Do you ever have feelings about your feelings? Let’s say you just found out that you are moving away for a new job. You feel happy to have this new opportunity, but you have to leave your friends and family behind. You may start to feel guilty about feeling happy and convince yourself you should be heartbroken that you are leaving home. This experience has been referred to as “meta-emotions” – that is, realizing you have feelings about your feelings. While many may be apparent to this reflective analyzation of emotions, some may not even realize they’re doing it.
As Brooke Schwartz — a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist and Licensed Clinical Social Worker who specializes in young adults experiencing anxiety and depression — told us, our initial feelings can commonly trigger a response in the form of another feeling. Meta emotions happen all the time, and they can occur “so automatically that we tend to just chalk it up to feeling a different feeling, rather than inspecting how the feeling came to be,” she says.
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What are meta-emotions?
A term commonly used among psychologists, meta-emotions are simply secondary emotions that are born from a feeling we are already going through. As explained in Greater Good Magazine, meta-emotions may be classified into four different categories: negative-negative (for example, feeling bad about feeling sad), negative-positive (such as feeling guilty about feeling good), positive-positive (this could look like feeling hopeful about feeling relieved) and, lastly, positive-negative (feeling joy in anger).
What is the most common type of meta-emotions?
As outlined in Greater Good Magazine, a study by the team at the Emotion and Mental Health Lab at Washington University in St. Louis concluded that people more commonly express negative-negative emotions.
What can negative-negative emotions looks like? Let’s say your partner decides to end things with you. Naturally, you feel sad about your emotional heartbreak. Exhausted with feeling down, you begin to become angry about how this lingering feeling will never disappear.
It is completely natural to express different kinds of emotions towards your feelings, but it can also be mentally draining. Nobody wants to ride the same roller coaster again and again, especially if it has too many loops.
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Emotions vs. feelings
To better understand meta-emotions, let’s step back and look to the differences in emotions and feelings. While we often group feelings and emotions into the same category, they each translate differently and both exhibit a unique experience of their own.
Feelings are intentional and are at the core of our inner responses to the situation. Emotions are our physical reactions or “multi-faceted” projections of what we are internally processing. Emotions involve more than a feeling, but rather can be bodily reactions like sweating, facial expressions and sounds. They both work hand in hand, which is why we so often take them for the same thing. Feelings are conscious, while emotions come from the unconscious part of our mind and can only be felt through existing beliefs, desires or actions. For instance, fear is an emotion and can make you feel stressed, worried and panicked. Enjoyment is an emotion that can bring feelings of happiness, joy or relief.
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How to recognize meta-emotions
Our secondary emotions can be identified in a number of ways. “To start, it’s important that you’re able to identify emotions at all,” says Schwartz. “What clues signal to you that you’re happy? What does it feel like to be surprised?”
When your goal is to identify your meta-emotions, you can start by asking yourself questions when an emotion comes up. As Schwartz says, it may be helpful to ask questions like:
- “Why am I feeling this way?”
- “Where did this emotion come from?”
- “How did I get here?”
Schwartz explains that asking ourselves these types of questions can “help us get more information on the origin of the feeling” — in other words, it can help us look to the feeling that came initially.
How to feel your feelings
It’s time to get super meta. Take a minute to reflect. How do you feel about your feelings right now? This simple step can you help you process your emotions in a healthy way.
For instance, you may feel guilty after you feel excitement; this is a meta-emotional response. In a situation like this, Schwartz says to describe the emotional experience as a fact rather than making a judgement about ourselves. Instead of saying “I’m so awful,” you can acknowledge your feelings and say “I’m feeling guilty about being excited.”
Additionally, self-compassion is a priority when it comes to coping with secondary emotions. This means showing ourselves some kindness by self-validating feelings. Even something as simple as using a self-soothing touch (such as placing your hand to your heart) can help validate your emotional state. Schwartz also says to speak to yourself as you would speak to a loved one. This reassurance can open up your feelings and allow them to be felt much healthier.
Similarly, mindfulness may also be a useful practice when it comes to feeling our feelings. Rachael Kable is an Australian author and meditation mentor who uses mindfulness as a way to manage the day-to-day meta-emotions we may feel. Kable says that when you are first hit with a feeling about a feeling, you can track back to the initial feeling and reassure yourself that the core emotion is okay to feel.
This acknowledgment can help you process the feeling and move past it a lot quicker. Then you can begin to explore how the feeling is affecting you physically. You could be crying, sweating or crossing your arms to protect yourself. Remind yourself that your body is listening to your core feeling and is doing the right thing by reacting physically.
Feelings always have a beginning, middle and end, so if you ignore your meta-emotions, you’re choosing to build up an internal explosion. By getting in touch with our emotions and our meta-emotions, we can better understand and deal with our experiences. And, as Schwartz notes, “it can be helpful to consider emotions ‘wanted vs unwanted’ instead of ‘positive vs negative.'” As she says, “Emotions aren’t ‘good’ or ‘bad’ — they just are.”