I understand your feelings

Understanding Your Emotions (for Teens)

How Emotions Help Us

What are you feeling, right now, as you start to read this? Are you curious? Hopeful that you'll learn something about yourself? Bored because this is something you have to do for school and you're not really into it — or happy because it's a school project you enjoy? Perhaps you're distracted by something else, like feeling excited about your weekend plans or sad because you just went through a breakup.

Emotions like these are part of human nature. They give us information about what we're experiencing and help us know how to react.

We sense our emotions from the time we're babies. Infants and young children react to their emotions with facial expressions or with actions like laughing, cuddling, or crying. They feel and show emotions, but they don't yet have the ability to name the emotion or say why they feel that way.

As we grow up, we become more skilled in understanding emotions. Instead of just reacting like little kids do, we can identify what we feel and put it into words. With time and practice, we get better at knowing what we are feeling and why. This skill is called emotional awareness.

Emotional awareness helps us know what we need and want (or don't want!). It helps us build better relationships. That's because being aware of our emotions can help us talk about feelings more clearly, avoid or resolve conflicts better, and move past difficult feelings more easily.

Some people are naturally more in touch with their emotions than others. The good news is, everyone can be more aware of their emotions. It just takes practice. But it's worth the effort: Emotional awareness is the first step toward building emotional intelligence, a skill that can help people succeed in life.

Emotions 101

Here are a few basic things about emotions:

  • Emotions come and go. Most of us feel many different emotions throughout the day. Some last just a few seconds. Others might linger to become a mood.
  • Emotions can be mild, intense, or anywhere in between. The intensity of an emotion can depend on the situation and on the person.
  • There are no good or bad emotions, but there are good and bad ways of expressing (or acting on) emotions. Learning how to express emotions in acceptable ways is a separate skill — managing emotions — that is built on a foundation of being able to understand emotions.

It's All Good

Some emotions feel positive — like feeling happy, loving, confident, inspired, cheerful, interested, grateful, or included. Other emotions can seem more negative — like feeling angry, resentful, afraid, ashamed, guilty, sad, or worried. Both positive and negative emotions are normal.

All emotions tell us something about ourselves and our situation. But sometimes we find it hard to accept what we feel. We might judge ourselves for feeling a certain way, like if we feel jealous, for example. But instead of thinking we shouldn't feel that way, it's better to notice how we actually feel.

Avoiding negative feelings or pretending we don't feel the way we do can backfire. It's harder to move past difficult feelings and allow them to fade if we don't face them and try to understand why we feel that way. You don't have to dwell on your emotions or constantly talk about how you feel. Emotional awareness simply means recognizing, respecting, and accepting your feelings as they happen.

Building Emotional Awareness

Emotional awareness helps us know and accept ourselves. So how can you become more aware of your emotions? Start with these three simple steps:

  1. Make a habit of tuning in to how you feel in different situations throughout the day. You might notice that you feel excited after making plans to go somewhere with a friend. Or that you feel nervous before an exam. You might be relaxed when listening to music, inspired by an art exhibit, or pleased when a friend gives you a compliment. Simply notice whatever emotion you feel, then name that emotion in your mind. It only takes a second to do this, but it's great practice. Notice that each emotion passes and makes room for the next experience.
  2. Rate how strong the feeling is. After you notice and name an emotion, take it a step further: Rate how strongly you feel the emotion on a scale of 1–10, with 1 being the mildest feeling and 10 the most intense.
  3. Share your feelings with the people closest to you. This is the best way to practice putting emotions into words, a skill that helps us feel closer to friends, boyfriends or girlfriends, parents, coaches — anyone. Make it a daily practice to share feelings with a friend or family member. You could share something that's quite personal or something that's simply an everyday emotion.

Just like anything else in life, when it comes to emotions, practice makes perfect! Remind yourself there are no good or bad emotions. Don't judge your feelings — just keep noticing and naming them.

Connecting How you Feel with What it Means

Understanding emotions can help elevate your relationships and change how you relate to the world.

It’s not always easy to recognize a feeling. You might label it anger on the surface, but what is it deep down? Is it frustration, resentment, or maybe annoyance?

Emotions are rarely one-dimensional, and it’s natural to know you’re feeling something but cannot put it into words.

However, understanding your emotions can help you identify them in other people and may enhance how you interact with everyone you meet.

Emotions are complex. A 2017 research review suggests they’re a combination of:

  • physiological responses
  • subjective impressions
  • personal expression

What’s “happy” for one person can be vastly different from what’s “happy” for another, even in the same situation.

What emotion is for you depends on your:

  • perception
  • resilience
  • coping mechanisms

While emotions may be conscious, individual experiences of feeling come from specialized neural activations in several regions of the brain’s cerebral cortex.

In a 2021 review on the brain’s role in emotions, researchers note these experiences occur from the amygdala constantly taking in and evaluating sensory information.

The brain assesses these sensory inputs for complexity, intensity, and other variables that help it assign an emotion.

For example, if your emotional state is “unhappy” at work, something has given your brain that sensory input, whether it’s:

  • pressure from deadlines
  • comments from a co-worker
  • a combination of lifestyle factors like lack of sleep and not eating enough

Understanding emotions fully involves knowing why emotions are a part of life.

There’s a reason why you have both positive and negative feelings.

Experiencing an emotion is your body’s way of relaying information to your consciousness. If you’re afraid, for example, the sensory inputs around you might translate as harmful, and your brain may want you to take action.

This experience of feeling then causes a cascade of other important processes that help you grow, learn, and ultimately survive.

A 2017 review evaluated the importance of emotion from an evolutionary standpoint. The research identified emotion as essential for cognitive processes, such as:

  • perception
  • attention
  • memory
  • reasoning
  • problem-solving
  • learning

These processes are linked to personal growth and the broader concept of learning.

You feel afraid, for example, so you:

  • become focused on a threat (perception/attention)
  • identify the threat for future avoidance (memory)
  • brainstorm about how to escape (problem-solve)
  • contemplate how the threat is dangerous (reasoning)
  • understand consequences and why you’re in danger (learning)

Emotional awareness

Emotional awareness is the ability to identify emotions in yourself and in others.

“Emotional awareness is multifaceted,” explains Dr. Danielle McGraw, a clinical psychologist in Scottsdale, Arizona. “It is knowing that emotions are a physical sensation and knowing where in your body you feel specific emotions.

She adds that most people only use a variation of “happy,” “sad,” or “mad” to describe their emotions, but actual emotions extend far beyond these basic constructs.

Part of developing emotional awareness is learning other ways emotions can present themselves.

“It’s difficult to understand our emotions when we do not have the language to describe them,” she says.

If you feel out of touch with your emotions, there are several reasons this might be the case.

Attachment style

Attachment theory suggests how closely you bonded to your primary caretakers in childhood can dictate your emotional availability as an adult.

“Emotionally distant, unavailable, and rejecting attachment figures throughout childhood is often a common experience for people who find identifying and discussing their emotions challenging,” says Gabrielle Montana, a licensed professional counselor in Fitchburg, Wisconsin.

If your caregivers were emotionally apathetic or withholding, it’s natural you might learn to model that in adulthood.


Roma Williams, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Houston, indicates trauma can prevent emotional awareness by causing someone to shut down emotionally.

This self-protective state can prevent you from feeling emotions or recognizing them in others.

Mental health conditions

“There are certain mental health conditions that can cause someone to be emotionally unaware,” says Williams. “For example, people with borderline personality disorder may have difficulty regulating their emotions and understanding what they are feeling.”

Other mental health conditions that might hinder you in understanding emotions include:

  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • major depressive disorder
  • generalized anxiety disorder
  • substance use disorder

Emotions may have a basis in survival-oriented learning, but they also serve as an important tool for building relationships with others.

The phrase “relate to” indicates you can identify with someone else. Perhaps you recognize what they’re feeling because you’ve recognized it in yourself.

Understanding emotions can help you become more empathetic and can help you establish a sense of trust.

It’s a skill that can also benefit your own mental well-being.

Montana cautions that “When we cannot identify, attune to, or engage with our own emotions, this can lead to:

  • poor self-esteem
  • negative thoughts about self
  • looking for outlets to find some sort of relief

“This ultimately leads to negative feedback loops and keeps us feeling stuck.”

There are a number of ways you can work toward understanding emotions.

Body scanning

When you’re feeling an emotion, linking it to a body sensation can help you understand it.

“Begin with noticing the sensation in your body while watching a movie or hearing a song that you know causes sadness, joy or upset,” suggests Celeste Labadie, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Boulder, Colorado.

Once you’ve identified the sensations, you can ask yourself what they’re trying to tell you.

“Then just listen for something very simple to arise,” says Labadie. “Another way to approach this is, ‘If I were a dog, what would rumbling in my belly be telling me?’ This will really simplify it and get you out of your logical thinking brain.”

Using an emotional wheel

Understanding emotions may be easier if you have a premade list of ones to pick from.

Montana recommends using an emotional wheel, created by yourself or found online, that lists different emotions and their accompanying sensations.

“It may not be that you don’t have emotional awareness, but that instead, you don’t have access to the language you need to describe your emotional experience,” she says.

Watching others

Labadie notes understanding emotions can be practiced by watching others. You can do this through media, like movies, or out in public.

“I recently sat on a bus and watched a woman’s face change dramatically at hearing a crying baby in a nearby row,” she says.

“I silently tracked her thinking, ‘she’s upset, her face is red, her eyes are tearing up, she’s having an emotional response, this baby is bringing up something inside of her, there’s some pain she’s feeling. …’”

Writing it out

It’s not always easy to corner free-floating thoughts in your mind. To help work through understanding emotions, you can use a journal to articulate your thoughts.

Williams explains journaling can help get out raw emotions in several ways:

  1. feels safer than telling someone else
  2. allows you to be judgment-free
  3. prevents thought rumination

“If you are feeling overwhelmed or even anxious, this can be a good indicator that you need to stop and process your emotions,” she says. “I always talk with my clients about the power of writing.”

Understanding emotions isn’t always easy, especially if you don’t have words to put to what you’re feeling.

It’s natural to gravitate toward basic emotions like “happy” or “sad,” but most emotions are far more complex, and often have important foundations in everyday learning.

You can identify emotions in yourself and others by:

  • observing others
  • journaling
  • learning about emotions

If you feel as if you’re unable to get in touch with emotions, working with a mental health professional can help you identify underlying challenges like attachment style and trauma.

With professional guidance, you can cultivate new ways to identify and express your emotions that support positive relationships in your life.

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