Our emotions result from our interactions with the environment and each other, guiding us through the many and varied situations we encounter in life and motivating us to do what is needed to reach our goals (Greenberg, 2016).
What do we do when we cannot express our emotions? And how do we find ways to regulate them, maintaining control without becoming cold and distant?
The answer appears to lie within our ability to manage our awareness and regulation of emotions, boosting our emotional intelligence.
This article explores emotional regulation and the closely related issue of emotional expression, and introduces tools to manage and express feelings more successfully.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Communication Exercises (PDF) for free. These science-based tools will help you and those you work with build better social skills and better connect with others.
This Article Contains:
- Emotion Regulation Explained
- Why Is It Difficult to Express Emotions?
- How to Help Clients Express Their Feelings
- 6 Worksheets for Learning to Express Emotions
- Expressing Feelings Through Writing: 3 Examples
- 5 Best Emotion Regulation Interventions
- Resources From PositivePsychology.com
- A Take-Home Message
Emotion Regulation Explained
Emotions are crucial to our survival, communication, and problem-solving (Greenberg, 2016).
Emotions help us:
- Signal vital information to ourselves about the state of our relationship with another person or the environment
- Signal vital information to others about the state of our relationship with the other person or the environment
- Ready ourselves for action
- Enhance our learning
- Evaluate whether things are going our way
Our emotions and how we use them are fallible; they do not always guide us well. Emotional intelligence is the ability to be aware and make sense of what our emotions tell us regarding how we conduct our behavior and our lives (Goleman, 1995).
So, if emotions help us adapt to situations and the environment, how do we manage them?
To act with emotional intelligence, we need to regulate both our emotional experiences and our emotional expression. Regulation “means being able to have emotions when you want them and not have them when you don’t” (Greenberg, 2016, p. 20).
Emotional regulation is a powerful and necessary skill. Children learn to manage their fears and soothe themselves at a young age. In adulthood, we may control our anger by counting to 10 or curb our anxiety through meditation, exercise, or talking to a dear friend.
Emotional regulation and finding the ideal balance of emotional activation are tricky. Too little, and we are walked over and taken advantage of; too much, and we fail to consider others, harming relationships. A degree of anger, for example, may promote the assertion required to motivate us to step up, challenge a situation, and perform at the level required (Greenberg, 2016).
Being emotionally intelligent involves experiencing emotions and handling or regulating them to avoid too much or the wrong type of emotion (Greenberg, 2016).
Why Is It Difficult to Express Emotions?
“We send emotional messages in every encounter, and those signals affect those we are with” (Goleman, 1995, p. 115).
Emotional intelligence involves managing this encounter – this expression of our feelings.
Emotional expression is both subtle and highly complex. Making it appropriate to the context, the people, and the environment is an advanced cognitive skill, integrating signals from both our biology and culture (Greenberg, 2016).
What happens when we find it difficult to express our emotions?
Emotional repression is an aspect of emotional regulation. Indeed, while regulating emotions helps us cope with the broad range of events we face, too much can have negative consequences, even damaging mental and physical wellbeing (Patel & Patel, 2019).
Individuals with difficulty managing their emotions are more likely to engage in substance abuse, fail to exercise, adopt poor eating habits, and have sleeping problems (Patel & Patel, 2019).
As well as an essential part of coping, managing emotions is cultural and learned. Increased emotional expression at a funeral in one part of the world may be considered inappropriate in another. The Makonde tribe of Tanzania engages in explosive outbursts of high-pitched crying, which may seem out of place at a funeral in Europe or the United States (Greenberg, 2016).
Aside from cultural and environmental cues, several other factors can impact how well we express our emotions (Greenberg, 2016):
- Emotions occur outside awareness
Emotions are typically activated by subliminal stimuli and take place outside of conscious thinking. As a result, emotions frequently influence our behavior without us being aware of them. It is often only when we attempt to express emotions that we feel that we truly grasp them.
- Putting feelings into words downgrades them
Research suggests that expressing how we feel in words can downgrade their effect, which can be helpful. For example, using the word ‘angry’ can decrease the activation in our amygdala and decrease arousal.
- Other people impact what we reveal
Our bodily feelings and emotions are affected by those around us. When under threat, if we have no one close who makes us feel safe, our emotions (such as fear and panic) may be elevated, yet we are less likely to share how we feel.
- Emotions change emotions
A positive emotion can transform a negative one. Compassion and forgiveness can change anger or disgust into feelings of security and calm.
How we feel is impacted by our body, environment, people around us, and other cognitive processes, all of which can affect how we express our emotions (Greenberg, 2016).
Put simply, we may find it difficult to express how we truly feel when we may not be fully aware, and even the act of attempting to share can change our emotions.
Don’t neglect your emotions. Express them – constructively!
How to Help Clients Express Their Feelings
“Expressing feelings well requires clients to be skilled at experiencing, exploring and accurately labeling feelings” (Nelson-Jones, 2005, p. 353).
Yet, many clients are not adept at expressing their feelings. This is where a counselor or therapist can help clients through a focus on both mind skills and communication and action skills (modified from Nelson-Jones, 2005).
Improving mind skills
A lack of aptitude can block or hinder experiencing and expressing emotions. As therapists, we can help clients by creating or improving their:
Replacing unrealistic personal and relationship rules (below) that harm clients’ ability to express emotions:
- I must have approval from others all the time.
- Men don’t cry.
- We must never have conflict in our marriage.
- Children should not challenge their parents.
Increasing the accuracy of perceptions (of self and others), the capacity to apply them flexibly, and improving the ability to express feelings.
Teaching clients to coach themselves through the skilled expression of feelings, for example, by saying to themselves, “remain calm, be polite, and clearly and positively state my case.”
Mentally rehearsing challenging times can help practice expressing feelings, trying out positive and negative scenarios.
Clients may need to adopt an active rather than a passive approach to expressing and explaining feelings.
It is important for clients to stop creating false expectations in their minds; they can hinder expressing feelings of fear of rejection, etc.
Improving communication skills
Verbal, voice, and body messages all have a part to play in expressing feelings. Clients can be helped in exploring:
- Verbal messages
Caring statements may include “I love you,” etc.
- Voice messages
A caring statement should be supported by a warm and kind tone.
- Body messages
The message can be helped or hindered by the body stance and position, eye contact, and facial expressions showing interest or concern.
- Touch messages
While being highly aware of what is appropriate and what will leave the other person uncomfortable, a supportive touch to the shoulder or even a hug can boost the overall message.
- Taking action messages
Providing support or giving, even something as simple as fetching a coffee, can indicate and underpin caring.
Role-playing scenarios can allow the client to practice and experience the skills above and adopt ones that work best for them.
6 Worksheets for Learning to Express Emotions
Emotional expression is closely aligned with our degree of emotional intelligence.
Unless we can adequately identify and understand our emotions, we are unlikely to be able to express how we feel successfully (Goleman, 1995).
The following worksheets can help you or your client to express your emotions through improved awareness, understanding, and connection with the other person.
Do you know how you feel right now? Or what your emotions were earlier today? Most likely, you would need to think about it and possibly come up with an answer that makes sense to you and the listener.
The Emotional Awareness worksheet encourages you to log your emotions during the day to improve awareness.
Emotions are often best viewed neither positively nor negatively, but rather simply observed.
Repeating this exercise over time can help you improve your awareness of how you feel and support you in expressing your emotions more clearly.
Mental imagery can be a safe place to reflect on your emotions in real or imagined situations.
The Emotional Expression worksheet directs you to visualize a challenging experience and reflect on the emotions you feel and how you might share them.
If you feel ready, share what you wrote with someone with whom you are comfortable. Use this exercise as a helpful and practical way to practice expressing your emotions.
We are often unaware of our emotions. And even when we wish to share them with others, if we are not used to experiencing them, it can affect our ability to communicate how we feel.
The Experiencing Emotions worksheet helps you reflect on the nature of an emotion, build an understanding of it, and be ready to share your feelings.
Think of the last time you experienced anger, sadness, upset, and fear. Use your answers to describe the emotion to a real or an imagined person. How would you begin? What would you say next? And how would you summarize how you felt?
We can feel uncomfortable expressing strong emotions, such as anger. This can be especially true if we express anger disproportionately to the situation or have trouble maintaining control.
The Expressing Anger worksheet can help you find a safe way to explore your anger so that you can express it more appropriately when necessary.
Writing down your feelings can help you understand them and become more comfortable with them, identifying what is reasonable and unreasonable.
Letter of Self-Compassion
We are often too hard on ourselves. This can be reflected in the emotions we experience and the guilt, shame, and fear associated with how we feel.
Writing a Letter of Self-Compassion can prompt us to be more forgiving and refocus our thinking on being more accepting, caring, and supportive to ourselves and others.
Read what you have written. Recognize that all of us have emotions we wish we could avoid, but we can see them as separate from who we are and share them with others, showing our vulnerable side.
Emotional Expression Checklist
Expressing our emotions calmly and clearly is good for our mental health and valuable for our relationships with others.
Sometimes it is useful to consider why we are sharing how we feel with the other person. Is it appropriate or helpful (Brown, 2015)?
The Emotional Expression Checklist is a brief set of questions to consider whether this is the right time to express how you feel.
Consider the answers and, if you’re not sure, wait to express your emotions when you feel more ready.
Expressing Feelings Through Writing: 3 Examples
Writing therapy has been widely recognized as a valuable tool for expressing feelings and thoughts and has the potential to offer mental and physical healing (Mugerwa & Holden, 2012).
Examples include (modified from Greenberg, 2016; Garone, 2020):
- Descriptive writing
Documenting traumatic events and the emotions that arise can improve health and wellbeing. For example, writing about a fire when we were young or witnessing the loss of a close family member.
- Emotion diaries
Keeping a record of moods instead of the day’s events can help people understand their experiences, build meaning, and create narratives for sharing. This might include emotions felt during a difficult workday or following a family disagreement.
- Daily journals
Keeping a diary of daily events can help ease distress and increase comfort in our ability to understand and explain our emotions. There are many dedicated journals available, and they can be kept and used for later reflection.
Expressing emotions in writing can help people share their feelings verbally (Greenberg, 2016).
5 Best Emotion Regulation Interventions
There are many emotional regulation strategies that can help both the individual involved in the regulation and those around them; some of the best and easiest to implement include (Gross, 2015):
- Situation selection
Choosing situations that will increase the individual’s exposure to desirable or undesirable emotions, for example, going for an enjoyable meal or avoiding an expressive coworker.
- Situation modification
Changing the situation to alter its emotional impact, for example, putting away a photograph that causes upset.
- Attentional deployment
Taking control of attention to influence the individual’s emotional response, for example, thinking about a vacation while waiting for a doctor’s appointment.
- Cognitive change
Modifying the appraisal of a situation to manage its emotional impact, for example, thinking to yourself, ‘This presentation is not the most important thing in the world.’
- Response modulation
Learning to change the physical, emotional, or behavioral response to a situation, for example, using deep breathing when anxious in crowds.
The regulation strategies above can be used individually or combined.
Resources From PositivePsychology.com
We have many resources that can help you or your client explore and practice emotional awareness and emotional regulation in our Positive Psychology Toolkit©. The toolkit is the world’s largest online positive psychology resource, containing over 400 exercises, activities, interventions, questionnaires, and assessments.
Some of our free resources include:
- Imagery-Based Exposure Worksheet
Use the seven steps in this worksheet to recall and reconcile with a difficult memory and the associated emotions.
- Telling an Empathy Story
This five-step worksheet is an excellent way to understand others’ emotional perspectives while developing empathy.
- 17 Emotional Intelligence Exercises
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others develop emotional intelligence, check out this collection of 17 validated EI tools for practitioners. Use them to help others understand and use their emotions to their advantage.
A Take-Home Message
Emotions are crucial to our health, wellbeing, navigating life, and reaching for our goals. And yet, we may not be fully aware of, able to regulate, or indeed express how we feel.
High levels of emotional intelligence can help by strengthening relationships, evaluating whether things are working out, and taking the necessary corrective actions.
Our challenge then is to become better at understanding our emotions and sharing them, while avoiding being walked over or trampling the feelings of others.
This delicate balance can be learned and practiced. We can begin by exploring the beliefs we hold and recognizing whether they are helpful or a hindrance. We can then learn how to be more aware of our feelings and their impact on our other emotions, cognitions, and behavior.
Once ready, we can work to manage and share these feelings, fostering closer relationships and increasing awareness of our own and others’ needs.
Try out some of the lessons, worksheets, and exercises, practicing them through imagery, remembering past experiences, and with friends. Learn to recognize how emotional regulation and expression can benefit your life and those around you.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Communication Exercises (PDF) for free.
- Brown, B. (2015). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. Avery.
- Garone, S. (2020, February 24). Mood journal 101: How to get started on controlling your emotions. Healthline. Retrieved October 14, 2021, from https://www.healthline.com/health/how-to-keep-mood-journal#Whats-a-mood-journal?-
- Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. Bantam Books.
- Gross, J. J. (2015). Emotion regulation: Current status and future prospects. Psychological Inquiry, 26(1), 1–26.
- Greenberg, L. S. (2016). Emotion-focused therapy: Coaching clients to work through their feelings. American Psychological Association.
- Mugerwa, S., & Holden, J. D. (2012). Writing therapy: A new tool for general practice? British Journal of General Practice, 62(605), 661–663.
- Nelson-Jones, R. (2005). Practical counselling and helping skills. Sage.
- Patel, J., & Patel, P. (2019). Consequences of repression of emotion: Physical health, mental health and general well being. International Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research, 1(3), 16–21.