Feelings about feelings: Navigating meta-emotions during a pandemic

Mental Health

by Baylor Scott & White Health

Dec 1, 2020

If you are anything like me, this past year has been a rollercoaster of emotions. There have been the ups of finding new ways to connect with family and friends, yet the downs of uncertainty and a lot of alone time, plus everything in between. 

As an instructor and practitioner of mindfulness, I am no stranger to judgement. We are taught to observe our emotions as they arise, not criticize or even fight them. I personally believe this is one of the most powerful techniques you can practice.

When I notice an emotion like sadness, I seem to spiral and suddenly, I’m feeling guilty about feeling sad. I start telling myself I shouldn’t be feeling sad, or that my sadness isn’t justified.

Yet, lately, I have found an interesting phenomenon happening in my amusement park mind. When I notice an emotion like sadness, I seem to spiral and suddenly, I’m feeling guilty about feeling sad. I start telling myself I shouldn’t be feeling sad, or that my sadness isn’t justified. I want to get off this ride!

So, what is the loop-de-loop I’m stuck in? It turns out there is a name for these sneaky little feelings! They are called meta-emotions. But what does this mean and how can I navigate the natural cycle of these emotions? 

As always, I turned to the expert for some insight. Here is the eye-opening Q&A I had with Eli Mandel, licensed clinical social worker and wellness manager at Baylor University Medical Center. He gives some great tips for buckling in, staying on the rollercoaster and learning to ride the ride.  

What are meta-emotions? 

Basically, meta-emotions are feelings about feelings. Let’s say that you’re stuck in traffic, see the other lanes going faster than yours and as a result, you get really angry at the cars passing you. Then, you start to feel guilty that you got so angry. 

The second half — feeling guilty about the anger — would be the meta-emotion in this instance. Another way to view meta-emotions is as a reaction to a primary emotion.

Related: How to practice self-care through self-compassion

Why is it important to recognize these emotions?

Pretty much everyone has meta-emotions, and, like everything else, we learned them from somewhere. From a very young age, we’re taught directly and indirectly about what an appropriate emotional response may be, and we internalize this information so we can monitor ourselves as we get older.

It’s important to remember, though, that not everything we learned when we were growing up is true or helpful. 

Maybe you lived in a house that supported the “stuff it and move on” mentality, so that’s the mantra your meta-emotions subscribe to now. Maybe your meta-emotions are responding to the societal expectation that men shouldn’t show emotion, or perhaps that women are too emotional. 

Whatever it is that you grew up learning, you may be using those beliefs as the foundation for your current meta-emotions. Truly recognizing them gives us a clue into identifying our own internalized beliefs, which is the first step in addressing them.

What happens if we ignore them? 

People ask me about this all the time! The urge to ignore emotions is strong, and I get it. They don’t always feel good, and they’re not always fun. At the end of the day, the more we ignore our meta-emotions, the more power they have.

Rather than tuning out our meta-emotions, what we really want to do is contain them, which means being able to think about them when you want to think about them in a controlled way. 

Imagine going to the library, finding a book, opening it, reading the first chapter and then closing it and putting it back on the shelf. That’s what we want to do with our emotions — examine the emotion when we’re in a safe space to do so and resume the rest of the day when it’s time to move on.

Why could we be experiencing more feelings about feelings during a pandemic? 

Have you noticed that everyone suddenly became an expert in what we “should” or “shouldn’t” be doing during the pandemic? This has put us in a prime spot for meta-emotions, and it’s often a lose-lose situation. With so much uncertainty around the corner, we have a harder time trusting if our primary emotions are valid. For instance, we ask ourselves:

  • “Is it okay to feel nervous about going to the grocery store?” 
  • “Can I be happy while I’m out with my friends?”
  • “Is it bad that I feel relief when my kid is out of the house?”

Even with our most basic actions, we’re stuck second guessing ourselves, and this often takes the form of meta-emotions. When possible, try to extend a little grace to yourself, especially during the pandemic. 

Related: How to cope when the world feels like total chaos

What should I do if meta-emotions arise? 

If you’re noticing your meta-emotions, that’s already a great first step! Next, I’d recommend sitting with the emotion, rather than just moving on from it. There are some great mindfulness techniques that you can use to help you do this. 

1. Lead with curiosity 

Try to avoid judgment of your meta-emotion. Be curious about your response and ask yourself questions about whether you’ve felt it before or if it’s triggering any sensations in your body.

2. Have an attitude of acceptance 

Take in the reality that you have had this emotional response. Avoiding it or denying it won’t serve you well. What is it like for you to accept this emotion? Remember, acceptance doesn’t always mean that you’re okay with it; it just means you’re acknowledging that it happened.

3. Practice self-compassion 

In the same way that you might be there for a friend, try to extend that level of compassion toward yourself. Imagine that someone was saying the things to you that you’re thinking in your head. Would you like that person? Would you think they are supportive?

At the end of the day, remember that you are human, and your emotions are valid. They can’t really be right or wrong — they just happen. It’s what we do with our emotions, and in this case, meta-emotions, that really matters.

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