What Does It Mean to Process Emotions?

I say things like these to clients often:

We need to process the sadness. 

Let’s sit with your fear. 

There are lots of emotions we need to unpack and process here.   

One day, someone finally asked me ‘What do you mean by processing emotions?’ It dawned on me what jargons these are. Hey therapists, why can’t you use less mysterious languages? Here we go!

We have emotions, but we are not good at handling them. 

We may like to think that we are rational and logical. But the truth is we are not. The so-called rational people are either those who are good at taking care of their emotions, or those who are good at suppressing or compartmentalizing them.

Emotions exist. Most humans live with lots of emotions. However, if I ask ‘What are you thinking right now?’ vs. ‘What emotions are present for you right now?’, most people would find it ‘easier’ to answer the former. And if I ask ‘How are you feeling?’, most times the answers I get are things like ‘I am feeling like I can never win an argument’, ‘I just feel like there is always so much to do’, ‘I am feeling that they should apologize’ – These are thoughts, not emotions – We are much better at recognizing our thoughts than our emotions. Or I can even say, we are so preoccupied by our thoughts that we have such a hard time being in touch with how we feel.

So what is the problem with that? Imagine you are riding a bike, and you can only see and work with one of the wheels, but not the other… You may still be able to go to some places, but your body may start to get hurt, or you may get into trouble when your paths get windy. Many people experience body pain that are linked with emotional pain. There are also too many people who have no problem dealing with ‘things’, but find it hard to deal with people.

So what do I mean by processing emotions?

When you get a bag of groceries, you process them: You look at what you’ve got. You take the fruits out, put apples in the fruit bowl, and strawberries in the fridge. You take the canned foods out and put them on the shelf. You take the vegetables out, wash and chop the ones that are to be cooked tonight, and put the rest where they should go. Same thing with the meats, toiletries, and your emotions!

When you get some feelings, you process them: You look at what you’ve got. Ah there is fear. You place it in the center of your mind to look at it, ask it questions (where do you come from? any message you have for me? etc.), try to understand it. You give it what it needs (reassurance, comfort,… etc), then you put it where appropriate – somewhere you can still see and take care of, but maybe not where it can drive your behaviors. Then you look to see what else is in the bag. Ah there is anger. Oh this fire ball needs sufficient space to be listened to. You prepare a safe physical environment for the anger to express itself (jump, scream, dance!). You let it run its course and see what shows up at the end of the journey, like tracing lava all the way from the top of a volcano to the bottom where it cools and slows down. There, you can often find some jewels or another emotion.

This is not easy at all though.

Yeah, processing emotions is not easy breezy, like sorting through groceries in a bag. That was just an analogy, sorry! It takes A LOT of practice, patience, and guidance.

This is not because we are not smart or good enough. It is because most of us are not taught how to do that. And on top of that, we are unfortunately taught too much other things that make this whole business of processing emotions hard. Some of us have grown up in environments where having emotions is ‘troublesome’ or a sign of weakness. Some of us have lived in societies where rationality is overly worshiped and to a degree that anything other than that, such as emotionality, is considered meaningless or unproductive. Some of us have been exposed by explicit or implicit messages that some emotions are dangerous, intolerable, and should be ‘controlled’ (like there is a jail for emotions, where you can lock the bad ones).

So now can we all humbly consider picking up a ‘beginner emotion processor’ badge and putting it on our heart? We are not expected to be great at it just yet. But I recommend you to challenge yourself to practice it, because it will help with your bike ride and enrich your life journey.



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