A skill not everyone learns in childhood, but that everyone still needs.
Emotional processing is a skill that has to be learned as a part of growing up. Unfortunately, not every parent is equipped to teach this skill to their kids — and this tends to be particularly true when neurodivergence runs in the family, because neurodivergence can greatly complicate emotional processing. ADHD, Autism, and Bipolar, to my knowledge, directly impact emotional processing. Emotions are senses, and can be subject to sensory overload just like vision or hearing. Feeling too much can be genuinely painful for us, which means we have to learn to work through the pain to process our emotions successfully.
Simply put: NTs assume everyone just learns how to process their emotions, but if you didn’t get that education here’s a primer that may help you get started. Note: this is HARD at first, it can be REALLY SCARY and it can feel really pointless. I promise, as someone who has gone through it, that it’s worth it.
Processing looks like this:
Identify what emotion you’re feeling. If you’re not sure, try to figure out where in the body you’re feeling it and then try to associate that with recent memories. You can also google which emotions feel like what in the body, or ask a trusted friend to help you identify what you’re feeling.
Identify what that emotion is trying to tell you. See below for an introduction to what different emotions are trying to say.
Thank the emotion for providing you with this information. It’s important to honor even painful emotions.
Decide, as a fully rational thinking person, what to do with the information the emotion gave you. Emotions aren’t particularly nuanced, a lot of times they’re telling you things you already know or they’re misreading the situation. You have to decide how to act on whatever the emotion says.
I wrote above that emotions are senses. Unlike the traditional five senses, though, they’re pointed inward and they’re giving you information about your inside reality instead of your outside reality. Each emotion has meaning, and once you learn how to read them you’ve got step one of processing down. Let’s look at a few examples:
Someone has wronged you
Anger is telling you that you didn’t receive what you were owed, that someone endangered or harmed your loved ones, that someone is taking advantage of you. When you feel anger you can begin to process it by asking yourself “in what way do I feel wronged?” and then deciding whether or not that’s a valid response to the situation.
A lot of people with a lot of privilege tend to struggle with anger because they feel entitled to things that everyone else has long since accepted are contingent; if this is you it’s not a moral failing, it’s just a part of your role in the giant late capitalist hellscape we’re all living through, but it is your obligation to work through it so that you can lead a richer life and stop scaring the other people in your life.
You’ve lost something
Sadness is telling you that a part of you is no longer there. People, places, objects and ideas all become a part of us when we engage with them, and when they mean a lot to us they become important parts of us. Losing them — through death, estrangement, relocation, misplacement or growth — is painful, because it’s losing a part of ourselves.
Sadness is just trying to make sure we know that this has happened. We can process sadness by asking ourselves “What have I really lost?” and then deciding whether or not your emotional response is appropriate to the situation.
You are in danger
Fear is complicated, because it’s primed during childhood to define signs of danger and those are all specific to our individual upbringings. But if your parents were angry a lot, for instance, you may experience a lot of fear when people in your life get upset.
This feeling is just telling you that it doesn’t feel safe, and you can begin to process it by asking “What am I so afraid of?” and then deciding whether or not your emotional response is appropriate to the situation.
Something is a potential hazard
This is useful for things like rotten food but sometimes we feel it in the presence of people who have experienced disease or disfigurement.
NB: Though the feeling is trying to keep us safe it’s really important to understand that it can flag disability or deformity as danger, and we have to be cognizant of what we’re allowing ourselves to be disgusted by. Ask yourself “What hazard or risk is this feeling trying to protect me from?” and determine if the answer is actually a threat.
You feel safe with someone
Trust is an affirmation that the subject of the feeling is a safe social connection. Humans are pack animals, we need other humans to coregulate our emotions and validate our experiences. Trust tells you “this person is in the in-group and is safe to be vulnerable with”.
Note that like other feelings trust can be wrong, and this can be used against you — autistic people in particular tend to trust more easily than others, and this can lead to abusive relationships and exploitative friendships.
You have to ask yourself “Is it really safe to trust this person, based on their words and more importantly their past actions?” and go from there.
Your needs are being met
Joy is pleasant and important to appreciate. We have to process our joy like any other emotion because it’s a strong signal as to how to live our best life.
Kurt Vonnegut, in a lecture I attended near the end of his life, advised us to remember to ask ourselves “If this isn’t nice, what is?” during the good times, and that’s really good advice.
Ask yourself: “What need was met that I’m appreciating so much?” and then build systems in your life to make sure that need stays met.
You have caused harm
Guilt is difficult to live with and compels us to repair the harm we’ve done. Sometimes when we’re abused we learn to feel too much guilt, or to take on guilt for other peoples’ actions — it’s important to process guilt and understand whether you’ve actually done something harmful, and then if so you can alleviate the guilt by figuring out how to repair the damage done and making amends.
If you feel like once you’ve done something wrong no repair is ever possible, that’s trauma my friend and you don’t have to live like that! :)
, because it’s easy to confuse with guilt but it works completely differently. We feel shame when we are instructed by other people to feel it. It’s an emotion that exists purely in the social space, and it means “someone disapproves of something I did”.
There are times — like when we’ve caused harm — that it’s appropriate to feel a small amount of shame until we make amends. But abuse often causes its victims to feel what’s known as “toxic shame”, e.g. an unbearable amount of shame just for existing. If this is you — you don’t have to carry all of that shame.
A big part of healthy life is putting down shame that other people tell you to carry when their demand is inappropriate.
Shame ultimately shouldn’t be a huge part of your life — if it is, really ask yourself why you’re carrying it. It’s okay if some people disapprove of your choices — never accept criticism from anyone you wouldn’t go to for advice. Here’s a great twitter quote bomb of
This stuff is hard and it’s extra hard when you feel everything with 300% intensity. But I used to completely ignore my emotions, and they grew to be overwhelming. Now I understand that if I just accept the message the emotion is trying to give me, and thank it, the emotion goes away.
It’s an internal messaging system, and when you ignore the messages the mail gets backed up. That’s all it is.
So by learning to accept the messages I release the emotion to go back to a resting state, and I’m able to get to a more regulated place more easily while at the same time having a much richer set of information about my self and my world to work with.
Accepting that emotions are just messengers giving you information is one of the most important things I’ve learned on my mental health journey. This is a fantastic resource for those of us who have had trouble processing them. Thank you so much.
This really resonates with me. I really had to learn to connect the externals with how I was feeling - particularly with depression. It took me years to learn that my depression was triggered by feeling like I hadn’t been heard or understood - basically because I hadn’t advocated for myself or fully articulated how I was feeling (I think this comes partly from being quite compliant and valuing the other point of view over my own - probably because, like you say, I got so much feedback that my reactions/emotions/opinions weren’t appropriate). I learnt that all I have to do is say how I feel - it doesn’t matter if the other person agrees or acts on it necessarily, I just have to express myself and then I avoid falling into the hole. For me, depression is definitely linked to feeling a lack of self-efficacy and/or a rupture in a relationship. Now, I take an outside to inside approach - using behaviours and body language to match up with the feeling. If I can do it for my cat I can do it for myself! Thanks for these articles, they are really helpful.
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