Acknowledged Emotions are Good Emotions

It’s been two years since the Disney/Pixar release of the movie Inside Out, a film set inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl named Riley. If you haven’t seen it, the main characters are actually Riley’s emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. The movie follows the antics of these 5 emotions as Riley’s family moves across the country to a new home in San Francisco.  The filmmakers show us the mayhem caused as each of her emotions try to control her behavior in their own distinct ways.  It is a complicated film and it makes several good points, but the main point I took away from it is that each of our emotions has value.  That is to say, there’s a time to experience each emotion and acknowledge what we are experiencing.

Our modern Western society tends to be emotionally muted.  Happiness is acceptable, and so is anger, and “depressed” is developing a presence in our cultural mediums, but it’s hard for us to willingly acknowledge feelings of shame, ambivalence, anxiety, fear, disgust, and even sadness.  One possible result of this hesitance to experience some of the harder or darker emotions is the stuffing of the “scary, bad emotions.”   Stuffing is a form of denial which can sometimes be useful for a short period of time as a coping mechanism and, more often can be a significant issue holding us back from healthy and wholehearted living.

One of the main points that the movie makes is that stuffing our feelings doesn’t work well as a long-term approach.  If we need to make it through a crisis and process through the emotional aspects slowly after the crisis has passed, stuffing can be an alright survival mechanism.  However, if we decide to treat the crisis as an awful thing we never think or talk about, never treating the emotional wounds with the emotional antiseptic of curious compassion, we may find that we develop something like an emotional infection, poisoning us little by little from the inside.

How can we learn to acknowledge our emotions?  Many of us weren’t raised in a family that talked about such things.  Some of us just don’t have the language to explain how we’re feeling.  We know we feel ‘bad,’ but it’s hard to be more specific.  At times like that, I find it useful to consult a Feeling Word List.  There are countless options on the internet, but I will list some words here.  This is by no means a comprehensive list!

Happy Sad Scared Vulnerable Strong Angry Surprise Disgust
content gloomy anxious isolated daring bitter appalled contempt
cheerful down fearful weak bold rage astonished revulsion
chipper unhappy nervous wounded fearless fierce amazed antipathy
calm alone terrified unheard courageous livid startled abhorrence
relaxed miserable petrified uncared for indomitable ticked impressed repugnance
peaceful dejected frightened unwanted powerful annoyed awestruck detestation
sunny demoralized panicky unloved dominant irritated stunned dislike
connected depressed threatened misunderstood in control exasperated shocked loathing
joyful rejected dread helpless centered frustrated flabbergasted aversion
jubilant low alarmed pathetic aggressive peeved blown away scorn
exuberant distressed defensive stupid potent mad alarmed hatred
exultant heartbroken suspicious foolish determined hot shaken disapproving
excited devastated uneasy exposed durable destructive astounded judgmental
up crushed tense embarrassed secure superior dazed repelled
loved sorrowful intimidated ashamed stable offended bewildered grossed out
cherished melancholy overwhelmed  small solid offensive incredulous fed up
valued mournful apprehensive alone certain irate mystified annoyed
respected in the dumps guarded impotent sure outraged dazzled sarcastic
understood dreary concerned hopeless adequate defiant confused sickened by
cared for useless frantic exhausted able caustic jumpy impatient
wanted worthless startled drained super fuming dismayed disrespectful
loveable flat paralyzed disrespected proud explosive horrified revolted
desirable dull fretful inadequate capable murderous excited disappointed
optimistic moody jumpy worn out sufficient petulant perplexed sick of
enthralled empty troubled run down free rebellious stupefied repulsion
elated grieving skittish spent ready spiteful staggered abomination
satisfied pessimistic timid fragile safe sarcastic taken aback condemning
blissful downhearted worried stressed respected hateful dumbfounded malice
jolly dismal shy defenseless trusted resentful agitated denial
gleeful lamentable cautious frail provocative sullen boggled disinclined
amused burdened shaky insecure vigorous volcanic disconcerted hostile
euphoric abandoned desperate uncertain passionate willful overwhelmed dread
enthusiastic  bitter helpless submissive resilient furious overcome dissatisfied
ecstatic lonely chilled trusting self-assured hostile bowled over odium

Hopefully this list can help you begin to pinpoint your negative emotion in such a way that you are able to find words for it.  Often, when we are able to label our emotions, we can gain a sense of power over them.  Like G.I. Joe said, knowing is half the battle!  Knowing and understanding what we are feeling can give us the edge we need to feel, and even feel deeply, without fear of going “over the edge” emotionally.

Understanding our emotions can give us insight into our behavior. In the movie, Riley’s behavior was often driven by one emotion character or another. When Fear was in charge, two-year-old Riley was cautious when walking past an electrical cord.  When Disgust was in charge, she was sarcastic to her mother.  When Anger was in charge, she hung up on her friend, stormed out of hockey practice, and yelled at her dad.  Like Riley, our behavior is often driven by our emotions.  If we choose to allow our emotions to dictate our behavior, we often act without thinking, making choices in a whirl of emotion rather than with a clear head.  It is important to acknowledge our emotions and experience them, because when we fail to acknowledge them, we often act out of them and our emotion-driven behavior can be harmful to us and to our relationships. Consider the following two examples.


This is an example of how stuffing our emotions on the pretense of protecting others can actually harm relationship. We have a man and woman in dialogue. It is around 6pm.

M: “I heard the door slam when you came in. Is everything alright?”
W: “I’m fine.” (slams a cabinet door, then walks briskly across the room and firmly places the mug on the counter)
M: “I’d like to hear about it if there is something bothering you.  It looks like you might be feeling angry about something.”
W: “I said I’m fine!”
(Man feels rejected and pushed away.  He feels a little hurt.)
M: “Fine. Well, I’m going to go get cleaned up for dinner.  The reservation is for 7.”
W: “Cancel the reservation.  I can’t go.  I have some work I need to do.”
M: “But we made this reservation three days ago!  Why do you have to do that work now?  Can’t it wait for tomorrow? This happened last month too!”
(Woman feels defensive and attacked)
W: “I can’t help it when other people don’t do their jobs.  And I can’t change what happened last month.  Why do you always have to bring up what happened in the past?  Why can’t you just let it go and leave me alone?”
(Man feels attacked and angry)
M: “Well I guess it’s my problem that you can’t get your work done at work.  Fine. I’ll go by myself since you clearly don’t want to be bothered with dealing with me!”
(Man storms out angrily. Woman feels angry, abandoned, and hurt.)


Let me present an idyllic example of an alternative to stuffing. We have a man and a woman in dialogue. It is around 6pm.

M: “I heard the door slam when you came in. Is everything alright?”
W: “I’m fine.” (slams a cabinet door, then walks briskly across the room and firmly places the mug on the counter)
M: “I’d like to hear about it if there is something bothering you.  It looks like you might be feeling angry about something.”
W: “Honestly, I’m really ticked off at a colleague at work.  She said she’d get this report to me today so I could incorporate it into my presentation for tomorrow, but she didn’t complete it.  Now I’m going to have to cancel our dinner tonight so I can finish her report and then my presentation.
M: “Well no wonder you’re feeling upset! I’d be feeling irritated with her also if I were in your shoes.  I’d probably also feel pretty disappointed about having to cancel our plans tonight.  I know I am feeling disappointed.  I was really looking forward to spending that time with you.
W: “Yes, I am feeling disappointed about that.  I think that’s part of the reason I’m so annoyed with her.  I was really looking forward to just catching up with you and now I can’t.  I feel cheated of that time, and I resent her for that.
M: “That makes sense to me.  I am disappointed and sorry we can’t do dinner tonight, but I will call and reschedule our reservation for Friday.  Tonight, I’ll order some take-out and we can have a brief meal together when you take a break.  Thanks for sharing what was going on.  I feel honored that you trusted me with your feelings.”
W: “Thanks for asking, as well as for listening.  It helps to have you understand and validate my feelings.  I’m ready to go get started.  I’m still annoyed, but I feel a bit better knowing you heard me and understand.”
(Both feel disappointed about the cancelled dinner, but united and cared for)

In the second example, the woman thought about her feelings, labeled them, and shared them.  The man was able to understand where she was coming from, and even help her understand her feelings a little better by introducing the word disappointment. He empathized, and was able to be a resource for her instead of an additional stressor because she shared her heart with him. She really respected him by sharing herself with him in that way.


Now, few of us have conversations that go that therapeutically, but we can begin making that more of a goal in our relationships.  It’s easy to start.  Reflecting to others can be a model of the way we would like them to reflect to us.  For example, we can say things like:

“It sounds like you might be feeling ________.”

“If that happened to me, I’d feel ________.”

“Sometimes I feel _________ too.”

When we give the emotions that kind of attention and language, they are acknowledged, and build up less pressure inside of us, making us less likely to explode in inappropriate ways, or act out based solely on how we feel.  We integrate our minds and our emotions, allowing us to be thoughtful as well as feeling.

In short, acknowledging our emotions can transform them from scary or bad and they can become good emotions because they do not lead to the scary or bad places they used to.  Rather, acknowledging them can even draw us closer in relationship to our loved ones. So, acknowledged emotions are good emotions.