The Skinny on Emotions

conscious emotions feelings needs thoughts unconscious Jun 08, 2023
artistic image of child holding her hands over her ears in emotion, title of blog

I don’t remember any specific education or training that I had on feelings in my early education, college or medical training. Now, I heard about emotional disorders, and quite honestly the struggles I had when I had my own big feelings.

I’d like to talk about emotions today.

There’s lots of different definitions of emotions, but here’s what I’m working with:

It’s a vibration that we feel in our bodies (think about how you can FEEL your emotions, sadness may feel heavy, excitement may feel like butterflies, stressed may feel like tension in the shoulders like they’re trying to climb into my head).

It’s that feeling - that vibration in the body - that gives emotions the name feeling.

Emotions are what make us uniquely human.

They are socially constructed (did you know that different cultures have different emotions) and influenced.

They are protective and predictive.

And they can be created both consciously and unconsciously.

The unconscious emotional patterns often happen either as a protective mechanism that bypasses the prefrontal cortex and goes right to the amygdala, the basic protective area of the brain. There, we will have life-saving responses that lead to fight, flight, freeze or fawn (also known as submitting).

The conscious emotional patterns are in response to a story we are telling, a thought that creates meaning in a situation.

Remember that we are surrounded by circumstances, situations and people in our environment. That is life. And then our brains have the job of making meaning of those situations by telling stories, thoughts.

Our thoughts then create feelings.

For example, when I was in medical school, I had a lot of studying to do, was missing sleep and there was always more to do than I had time for.

I felt a sadness creeping over me. It was heavy. It was dark. And I was afraid to share with others that this was my experience.

When I think back, the story I was telling myself was that I wasn’t good enough to be a doctor. (Don’t we often have “good enough” as a measuring stick in our lives?) That thought felt overwhelmingly sad.

I reached out to the school’s medical clinic and they told me something very unfortunate:

Do not seek help for this. You can’t tell anyone that you are sad or depressed. We do not want to prescribe medication or therapy because you “might have to report it” and risk your medical careers.

Instead they recommended herbals.

And I felt even worse.

I felt shame on top of sadness. Shame that I was broken. That I was the problem.

And this is what we have classically been told to do with our feelings: push them away, don’t acknowledge them, and more recently, treat them with medications.

Treatment can be very therapeutic. But even more therapeutic is understanding why we have emotions, what they are trying to tell us, and learning to feel the feelings.

You see, I was afraid to feel sad. I was afraid of what that meant about me as a student, as a future doctor. I pushed it away. And guess what? It got bigger and bigger.

When we “fight” our feelings, they get bigger. An analogy that has been used is that our feelings are like a big inflatable ball that’s on the surface of the water. The more that we try to push the ball under water, the more it pushes back against us.

Feelings are not meant to be pushed aside. They are there for a reason.



I see emotions coming from one of at least two things (note, sometimes both at the same time!):

1. There is a need.

One theory about feelings is that they are an indicator of our needs. So-called “positive” feelings, you know, the good-feels, mean that your needs are being met. So-called “negative” feelings, the bad-feels, mean that there are unmet needs.

Hmmmm…. What do you need?

Asking that question of the younger version of myself, the sad medical student, I reply that I need to feel enough, feel supported, feel accepted.


2. There is a story you’re telling yourself.

Another theory is that our thoughts create our feelings. The thoughts are the stories that create meaning in our lives.

When I ask that younger version of myself what was the story she was telling about school and the demands of school, her story was, “I’m not enough…. Not good enough, smart enough, hardworking enough…” You get the picture. That lead directly to that feeling of sadness.


The thing in either situation is that the more that we push away the feeling, the stronger it gets.

My practice of the past few years is this:

Understand that both positive and negative emotions happen. It’s a part of our human lives. Some say it’s the 50-50 of life: 50% is good, 50% is bad. When I first heard this, I thought “Oh, no, my life is at least 80% positive.”

And then I realized that I had been protecting myself against potential bad-feelings. I had created a wall of safety, of comfort. There’s nothing wrong with comfort unless you’re using it to protect yourself from growing.

Suddenly I became very uncomfortable…. Because I was doing things that I would have never imagined in my comfy life: like recording a podcast, speaking up and out online and on stage. That is sooooo uncomfortable for me and I’m doing it now, regularly.

I am actively putting myself into uncomfortable spaces.

Can you imagine? Putting yourself in a place that you fully anticipate you will be uncomfortable? Feeling… gasp… BAD?!?

That’s the thing that has been a practice for me:

Learning that feelings are not to be feared.

Why does it feel bad? Why do I not want to feel this emotion?

And what happens when I permit myself to feel it?

When I stopped trying to avoid being uncomfortable, and realized the feeling was because I was afraid of failing, I also realized that the only reason I felt comfortable was because I wasn’t putting myself into places where I could fail. I was living within fences that I had created for myself.

I didn’t have this language when I had my depression in school. What I did do remember is finding the lighter side of life in being outdoors, being with my family. Thankfully that helped, because it still didn’t get to the heart of the problem. I didn’t have a language for that for many years, and after several run-ins with burnout (also notably with the repeated story that I was the problem, not good enough, smart enough, hard-working enough).

So dear Taylor Swift, I’d like to build off of your song and acknowledge:

Hi, It’s Me. I am NOT the problem.

I am a human, having human emotions. Doing the best that I can in the moment with the resources that I have available to me.


When we learn that our feelings are actually not problems, that they are there for a reason, we can start looking at our threat-detection system, the wiring that has been created over time (acknowledging the influence of trauma and protection of old wounds), and the story we are telling ourselves.

The story isn’t the problem either. But we do have an opportunity to question it.

For me, questioning the story of not being good enough HAD to be done. It was all a lie. The story of anticipated failure when speaking in front of people: a lie. It was just there to protect me, which is good, but it wasn’t good because it was protecting me from living a life I actually want to live.

Next time, I want to talk a bit more about emotions and specifically how they are the FUEL for our lives. Get your lighters ready… we’re gonna light it up. LOL!

Also in this series, we will talk about helping kids identify their feelings, and also HOW to feel the feelings…. So much more to come.

Check out the Family in Focus with Wendy Schofer, MD Podcast!

Listen Now!

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