Girl in the woods Michelle Karpman

 “There can be no knowledge without emotion. We may be aware of the truth, yet until we have felt its force, it is not ours.” – Novelist Arnold Bennett

Common speak advocates keeping your emotions in check, not letting your emotions overrule you, being rationale, and the like. We come to relate with our emotional world as if it’s something of a hassle by-product of the human design.

Sadly, when we lose touch with how we feel, we lose our emotional compass to guide our living. Instead, defenses and fear dictate what we do.

I think the fear of our emotions runs deep. Propriophobia (PRO-pree-o-FO-bee-a) is Greek for “fear of one’s own felt sense” (technically: “fear of one’s own”). One might also translate it as “fear of the inner self.”*

Why do we fear our emotions? And what is the purpose and function of emotions if it seems to be a manufacture’s design in our biology?

First, I don’t think we necessary fear our emotions consciously. It’s the plight of modern living. Our attention is devoted to what’s out there. There’s lots to get done, tick-boxes off the list, and a job to keep. What we unconsciously end up with is a highly valued “rational mind,” as if this system is void of emotions, subscribing to the mind-over-body type of mentality. We see the nebulous stuff of emotion as “in the way.”

Said in another way, we relegate our emotions. We override our feelings in order to get some order.

But emotions are not just in the mind. It is a real bodily experience (see image below). Emotions are bodily activation that organises our behavior. Check with yourself if this holds true: Think of a time when something make your feel anxious or scared. Where do you feel it in the body? Chances are, you would feel your heart beating faster, butterflies in the stomach, and/or tension in the chest region. Or think of a time when someone make your angry. Where do you feel it in the body? Chances are, you would experience your fist clenching, a flush of hotness over your face, etc.

The Physiological Experience of Emotions

From Nummenmaa, L. Glereana, E., Harib, R., & Hietanend, J. K. (2014). Bodily Maps of Emotions. PNAS.

Emotions are purposeful. They are like alert bells that ring to greet you, “Hello… anyone there?” In times of distress, they are like sirens that begs your attention, “Hey, something is going on. You need to…(fill in the blanks)” Contrary to the bad rap of emotions, there is no right or wrong with emotions.Emotions are signals of us to take heed. In working with people in therapy, you’d often see that several psychological disorders are in part due to an experiential avoidance of the emotional world. A person who avoids feeling anxious by compulsively washing his hands, manifesting as OCD; a person who another who relegates her own feelings while staying in an abusive relationship, or another who experiences a burnout while not attending to the build up of compounded stress over the months of terrifying deadlines.

Here’s a list of the purposes of emotions:

1. A sense of who we are;

2. Connection with others;

3. Cultural and Intergenerational connection of shared values;

4. Motivation & drives us to action on what we want;

4.Sense or direction (emotional compass);

5. Learning, and

6. Meaning.

Working with our emotions is crucial. If we don’t, it’s like trying to play an instrument without tuning it. We need to learn to tune in, in order to have a musical life.

Here’s a quick tip:

1. At the end of each day, ask yourself, “How am I feeling right now?”

2. Be patient, and allow this to be answered by your bodily experience, not your intellectual explanations. Emotions are meant to be experienced, not explained.

3. Ask yourself: What is your emotion informing you about what you need at this point? Then, action follows: “What do I need to do?”

Don’t wait ’til the sirens are sounding, by then you’d be trying to put out the fire.


Daryl Chow, Ph.D.



* This was borrowed from my colleague and friend’s website, Dr. Jason Seidel.