How to Express Your Emotions

In my last post, I talked about the importance of maintaining flexibility in choosing how you respond to and express your emotions as you work through the process of mastering them as tools.

The process of mastering your emotions begins with the ability to know and label the specific emotion you are experiencing and continues through the actions you take that are consistent with and appropriate to that specific emotion.

So….How do you know what emotion you are experiencing?

I address this issue in my book Emotions as Tools: A Self Help Guide to Controlling Your Life not Your Feelings.   I also provide checklists which will help you identify your feelings.

That being said, let me give you enough information about how to identify your feelings so at least you can get started.

Physical signs: 

Typically, your first indicator that you are experiencing an emotion will be physical changes in your body.

This could include muscles tightening, a sense of warmth, your body preparing to go to war (fight), run (flight), or stiffen (freeze).

That your body is your first indicator follows from the subconscious element of the emotional process which involves your subconscious (and continuous)  scanning of your surroundings for any threat and your brain preparing your body (again subconsciously) to deal with the perceived threat.

This is the primitive part of the emotional process which has existed in humans since we lived in caves and which evolved to help us survive as a species.  This part of the emotional process is very fast and automatic which, by the way, you would want it to be if you were about to be eaten by a saber toothed tiger.

The problem, however, for all of us today, is that this primitive emotional process continues to function unchanged in us just as it did in our cave dwelling ancestors.  This rapid reaction is the reason that many people feel controlled by their emotions, they view emotions as beyond their comprehension, and they blame their emotions for the inappropriate behavior they display when they experience an emotion.

None of these “assumptions” about emotions are true.

  1. You are NOT controlled by your emotions eventhough your initial reaction is subconscious.
  2. You can comprehend your emotions by reading my book, checking out the index tab to all my posts by scrolling to the top of this page or tapping into any number of resources available to you on the internet.
  3. The actions you take or your response  to your emotions are always your choice.  Your emotions do prepare you for a response but do NOT force you do anything.

Cognitive signs.

The “modern” component of the emotional process involves the thoughts you have about the threat your scans have perceived and your body has alerted you to through its physical reaction.

You might be more sensitive to changes in your thinking than you are to changes in your body.

If you are, you will become aware of “threat-based” thoughts which are preparing you to engage with the threat (indicative of anger), getting you all worked up over something that could occur in the future (indicative of anxiety), or, perhaps, alerting you to a situation that has immediate and unavoidable potential to do you great harm (fear).

You can learn to acknowledge these thoughts, accept their initial message as possible, question the extent to which these thoughts match what is happening to you, and choose whether to act on the thoughts or change them to match your situation.

By the way, if your thoughts alert you to an eminent threat and you are feelings fear, my suggestion is to escape the situation and assess it later.  An example would be a stranger in an elevator who looks “okay” but elicits an uncomfortable feeling in you.  Trust your “gut” and take the next elevator.  Whether he is or is not a threat is irrelevant.

This process of assessing your thoughts is what mastering your emotions  as strategic tools is all about.

How to express emotions

  • Use “I” language

I language sounds like this… I am angry about your comments you made to me.  I found what you said to be inappropriate.  What exactly did you mean by what you said?”

There are several elements in the above statement…

I am angry about your comments you made to me.

This person labels the feeling (anger) and takes full responsibility for the feeling.

I found what you said to be inappropriate.

This clearly states this individual’s perception and does not place any blame.

  • Ask “What” in your question, NOT “Why”.

What exactly did you mean by what you said/did?

This question starts with “what” which is designed to focus on the other person’s intent/behavior and not “why” which often elicits an excuse.

This question also leaves open the possibility that the questioner might have misunderstood or misinterpreted what was said.

Finally, this question gives the other person a chance to explain, apologize for, or even change the comment that was made.

  • Stay focused on the feeling and the issue which elicited the feeling.

Don’t introduce information which is not directly relevant to the situation you are addressing. What happened last week or last year is not relevant here unless the actions of the other person is representative of an ongoing and unresolved issue.

  • Acknowledge that you might have misunderstood and ask for clarification.

Note: Recall that an important part of being flexible is being open to the possibility that your initial assessment of your situation was incorrect.

  • If appropriate, apologize for any misunderstanding.

This is not saying you are wrong.

This is not negating your feelings.

If you are wrong, acknowledge this directly and apologize.

  • Be congruent.

non-verbals should match verbals

  • Remember the concept of escalation

Start with the lowest amount of energy needed to accurately reflect what you are feeling. This is being assertive.

You can always increase the level of aggressiveness if you need to.

Emotional Flexibility

In my last post, I noted the 5 steps of mastering emotions…

Mastering your emotions involves five steps.

  1. self-awareness
  2. manage your own arousal
  3. understand the message of each emotion
  4. assess the match between your emotion and the situation in which you find yourself
  5. choose an adaptive response

In a recent article in the February 2024 issue of Psychology Today entitled To Manage Overload, Think More Flexibly by Ellie Xu and Darby Saxbe, Ph.D., the authors discussed the concept of emotion regulation flexibility.

Prior to this article, I had not encountered the concept although the idea of emotion regulation flexibility is very consistent with the emotional mastery process as you will see.

The concept of flexibility (in the context of mastering your emotions) adds additional understanding to steps 4 and 5 of the emotional mastery process.

Being flexible in mastering your emotions means that you are..

  • open to the possibility that  you might be misinterpreting what is going on in your situation. This is Step #4 and involves perception and self-awareness.


  • open to and able to implement a variety of strategies which will adaptively deal with and manage the situation in which you find yourself. This is Step #5 and involves both knowledge and capability.

So, Step #4, which calls upon you to  assess the match between the emotion you are experiencing and your situation, gives you the opportunity to determine the appropriateness of the emotion.

An emotion is appropriate when it accurately reflects what is actually happening in your situation.

An emotion is inappropriate to the extent that it reflects what you are experiencing but not what is happening.  In other words, you have misperceived the other person, their actions, or the situation.

Notice that I did not say validity.  

The reason for this is that I believe ALL emotions are valid in that they …

a. are representative of how you are perceiving your situation

b .they communicate to you information you can use to decide how you want to act

c. they can be assessed to determine the extent to which they accurately match what is happening to you and your initial perception of your situation.

In my last post, I listed the questions you need to ask in order to make as assessment of the appropriateness of the emotion. In order for you to even ask these questions, you have to accept the possibility that you might be wrong.

It is important to note that the focus of assessment also includes the possibility that you are correct in your assessment.

That being said, viewing yourself as wrong is often difficult especially if you are emotionally aroused and your ego is invested in the situation.

This is why Step #2 is so critical and why you have to practice the emotional mastery process before you find yourself in an emotionally aroused, high intensity, potentially precarious situation.

It is why you rehearse your very important speech before you get up in front of your influential audience. Master the skill sets before you need to implement them.

Again, I am focussing here on remaining flexible in mastering your emotions so that you have access to and can implement the strategies your emotions are communicating to you that may be necessary to adaptively deal with the situation in which you find yourself.

Once you have successfully completed Step #4 and assessed the appropriateness of the emotion you initially experienced, you will move on to Step#5 which involves choosing an adaptive response.

In my last post, I noted that if your emotion did not match your situation, you could seek out new information  which would allow you to change your perception and, subsequently, your emotion. This involves reappraising the the situation.

Reappraisal is an emotion-focussed strategy and, can be very effective.

Another emotion-focussed strategy which I did not mention in my last post but have discussed in other posts is suppression.

Suppression involves purposefully minimizing the outward display of the emotion. Hence, you are still experiencing the emotion but only you know it.

When I wrote my second book Beyond Anger Management I included a chapter on Professional Women and Anger and addressed the issue, which existed then and exists now, that women, when they express appropriate anger, are often maligned, negatively labelled or punished. I suggested a passive approach in which they did not express their anger but used the energy of the anger to develop an intervention which would correct the situation but not subject them to unwanted negative consequences.  I did not label it as such at the time but I was describing the process of emotional suppression. In this situation, suppression is adaptive.

If, however, you are suppressing an emotion because you do not understand the emotion or are attempting to avoid it, this may involve repression or denial and could be maladaptive.

Being  flexible in mastering your emotions might involve a somewhat different approach: a strategy aimed at the situation.

In this case, you decide that your emotion is appropriate, you are in a situation which is a “threat” and that change is needed. You continue to honor the situation and the emotion which drew your attention to that situation and you seek to change the situation to eliminate the threat.

Examples of actions you might take include avoidance in which you do not put yourself in the threatening situation (You turn down the date or offer.), you escape the situation (You leave.), or you alter the situation (You compromise or make a deal and, thereby, change the nature of the situation.).

Setting a personal goal of Maintaining your emotional flexibility means…

  • that you are aware of, and preemptively practice the 5 steps of emotional mastery and
  • that you are sufficiently self-aware and self-secure so that you are open to the possibility that you might be wrong in your assessment of your situation and also that you can accept the possibility that you might be correct in your assessment despite input from others to the contrary.
  • that you have a toolbox of available for dealing with different situations so that you can use the correct tool to master the situation and facilitate an adaptive resolution of the conflict, stressor, or threat that your emotions have alerted you to and prepared you to deal with.