Request an Appointment Button FAQ Registered Psychologist Counsellor Button

Emotions as Signals: What are They Signaling to You?

Most people will say that there are positive and negative emotions. Some emotions make us feel happy and more positive, and some emotions bring on distressing feelings. However, all emotions are normal parts of the human experience. When we put emotions into categories of good or bad we automatically start to supress or repress emotions. Suppression is a conscious process of ignoring or pushing down emotions and repression is an unconscious process of ignoring or pushing down emotions.  But, as stated, all emotion is normal and natural, and suppression and repression aren’t helpful.

What we must pay attention to is whether our emotions are meaningful and productive in our lives and our relationships or are they unhelpful and unproductive. One way that emotions are meaningful is in how they give us cues. They are a signal to us to let us know what is happening in our situation.

Let me explain it this way. On the dashboard of our car sometimes a light will be flashing at us. This signal is telling us that we need to pay attention to what is going on so that it doesn’t get worse. We would hate to ignore a low fuel or oil light that is flashing at us. It is signaling to us that we need to pay attention to the needs of our car. When we pay attention to the needs of our car, our car can continue to work in a productive manner helping us get from place to place making life much smoother.

This is how emotions can work in our lives. They signal to us that something is happening and we need to pay attention to the signal so that life can continue to be productive and run smoother. If we ignore this signal, suppress it or repress it, we can become anxious or depressed because we no longer understand our situations in the depth that we could if we paid attention to what our emotions were telling us.

So what are our emotions saying? Here are a few examples of emotional signals.

  • Anger – this emotion signals that there may be danger that we need to pay attention to. The danger that is typically happening to us is a boundary violation. People often push others’ boundaries, sometimes unconsciously. Our brain tells us, “get angry, there is an emotional threat”. We need to learn how to handle this anger and make it productive in our lives so it doesn’t come out as rage, but anger is a good emotion. If we don’t pay attention to this anger signal, people will continue to threaten us in a variety of ways.
  • Fear – We were born to have fear in our lives to protect us. When we stand at the edge of a cliff we are supposed to have fear. If we didn’t have fear we wouldn’t think twice about jumping off the edge of a cliff. Fear protects us. When we suppress or repress our fear signal and tell ourselves we shouldn’t feel afraid, even of smaller things, this fear signal becomes confused and results in anxiety. It is good and healthy, in certain situations, to admit that we are experiencing fear.
  • Shame – Here again there is positive and negative shame. An example of positive shame is when we all have a small amount every day that causes us to wear clothes work. If we didn’t have shame we wouldn’t choose to wear clothes to work. Negative shame signals to us that we are trying to hide something. We need to ask ourselves what are we trying to hide and why are we trying to hide that. It’s possible that there are some underlying painful feelings that we need to work through.

How do we pay attention to our emotion signals?

The first step is to pay attention to our bodies. Our brain actually signals our body first before we can have a cognitive thought about an emotion we are feeling. Some people feel anger in their hands or in their chest. Some people feel fear in their stomach or shame in their chest. When we pay attention to what our bodies are telling us we can then begin to acknowledge our emotions and begin the process of understanding what our emotions are signaling to us.  Rather than suppression or repression, we can come into a more connected knowledge of ourselves.

Remember, emotions aren’t good or bad. They just are. If we can learn from them, and what they may be saying, they can become a helpful and meaningful part of our journey.


Jenn Betts is a Registered Provisional Psychologist with the Psychologists’ Association of Alberta and specializes in the areas of anxiety, anger, guilt and self esteem as well as many others. For more information on Jenn, her work, or other articles she’s written for Living Well click here to link to her full bio page.