Why Do We Feel?

The Purpose of Emotions

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Humans are born with a hardwired capacity for basic emotions including anger, joy, surprise, and fear. Other more complex emotions, such as embarrassment or guilt, emerge later in life as milestones in cognitive development are reached.

Even though a range of emotions are clearly an essential part of what it means to be a person in the world, our feelings can be very hard to identify, tolerate, look at and reflect upon without judgment.

Anxiety may predominate but it is certainly not the only emotion experienced by people with anxiety disorders like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), nor is it the only feeling with a function. For all of us – those with full-blown anxiety disorders and those without – emotions serve a purpose.

First, emotions ring an inner alarm bell. Even (and perhaps, especially) if the feelings are negative, they communicate important information to us. Feelings like envy and loneliness, for example, may tell you that you would like something about your circumstance to change. Sadness or grief may convey that you have lost something or someone valuable. Anger might tell you that you or your values have been violated. To determine the nature of the alarm sounding within, you might look either to the physical sensations (e.g., increased heart rate, a wrinkled brow) or thoughts that accompany the emotional state.

Though emotions provide us with invaluable data, they are not actually facts and should not be treated as such. For example, feeling lonely does not necessarily mean that you are alone. For people with an anxiety disorder, feeling afraid does not necessarily mean that they are in real danger. Confusing feelings for facts is a type of thinking error called emotional reasoning that can bias your perception, worsen your emotional state, or lead to problematic behavior(s).

Once the alarm bell has sounded, emotions motivate us to act. Anxiety in its most adaptive form, for example, can help a student prepare thoroughly for an upcoming exam. Love propels us to get closer. And if a given activity – painting, bike riding, traveling – brings joy, it’s likely to get repeated.

Finally, emotions communicate to other people too. When you express an emotion – intentionally or not – it has an impact on others. If anxiety plays out in the form of uncertainty, suspiciousness, impulsivity, it can cause relationship problems. Gratitude may cause others to be kind; anger may push people away.

To begin to better understand your emotions, without criticizing yourself for having them, consider studying them by answering some of these questions:

  • What do I feel in my body and where when I experience this emotion?
  • How might I nonverbally communicate this feeling? What is my facial expression, posture, or tone of voice?
  • When I feel this way, what types of thoughts am I having?
  • What prompts this emotion? What types of situations, environments, people?
  • When I feel this way, I do I want to say or do? What do I actually say or do?
  • What impact does this emotional state have on me? Or, on others around me?

Getting to know your feelings can be like traveling to a new place. It can be exciting or overwhelming, familiar or foreign. But if you’re hoping to be able to experience your emotions with a little more ease, or to figure out what changes might help you to feel (or act) differently, it’s absolutely a journey you must take.


Leahy RL, Tirch D, Napolitano L. (2011). Emotion Regulation in Psychotherapy: A Practitioner’s Guide. New York: The Guilford Press.  

Linehan MM. (2014).  DBT Skills Training Manual (2nd Edition). New York: The Guilford Press.

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