How to understand your emotions

Graphic shows a hand writing a letter, which represents a young person learning to understand their emotions

A white banner with text that reads 'young people's voices'

Hi, my name is Sharvari and I’m 20 years old and studying Psychology. I love to use writing as a tool to continue my self-discovery journey and improve my mental health. In this article, I’m going to look at how to understand your emotions, through a letter to my past self.

Dear Past Sharvari,

I want to ask you a straightforward question: how are you feeling? Perhaps this wasn’t quite what you expected that the future you would ask, but humour me, think about it and don’t just say fine. 

Fine doesn’t cut it because ‘fine’ is not an emotion. How many times have you lied about how you feel? How many times have you told the truth? I can probably count on one hand how many times you’ve been able to answer this question truthfully. A lot hinges on the truthful answer to this seemingly inconsequential, stupid, small-talk question. 

Running from your emotions 

I know you struggle to understand emotions – the swirling whirlpool that sits just beneath the surface of your skin. I know you like to shunt it away, paste on a smile and pretend you’re ok. Because it’s too complicated, because you don’t want to be a burden, because you don’t have the words to describe it, because it’s scary, because… because… because…

Want to know why you’re depressed? You’re running from your emotions.

Sure, there are lots of factors, but looking back, this one’s definitely the most important.

Right now this reason seems so simple. Too simple for what you’re going through. After the rejection, I know you’re feeling lost and overwhelmed, and yet, stuck and numb.

I want you to know that it’s ok to feel all of your emotions. 

All emotions are messengers; emotions are neither good nor bad.

Embrace your anger

It’s ok to feel angry. That volcanic surge of anger that you feel might explode and hurt all your friends and family is called rage, not anger. In fact, the more you choose not to feel angry, the more likely it is that it will spiral into rage and it will, at some point, decide to explode. 

When you feel that surge of anger, embrace it. Anger is not a monster. It has a fiery beauty that you have been squashing down for years. Anger is beautiful because it results in change. Anger is your personal alarm system and warns you when someone or something crosses your boundaries, so that you can make a change.

Think about all those social movements, the suffragettes, for example. Would they have even begun if people hadn’t got angry? Would women have the right to vote if some women hadn’t decided that not being able to vote was crossing their boundaries

I know it’s hard to embrace anger because that surge of energy feels impossible to contain. Anger demands movement and change. So go for a run, a walk, dance around your room, rip up bits of paper or scream into a pillow. Do something. Take action. In the long run, you will find that volunteering for causes that you’re passionate about will also help to release that anger. 

Sadness teaches us things

It’s ok to feel sad. Do you remember when you watched Inside Out and you thought sadness was useless because she was so depressing and a real vibe killer? Well, remember how sadness was also the one who allowed Riley to embrace her authentic state. By feeling sad, Riley was able to communicate the loss of her home and friends to her parents. 

Sadness shows us when we have lost something. I know you think that you can only feel sad when someone dies because that is the only loss that you think is valid, but actually loss means so many different things. 

Loss can mean friendship breakups, moving house or school, or the loss of your previous identity. I think you’re feeling really sad right now because you lost the university place of your dreams and you’ve lost some of your friends, and that’s ok. 

Sit with your sadness

Allow yourself to feel sad by crying. Crying does not mean you’re weak. It feels so cathartic to have a good cry. Oh and make some crying playlists – it helps to have something else to listen to as well. 

It’s hard to sit with sadness alone because it can make you feel stuck, and well… it hurts. So let yourself be comforted by those around you. Accepting many hugs is my biggest piece of advice from future you.

Lessen the power of shame

I think the emotion that you’re struggling with the most right now is shame, and you don’t even realise it. For you, shame is the voice in your head that is saying, “You are not enough”, or “You don’t belong”, like an unrelenting metronome. 

Shame has dictated so much of your life so much of your life so far. You work hard because shame tells you that you’re not enough. You try your best to fit in because shame tells you that you don’t belong. Shame has crept up on you because as a child you have been hurt so badly by the people around you that it was necessary for you to live by shame’s rules so that you don’t get hurt again. 

Shame is protecting your inner child.

But I have learnt that, “Shame is the flower that grows in the dark”. Shame is perpetuated by silence. The more you succumb to its rules and try to hide yourself, the more that you feed your shame. So talk about it. You lessen its power when you talk about it. The antidote to shame is love, so let yourself be loved by those around you. Once shame realises that you’re loved and you feel safe, shame will run out the door.

Learn to recognise when you make a decision – who is making them? Who is pulling your strings – is it you or is it shame? What is the voice in your head telling you is the reason you’re doing something? Is it because you think you’re not enough?

Express your emotions

After reading all of this, I might have convinced you to value your emotions, but I know that you were never taught how to express them. It’s one of the reasons that I think you never embraced them. 

In therapy, I learnt a really simple way:
I feel… [insert emotion] and I need… [insert what would help].

Remember, your emotions are always telling you what you need, and by telling other people, you are making that fact really clear to yourself. 

I realise that it’s hard to figure out what you’re feeling, so keep up with your yoga and meditation and in those moments of stillness ask yourself: what physical sensations am I noticing? Your body is always talking to you and telling you what it feels; it’s incredibly intelligent, so listen to it! Keep practising – you’ve got this!

Before I end this letter I just wanted to leave you with a little poem I found in one of your old therapy notebooks:

Happiness uplifts you,

Sadness releases you,

Fear and shame protect you,

Anger defends you.

Embrace your emotions and live your authentic life because it’ll be worth it!

Lots of love,

Future Sharvari

Next Steps


Updated on 06-Oct-2023