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  • Melanie Lopes, MFT

Your Feelings Serve A Purpose

understanding emotions

Have you ever been going through a challenging time and felt frustrated with yourself for how you are handling it? Or thought to yourself:

Why do I get so angry? Or anxious? Or stressed?

Why can't I just move on?

There must be something wrong with me…

If so, you’re not alone. It’s easy to be hard on yourself when you are going through a difficult time and you’re having difficult emotions. You start comparing yourself to others and you feel like you should be handling things better.

But of course, when you do this, it only adds to your stress and anxiety and it can fuel your self-doubt which can keep you stuck or lead you to respond in ways that prevent you from moving forward.

So…what if, instead of going down the path of self-criticism and self-doubt, you took a more curious and compassionate approach to yourself? This would include taking the time to acknowledge and understand your emotional responses and recognize that your feelings serve a purpose.

Emotions are not just random forms of expression.

There are good reasons why they show up when they do.

By learning more about your emotional responses, you can help build self-awareness and self-compassion, which can help reduce anxiety and stress and help build your resilience.

In this post I’ll go over some of the common emotional responses to challenges or setbacks and take a closer look at what purpose they can serve.

anxiety and fear

Anxiety & Fear

When faced with a challenge or challenging circumstances you’re often dealing with some sort of change, and with change comes uncertainty. When faced with uncertainty or the unknown, you can experience anxiety, fear, and sometimes even panic. This can lead you to start thinking about all of the possible outcomes and worst-case scenarios.

You might feel on edge, unable to relax, and you are on alert - anticipating that something else might go wrong at any moment. Your mind is ACTIVE and although you want to find some peace of mind, you also think that if you stop thinking about things, you might miss something, and you don’t want to be caught off guard. This can then turn into overthinking, worrying, seeking reassurance, and preparing for all the different outcomes, and it may even prevent you from doing certain things - you might start to avoid certain people, places, or situations altogether.

What's the purpose?

Thinking about all the things that can go wrong, staying alert and on edge, and trying to anticipate what might happen next are all attempts to keep you safe - to prepare and protect you from experiencing those worst-case scenarios. Anxiety and fear can also be motivating – it can help push you to take action or push you to do better. Or it can be a warning signal letting you know that you need to change course or do something different.

Anxiety can be helpful – to an extent. It can also lead you to blow things out of proportion and you can spend a lot of time and energy worrying about things that are unrealistic or that never actually happen.

anger and frustration

Anger & Frustration

When dealing with challenges and difficulty, you also might have periods of anger and frustration when you feel more irritable, impatient, and you’re more snippy with others. Or you might even have angry outbursts where you lash out and are quick to blame someone, or something else, for your struggles. This sort of emotional response is often triggered by an unmet need or desire – in other words, when things are not going the way you need them to or want them to. It can also be triggered by feelings of powerlessness, vulnerability, or a loss of control.

What's the purpose?

Anger can show up as an attempt to help you regain a sense of power or control, with the idea that showing your power and force can help you get what you need or want. Anger can be empowering and push you to be assertive and stand up for yourself and what you believe. Anger is also very energizing and it can drive you to take action, pulling you out of a state of shock and helping you get back up on your feet when you’ve been knocked down. It can also be protective – anger can be used as a way to push people away, set limits, or tell someone to back off because deep down you’re feeling vulnerable or scared.

Anger often is viewed as a negative emotion, but not all anger is negative. Anger can be valuable and constructive. Constructive anger refers to anger that is used in a beneficial manner and is respectful of your own and others’ needs (to stand up for yourself, take action, set limits, etc.). This is opposed to destructive anger which refers to anger that is used in a harmful, damaging way toward yourself or others.

shame and embarrassment

Shame & Embarrassment

When faced with difficulties or challenging circumstances, you may also notice shame or embarrassment coming up - feeling like you did something wrong or bad or foolish, or feeling inadequate or “not good enough”, or that you should have known better. Shame also tends to pair up with other feelings like anxiety, anger, and sadness: You might feel like you want to run and hide. You might feel like crying. You might try to deny what happened, lash out and blame others, or try to keep it to yourself and hope nobody finds out because you’re worried about what others will think of you if they did.

What's the purpose?

We are social beings and we have a deep need for belonging - belonging is a basic human need, embedded in our DNA as being important for survival, and so we sometimes respond in ways to try to protect ourselves from being excluded from the group. Shame can lead you to change your behavior or prevent you from doing certain things in an attempt to protect you from criticism, disapproval, or disappointment from others, and ultimately to protect your sense of belonging and keep you connected to the group (e.g. your family, friends, colleagues, community, etc.).

Shame is really common but it's a feeling that is often hidden and not talked about because people feel ashamed of their shame! There's nothing wrong with shame and just like any other emotion, what matters is what you do with it. In fact, there is such a thing as healthy shame – shame that allows you to learn from the experience and make better choices in the future.

These are just a few of the more common responses to challenges and setbacks, and of course, there are a variety of other feelings that can come up that are also worth paying attention to. But hopefully by focusing on these more common responses it can pave the way for you to start looking at your emotional responses in a more compassionate way, and approach them with more curiosity and less criticism.

And just to be clear, building understanding of your emotional responses, isn’t meant to justify lashing out at people in anger or living your life in anxiety, fear, and shame. Each of these emotions can sometimes be harmful, keep you stuck, and prevent you from taking risks that will help you move forward.

emotional awareness

The point is to recognize the function or purpose of your responses and see that oftentimes there is good intention behind them. That way, rather than getting frustrated or disappointed with yourself when you’re experiencing these emotions, you can see that it’s normal and it makes sense to feel that way.

Being able to look at your responses with compassion can help bring about an improved sense of confidence, sense of security, and self-esteem. You can start to cope better and as a result you can become less reactive, less caught up in stress and emotion, and become more calm and accepting.

All of this can help you feel more equipped to take on challenges and take steps needed to move forward because you can really start to believe in yourself and your ability to achieve your goals.


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