Why Do We Have Emotions?
Updated: Mar 10
Do you hate some of your feelings? Do you try to avoid feeling? What do you think you would be like if you didn’t have any feelings?
When we don’t like our feelings, we may try different things to get rid of them. Common things we try include the following: distracting ourselves by staying busy, numbing out by mindlessly scrolling on social media, binging a show, among many other things. By avoiding our feelings, we are denying important messages and urges.
It may be helpful to understand why we have emotions, so we can know why we continue to experience them. When we experience a feeling, we are also having many automatic responses, including thoughts, sensations in our bodies, and our behaviors/actions. Each of these elements of emotions serves an important purpose. According to Dr. Marsha Linehan (2015), emotions help us with three main tasks: 1) motivates us towards action, 2) communicates information to others, and 3) communicates information within ourselves.
Motivation for Action
Emotions are universal, which means they exist for all humans throughout time and amongst various cultures. Many primary emotions we have today were also experienced by our ancestors. Throughout evolution, emotions continue to exist, because they are useful and essential for our survival. Each emotion we have has a specific function and influences how we behave in different situations. One of the primary reasons we have feelings is to motivate us for immediate action. This is time saving, because we may not have time to think in some life-threatening situations before having to quickly react. We may not always know why we feel the way we do, especially if we were not taught how to understand and label our feelings. The hopeful news is we can always learn how to cope with emotions.
Communication With Others and Self
Another important reason emotions exist is for communication. When we think of communication, we may think about verbal communication expressed through our words and tone of voice. Our emotions are also expressed nonverbally through our body language and facial expressions. These automatic emotional responses help others to understand how we are feeling. In addition, emotions are important communicators to ourselves. It can be helpful to think about feelings as cues/alerts/signals to pay attention to our internal response. Consider thinking about a time when your intuition was telling you something and this response protected you, which can include fleeing/freezing/fighting/fawning, in the situation.
Different Feelings and Their Function/Urges
In Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT, you can read more by clicking here), emotion regulation skills start with identifying emotions to help with understanding and coping more effectively with emotions (Linehan, 2015). Below is a summary of common emotions we can experience as well as a description of their function and resulting action urges.
Function: Sadness communicates a sense of loss or something is missing in our life. Perhaps we had hoped for a certain outcome, and things are not going the way we expected.
Urge: We may withdraw and self-isolate from loved ones.
Function: Happiness communicates with us that we are able to have a wanted outcome or we are able to receive affection like love.
Urge: We may want to share good news with others.
Function: Fear communicates there is a threat to our well-being or to someone we care about.
Urge: We may run away to escape danger and survive.
Function: Love communicates with us the desire to connect with others.
Urge: We may want to spend quality time with others and share experiences together.
Function: Anger communicates there is a perceived important goal being blocked or you/someone you care about is being attacked.
Urge: We may be motivated to fight back and stand up to injustice.
Function: Jealousy communicates something/someone we care about is at risk of being taken away.
Urge: We may want to protect what we fear losing.
Function: Guilt communicates with us that we may have violated our shared values/morals.
Urge: We may want to make amends and repair any harm we have caused.
This list is a brief overview, and there are many more emotions we have as humans. The next time you notice an intense emotion we encourage you to see if you can take some time to experience and understand the emotion. It may take some time to name the emotion and understanding what the emotion is communicating to you/others. While we can never get rid of emotions, we can learn how to live with them.
If you are interested in learning more about your emotions and how to regulate them, you can reach out to us here.
Stay tuned. Our next topic is “Charging Your Emotional Battery.”
Linehan, M. (2015). DBT Skills Training Manual. The Guilford Press.
Written by Susanna La, Ph.D.
Edited by Elena Duong, Psy.D.