I believe that ~60% of the emotions we feel on daily basis aren’t really what we think they are– and emerging research is beginning to support this claim. Often, these feelings are better classified as misplaced emotions.
Misplaced emotions occur when a feeling or thought doesn’t match the situation at hand.
For example, “You’re not really hungry; you’re procrastinating.” Or, “You’re not a mean person, you’re just feeling vulnerable and pushing your partner away“. Or, you’re not interested in what’s happening on social media; you just don’t want to answer that email right now and Instagram is your adult binky.
Sound familiar, anyone?
If you’re angry about a situation that most people would deem benign, it’s possible you’re feeling resentful about something bigger that you haven’t yet addressed. The thing you think you’re mad about at the moment might just be the trigger: the nudge that pushed you over the edge.
In these cases, the physiological phenomenon of displacement might be at work, which is actually a defense mechanism in which a person “redirects an emotional reaction from the rightful recipient onto another person or object,” according to Psychology Today.
Misplaced emotions rank among the most frequent causes of relationship woes– and it’s often true that in our relationships with ourselves we tend to do the same thing.
Have you ever heard the expression, “You’re lying to yourself?” Well, maybe you aren’t lying, but you might be evading your own reality more often than you think.
Your interpretation of any given moment, moreover, says a lot about your current emotional state. Have you ever snapped at someone–or been snapped at by someone– for seemingly no reason?
When you suppress emotions, you’re likely to express them inadvertently in other areas of life by being short, snide, sarcastic, quick to anger, easily aggravated, tense, spiteful, or even downright mean to people who had nothing to do with your initial feeling.
Psychologists call this phenomenon “emotional leakage”, and it’s basically the whack-a-mole of feelings. (People better understand it colloquially as a feeling of misplaced emotions.)
If you improve your emotional awareness, you’ll get better at identifying the true source of your feelings, which in turn causes less collateral damage to your own heart, mind, self, and others. At this point in our culture it probably sounds cliche, but it is so important to simply feel your feelings.
When you get better at identifying what’s really bothering you, cutting through the bullshit of any given situation becomes much easier. But first, you have to get into the habit of constantly asking yourself the question of why, why, why.
Like a child who keeps asking, “But why??”, think about attaching this suffix to any self-diagnosis of your own emotional state. If at any given moment you think you’re angry, ask yourself why. Feeling lonely? Why? Nervous? Why? You get the idea.
Working to identify and address instances of misplaced emotions is a great way to check your own ego and get to know yourself better. I recommend this practice to anyone who is interested in doing the work of becoming a more evolved, happy human being.
Not only will getting to the bottom of how you really feel make living infinitely better, but you’ll save yourself a lot of time and personal acrimony while making more room for meaningful engagement with the people you love (and the passions in your life).
This 5-step guide to identifying misplaced emotions is a good place to start.
Step 1: Ask yourself, “If I had to name this emotion, what would it be?”
If at any given point you are feeling a strong emotion that you don’t like, ask yourself, “What is this emotion?”.
Write it down on a piece of paper if you have to. Then, sit with that identifier for a moment. Try it on for size, in your mind. Does it feel right? Is that word representative of what you are really feeling in your body, mind, and heart?
Step 2: Ask yourself, “Does this situation merit emotion X?”
Take yourself out of the argument you are having or the inner dilemma you can’t seem to resolve and think about how an outside viewer would assess the situation.
Would someone who is very kind to you think the same thing? What would you say if one of your friends came to you with this problem?
Most people are harder on themselves than anyone else. See if the emotion you are feeling matches up with this fictitious person’s would-be assessment of you. Does that change how you feel?
Michelle Obama has a vignette in her book, Becoming, about how she and Barack went to marriage counseling. One thing they discussed was their differing paradigms for how they demonstrate their love for their daughters. Michelle grew up in a house where the entire family always ate dinner together. As she recently told Oprah, her family’s love was always “up close.”
Barack, on the other hand, grew up without his father, and his mother was constantly traveling to Indonesia. Still, Barack never doubted that his mother loved him.
Barack didn’t see it as a problem that he frequently came home after his daughters went to bed. This is because his paradigm of love wasn’t contingent on proximity. Michelle was able to reconcile her frustration with Barack by realizing that she wasn’t upset with Barack, who meant well.
Rather, she was upset that their paradigms of what family dinner and bedtime meant didn’t line up.
It was only through the process of identifying these competing paradigms and the misplaced emotions associated with them that the couple was able to reconcile. When Michelle insisted that she and the girls would no longer wait up for Barack, it became his job to make time for them, not the other way around.
Step 3: Ask yourself honestly, “What is it that I am REALLY feeling?”
Misplaced emotions often disguise themselves as a strong reaction to a situation that on paper wouldn’t seem merited. For example, I might think I am angry at my husband for breaking a glass. If he didn’t do this on purpose, however, I can’t be mad at him.
When I ask myself the above question, “What is it that I am really feeling?”, I realize that I am not angry at my husband at all, but rather, I’m afraid of the glass and I don’t want to clean it up.
Because cleaning up broken glass is stressful and I worry that we will both get splinters of glass in our feet, I might speak to my husband with an edge in my voice. When I realize I am not really mad at him, I stop speaking to him this way, and we can both exhale.
Step 4: Ask yourself, “Why do I feel this way?”
If you’re looking for a surefire way to figure out how you’re feeling, write down a series of declarative statements. Make a bullet-pointed list of all the thoughts swirling in your brain that you are sure about.
For example: “I am worried about my dad’s health.” Or, “I feel disrespected when my boss speaks to me like he did today at the meeting.” Another example could be: “I can’t sleep because I keep thinking about all of the work I have to do.” Or maybe “I get jealous when I see my friend’s accomplishments, and I am ashamed of that.”
The possibilities are myriad. “I want to quit my job, but I’m afraid to because I don’t know what the alternative is,” or “I feel guilty that I said ____ to Becky.” You get the idea.
These sentences are the breadcrumbs that will lead you to the root of what you are truly feeling. Besides this, studies also show that writing down your feelings has a therapeutic effect on the brain, so either way, you can’t lose.
Step 5: Admit the true thing to yourself (and others, if necessary)
Once you’ve identified the statement that feels true, acknowledge it. Then, forgive yourself.
Forgive, forgive, forgive. Everyone is a work-in-progress, and the number one goal here is to be nice to yourself. Just be honest and remind yourself that you don’t need to filter and disguise your inner monologue; you are the only person in that audience.
Anger, jealousy, and spite are emotions we often hide from ourselves because we don’t want to admit feeling them. However, these feelings are a necessary part of a full life!
By denying emotions that we deem negative, we compound them. Alternatively, when we address them, they no longer hold us hostage. Only by working to identify misplaced emotions can we truly learn to name our feelings.
Ultimately, this liberates us to move on with our lives so that we can begin to feel like even better versions of ourselves.
Related: The Art of Listening Better (in 3 Easy Mantras).
5 Ways to Stop Emotional Eating, According to Experts.
On Building Confidence–and Why Confidence Isn’t a Destination.
Finally, get more tips and tricks for managing acute stress in our Comprehensive Guide to Anxiety Relief: 25 Research-Backed Ways to Stay Calm.
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