• Barry EIchenbaum, Psy.D.

It's Not JUST the Thought That Counts


The experience of painful emotions, not just distressing thoughts or problematic behaviors, is often the main reason why one might be inclined to seek mental health treatment. Consider a person with illness anxiety who experiences intrusive thoughts about whether they might be ill and may repeatedly text their doctor about their symptoms. The thoughts and behaviors are often not the most distressing part of their experience, rather, it's the accompanying feelings of intense anxiety that typically pushes them to seek help. Similarly, imagine a depressed person who lays in bed all day and experiences thoughts of hopelessness and self loathing. The accompanying emotion of sadness, rather than their thoughts and behaviors, may be the strongest factors in pushing this individual to seek therapy. To a person who is not experiencing anxiety or depression, the above thoughts and behaviors alone are not likely to elicit nearly as strong a reaction.


When considering our emotional experiences, we need to consider that there are two different kinds of emotions; primary emotions and secondary emotions, also referred to as manufactured emotions. Primary emotions are emotions that are experienced as a response to a particular stimulus. They are often quite easy to understand and tend to be transient. For example, if you were to be chased by a big, scary, dog, you might experience fear, which is likely to abate when the dog leaves. Secondary emotions, which are emotions about emotions,

may be learned emotional responses and can be more complicated and less transient. An example of this might be feeling frustrated that you're feeling anxious ("Why do I always feel this way!?) or feeling guilty for feeling sad ("Other people have it so much harder. I don't deserve to feel depressed."). These painful secondary emotions are often the result of our appraisal of the primary emotion or the surrounding circumstances. These secondary emotions may also become a significant source of distress and may further exacerbate the pain associated with the primary emotion.


There are several ways that we can deal with painful emotions. Many people apply distraction techniques to help them cope. While distraction can sometimes be temporarily helpful, many people continue to turn to distraction as the sole method of navigating emotional pain. An alternative approach is to acknowledge the painful emotion and validate yourself for having it. Validation means acknowledging that it is ok, and even makes sense, that you are experiencing this emotion. You may not want or like the emotion, but it makes sense. And, even if you cannot make sense of that emotion, validation might just means acknowledging the pain and creating space for it.


We might be used to seeking validation from others, but we are often less likely to seek validation from ourselves. This is an important step because if we don’t do this, we may tell ourselves that we shouldn’t be experiencing this emotion. That this emotions is bad. Or wrong. Or unacceptable. This may contribute to our distress of this primary emotion and potentially lead to secondary emotions, such as guilt or shame, for experiencing the emotion.


It's important to note that validating an emotion does not mean "giving in" to what the emotions is compelling us to do. For example, when someone feels depressed, they may feel the desire to decrease activity, isolate, or ignore self-care. We can validate an emotion and step into the choice point towards our values. If we think that acting on the emotion will not be helpful for us, we can validate it and still decide to engage our values by taking actions that are consistent with our values.


How does one validate their emotions? Here is a 5 step process to increase validation and openness to our emotions:


  1. Notice. Can you first notice what it is you're feeling? Since we may avoid painful emotions, we sometimes do not give ourselves the chance to recognize what exactly we are feeling. You may use mindfulness to bring yourself to the present to observe what you're feeling, or perhaps notice where on your body you can notice your emotion.

  2. Label. "I'm feeling the emotion of __________." This process of labeling the emotion allows us to give this feeling a name. Oftentimes, simply naming the emotion allows us to create more space for it since it is becomes an understood entity rather than an abstract feeling we are trying to avoid. Like the psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Siegel says, "Name it to tame it".

  3. Describe. Can you describe your emotion? What are you thinking when this emotion shows up? What physical sensations arise with this emotion? If you were to try and explain what this emotion is to someone who has never experienced it, how might you put words to this emotion? This process of describing the emotion allows us to become a curious scientist about our experiences, which allows us to study and understand it instead of avoiding or controlling it. This curiosity can help facilitate our next step, which is to...

  4. Accept. Can you open yourself up to this emotion? Can you create space for it? Can you acknowledge your own humanity in the experience of this emotion? "Accept" does not mean you like it. Or want it. Or are choosing it. It simply means you're creating space to allow for it to be there and validating the "you" who is feeling it.

  5. Choose. Now that we have noticed, labeled, described, and accepted the emotion, the next critical step is to make our next choice. If we get hooked into the emotion, it might feel like the emotion is calling the shots and making your choices for you. This may result in painful or upsetting outcomes. Oftentimes, to make the choice that is most consistent with your values, you must also make room to validate and open up to the emotion you are feeling.