful to jot down what happened that led to the need to process hard emotions or feelings. For example, a client found herself in an argument with her spouse and the argument became heated and lasted for quite some time.
The client first noticed her emotions and feelings: anger, resentment; she further identified that she believed her husband had manipulated her and was being disrespectful. This client went on to notice that she felt powerless and ashamed. Additionally, she realized she was telling her self that she felt taken advantage of and some of her anger was toward herself because she had raised her voice, matching her husband‘s anger.
She was present in all those thoughts and feelings despite the pain associated with all of the thoughts, emotions and feelings. This is a great spot to practice self compassion. Rather than be self critical and making judgments, it is helpful to be kind to yourself. Validate what you’re going through is hard.
This is where we begin asking ourselves the hard questions, otherwise known as “why” questions. Great questions to ask include why was I so angry? Her answer was that she felt disrespected and manipulated. Additionally, some anger was directed toward her self because she matched the yelling even though she had been trying to change that reaction. She also asked why the feeling of powerlessness? As a result, she realized in the moment she felt she had no choice, but to stay in the argument. Later she came to realize she had the choice to take a break from the argument and return later when she and her spouse calmed down.
Conclusions and actions:
Ultimately, after moving through the previous steps she came to realize that she wanted to take responsibility and re-establish a few boundaries with her spouse. First, she was no longer going to continue participating in disagreements if they became heated, but was willing to return to continue the discussion later. Additionally, she would stick to their 20 minute limit to disagreements as they had previously decided.
Paying attention to the emotions and feelings helped this client become aware of all that was happening in her heart and mind. As a result, she was able to change her response and establish boundaries in her relationship that promoted safety and decreased chaos.
Other Emotional Processing Tools
In this article we have learned how to process emotions in a five step process, independently. Sort of a DIY emotional processing. However, there are other ways to process hard emotions and feelings. Let’s identify a few other ways to process your emotions here.
Journaling about your experience is a helpful way to notice thoughts and feelings. It can also help identify negative self-talk and beliefs about the situation. There may be journaling prompts to help you increase emotional self awareness.
There are tons of workbooks on the market that can help you process emotions. Workbooks can also be helpful when processing difficult emotions related to specific topics such as anxiety or depression. Workbook journaling is also helpful for processing difficult emotions related to relationship issues.
Verbalizing what happened to a trusted friend helps articulate thoughts, feelings and emotions. This is another great way to process your emotions. It opens the door to feedback from an outsider. However, be mindful to share beyond the facts of what happened and dig deeper to your personal experience. When venting, put an emphasis on your thoughts, emotions and feelings.
Seeing someone who is trained at asking good questions to help navigate the deep waters of your heart is also a helpful way to process emotions and feelings. Even if you only do a few sessions to help train yourself to process independently it can be a helpful way to jumpstart your emotional self awareness. Each person tends to have a theme in the way they think and feel. Exposing those themes greatly increases insight and wisdom in the way we operate in life and relationships. Speaking to a trained professional can be a life changer!
Why do I take so long to process my feelings?
Processing your feelings might be a brand new pattern in your life. Most people feel that signal or alert that something is wrong, but rather than address the uncomfortable emotion, most will avoid it. Let me share an illustration with you…
Our kitchen trash had become so full that the lid wasn’t shutting. Throughout the evening I witnessed every person in my home continue to throw away trash rather than tie it up, walk 10 steps and throw it out. Everyone avoided taking out the trash. Stopping to address the trash was not something anyone cared to do. It wasn’t until I was so uncomfortable that I stopped what I was doing, tied it up, threw it out and replaced it with a fresh bag. Oh the relief – why didn’t I do that sooner?!
Dealing with our feelings is the same thing. We would rather avoid it. Just like the trash, we let it pile up until those emotions and feelings create enough discomfort that we face them, process them and take action. The problem with letting those emotions and feelings pile up, like we did with the trash, is that addressing them now feels overwhelming. It’s hard to find a starting place.
Another reason some people take so long to process feelings is that they’re not really sure how or where to begin. Many of us were raised in a home that emotions were minimized or stuffed. Maybe you weren’t allowed to show emotions, such as sadness or crying or anger. It’s possible your family didn’t know how to navigate their own emotions, let alone guide you in navigating yours or reassuring you by validating those emotions. But it’s never too late to start learning how to process emotions. This new pattern could start with you! Learning how to process emotions is possibly one of the most important skills one can learn. It’s a
game changer life and relationship changer!
How to Process Emotions Quickly
There is no question, we live in an instant gratification society. We want to do everything quickly, including figuring out how to process emotions quickly. How quickly emotions get processed depends on a few important factors.
First, how long have you been in the practice of processing emotions?
If this practice is new to you, it can feel a bit overwhelming and cumbersome. Sometimes there can be a lot of mystery around how we think and feel. It may be helpful to get some assistance with this new pattern of processing as you get started. Think of a time you started a new job… Training included many new things. However, the longer you do the job the quicker the tasks get done.
Second, your level of self-awareness will impact how quickly you are able to process emotions.
Self awareness is vital to processing emotions. Understanding your motives, desires and expectations is vital to change. Self-awareness grows as we engage in emotional processing. As you increasingly become an expert on the deep waters of your heart, the quicker you will get at processing emotions! Be patient!
Third factor on how quickly you process emotions is on the impact of the emotion.
Sometimes your emotion may be linked to your past. Recently, I started to experience anger in a specific relationship. I couldn’t determine the root of it. But I was determined to figure it out. At first, I just noticed my impatience and irritation connected to the specific relationship and its interactions. Each time it happened I would pause and reflect on what happened right before I felt angry. I did this step for a couple of weeks before I began to get clarity. This process took some time, but I was able to get to the heart of it all. Now that I understand myself better in the context of this relationship, the processing of emotions comes quickly. Additionally, I knew what action needed to be taken (step 5) and once I took action, impatience and irritation subsided.
Wrapping up: How to Process Emotions
Learning how to process emotions is a vital skill and can be practiced independently! Once you understand how to process emotions, emotional self-awareness increases as well as emotional maturity. You will become an expert on you! Doing so will greatly impact not only your quality of life, but the richness of your relationships, as well.
In order to begin processing emotions and feelings, use your emotions as a signal or alert to let you know something is going on in your heart. Be courageous and get curious using the five steps to emotional processing. First, identify what happened. Next, just notice those emotions, feelings and thoughts. Third, be present in the moment. Don’t judge yourself, just be still and experience what you know is going on beneath the surface. Fourth, begin processing, sifting thoughts, expectations, desires, motives and feelings. Evaluate and understand yourself better. Fifth and finally, take action. Determine what you need to do in response to this new understanding. Maybe it’s letting the emotion pass, re-establishing a boundary or asking forgiveness.
Trust the process!
As you practice, you will grow in understanding. And remember- practice over perfection! We are all learning and growing throughout our entire life. Don’t forget a few other ways to help yourself with processing: journaling, workbooks and trusted friends can help you with how to process emotions. Additionally, don’t underestimate the benefits of working with a counselor/coach. Last, last thing – download the free worksheet PDF to have a guideline at your fingertips.