How Every Feeling You Have Carries a Message and Has a Purpose

Have you ever wondered why we have emotions? In reality, our feelings are a more basic part of us than are our thoughts. Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, Neuroscientist, and author of My Stroke of Insight said:

“Although many of us may think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think.”

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, Neuroscientist, and author of My Stroke of Insight

Sure, scientists know. But most people do not! In fact, we have all kinds of ways of demeaning and belittling our own feelings and those of others. We call them sappy or sloppy or label them drama; we consider them insipid, tiresome, wimpy, sappy, or lame. These are some of the ways we convince ourselves and others that feelings are useless and in the way.

As a psychologist, I see a widespread lack of tolerance for feelings, which are a deeply personal, biological part of who we are as humans. Indeed, if you grew up in one of the many, many households where emotion was discouraged or poorly tolerated (Childhood Emotional Neglect), you may now, as an adult, have a negative relationship with feelings of all kinds.

You may view feelings as a sign of weakness. You may hide your feelings from yourself and others; even the people you care about the most. You may regard the expression or sharing of feelings as maudlin, illogical, or just plain useless. You may have no idea what you feel or why because you have buried your emotions so deeply, even from yourself.

Why did emotion evolve in the first place? Sometimes, especially to emotionally neglected people, emotions feel like a burden. Wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t have to feel sad when we had a conflict with a friend, angry when someone cuts us off in traffic, or anxious before a job interview? On the surface, maybe it would seem easier if we didn’t have to feel those things. But my belief is that if we didn’t have emotions, life would not be better. In fact, it would not be sustainable.

Emotion is necessary for survival. Emotions tell us when we are in danger, when to run, when to fight, and what is worth fighting for. Emotions are our body’s way of communicating with us and telling us to do things. Below are some examples of the purposes of just a few emotions.

       FEELING                                 FUNCTION
Fear Tells us to escape/self-preservation
Anger Pushes us to fight back/self-protection
Love Drives us to care for spouse, children, others
Passion Motivates us to create and invent
Hurt Pushes us to correct a situation
Sadness Tells us we are losing something important
Compassion Pushes us to help others
Disgust Tells us to avoid something
Curiosity Motivates us to explore and learn

You get the idea. For every emotion, there is a purpose. Emotions are incredibly useful tools to help us adapt, survive and thrive. People who were emotionally neglected were trained to try to erase, deny, push underground, and in some cases, be ashamed of, this invaluable built-in feedback system. Because they are not listening to their emotions, they are operating at a disadvantage from the rest of us. Pushing away this vital source of information makes you vulnerable and potentially less productive. It also makes it harder to experience life to its fullest.

Emotions do more, though, than drive us to do things. They also feed the human connections that give life the depth and richness that make it worthwhile. It is this depth and richness which I believe provides the best answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” Emotional connections to others help us stave off feelings of emptiness as well as existential angst.

If you have spent a lifetime trying to deny your natural, biological emotional responses, you may at times feel disconnected, empty, or unfulfilled in life. The people who love you may find you distant, self-contained, or even arrogant. You may find yourself irritable or angry more often than you would like.

To learn more about the value of your emotions, how to identify them, manage them, express them, and use them as they were meant to be, see the books, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

Childhood Emotional Neglect can be invisible and unmemorable so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out Take the Free Emotional Neglect Test.

A version of this article was originally published on It has been republished here with the permission of the author and Psychcentral.


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Notaddingup - March 1, 2020 Reply

Also specifics:

If I regularly try focus on the feelings, I get so oversensitive to everything little that the relationships get messed up to the point of me cutting people off. And before trying to focus on feelings like that, I didn’t have this problem, I was just simply not having a focus on feelings and didn’t have satisfying relationships then either ofc but they weren’t completely killed/cut off by me.

    Jonice - March 5, 2020 Reply

    Please do see a therapist for help with this. I’m not able to sort it with you via comments. It requires someone to really get to know you.

      Notaddingup - March 14, 2020 Reply

      Thank you for your answer; I do already go to therapy.

    Keith M - March 12, 2020 Reply

    This post resonated with me… A week after I got the book and attempting to feel more emotionally… I ended up getting into massive conflicts with almost everyone and in damage control mode… Not because of book don’t misconstrue… Just what happened…

      Jonice - March 12, 2020 Reply

      Dear Keith, this can happen if you start to feel and become aware of your feelings but do not yet have the tools to manage and express them. It’s a learning process.

Notaddingup - March 1, 2020 Reply

Jonice, thanks for your reply. I do have your book and Iam subscribed to your site/blog/etc. I would like to have a dialogue on this a bit further.

So, I will try to clarify what I meant because there may be a misunderstanding of what I mean when I use words like “oversensitivity”. I would like your response to this below, please. Because I would like to see more clearly, as someone who has seriously taken and tried to use your methods for a long time. Thank you.

So I mean I tried to talk about my feelings too and manage them in all the ways etc. that you talk of, but that didn’t help with my relationships at all. And the emotion word lists did not help either, they have too many complex feelings instead of simplifying things and anyway when I do identify a feeling it doesn’t do anything for me like I read when labelling a feeling should help. Labelling does not bring up additional insight for me.

I think the best way I can put it is it’s too artificial for me to pay attention to too many feelings and I started feeling extra sensitive to everything in the sense that I would get stuck on every small feeling in an extreme way where it would be disruptive both to me and to others. So that is not helping me in relationships. And so I can’t do relationships anymore as it is now right now, they all went downhill because of this, which is what I call oversensitive.

So, I think your method just may not work for everyone as a standalone method or without enough adjustments. Some people have the kind of brain that will work better if they just have awareness, focus for and management of basic feelings. Or, for another example, if people have buried trauma, getting aware of feelings more will be pretty dangerous without enough professional help, and this I think should be emphasised very often in disclaimers.

In my case it’s both trauma and having the less emotional kind of brain.

And why I’m writing this post, I’m interested in whether you have detailed information anywhere on when awareness of more feelings can be risky without additional approaches added, or when it’s beneficial and not beneficial.

    Jonice - March 1, 2020 Reply

    Paying attention to feelings is only the start. There are emotion skills that must be learned so that you know which feelings to listen to and which ones to manage plus how to manage them. I encourage you to see a CEN therapist from the CEN Therapist List for help with this. But I do agree that not everyone has CEN so it’s certainly possible it’s not the right thing for you. Either way, you would likely benefit from some expert help to sort it out.

      Notaddingup - March 14, 2020 Reply

      Thank you for this reply too. I did already say that I did way more than just paying attention to feelings. We do not have CEN therapists in my country, but I do go to therapy. I do have CEN, but apparently the brain differences and trauma both count in here. Have you got any articles on individual differences regarding this or articles on warning people of possible dangers while trying to apply CEN methods? I’d like to read them if you have any. Thanks again.

        Jonice - March 16, 2020 Reply

        Dear Notaddingup, one thing I always say is to work through any trauma first because it lays on top of the CEN. Perhaps you are doing this a bit backward. Hope that helps.

          Notaddingup - June 7, 2020 Reply

          My apologies, I did not see your reply here until I was reading another of your posts.

          I would say that I do have to do it “backwards” because of the brain differences. Because of the brain differences, I have to learn to get aware of emotions first before I can at all try and work through trauma because that would require emotional awareness. But because of both trauma and brain differences, it is hard to learn emotional awareness. It is very tricky, almost a catch-22. I would appreciate it if there was coverage on that, maybe not yet but one day.

Doug - February 18, 2020 Reply

Personal 2020 goal- think less, feel more. Lead with my heart and not my head… no one in my daily orbit should have to guess what I am feeling. So if it’s not natural for me to know how I’m feeling due to CEN, I stop, feel the emotion, label it validate it, then express it to the best of my ability. Emotions are non-dual, non-binary, neither good nor bad… they just are. Accept them, have them as they are and they will pass. Their power to come back and haunt you will then be eliminated. You will also begin to know yourself better and become more accepting of yourself in-spite of your past bumps, bruises, scratches and dents. Long road to get here, but we’ll worth the travel… thank you Jonice

    Jonice - February 19, 2020 Reply

    Well said, Doug! Keep up the good work.

Sarah - February 18, 2020 Reply

Hi Jonice,
Reading your article it really hit home the widening gulf between myself and some members of my family who are not in a place to be able tolerate my emotional reactions to their indifference to me. I am trying to work on acceptance, but I can’t stop wanting them to change, I can’t get past trying to get them to understand and it’s very painful to keep doing this to myself and them. What is your advice on moving forward to accepting this situation please? Thank you.

    Jonice - February 19, 2020 Reply

    Dear Sarah, this is a hard situation, for sure. Please my second book, Running On Empty No More as it has lots of good suggestions for your situation. Consider maintaining better boundaries with these family members to protect yourself from the hurt. You may need to do that for a while at least.

      Sarah - February 20, 2020 Reply

      Thank you. I will

Andy - February 17, 2020 Reply

I would like to echo an earlier comment in suggesting/requesting a more exhaustive list of feelings and their purpose. The one you posted is already extremely helpful…. Sometimes the simplest things work the most.

I am so thankful for your work. I have read so much about cptsd, NPD,etc but your blog and book is the first/only place I have found positivity, a way to easily understand the solution (too often other resources concentrate on the problem and effects with very little on effective solutions… Leaving me feeling frustrated and sad:)).

    Jonice - February 19, 2020 Reply

    Dear Andy, I’m glad you like my work. I am working on a blog with a much longer list of feelings and their purpose. It will probably be posted on Psychcentral first so watch for it. Take care!

Karen - February 17, 2020 Reply

Dear Dr Webb as you know your work has been instrumental in helping me recover from CEN. I just wanted to relate something that happened to me this past weekend that shows how far I have come. On Friday a vicious storm ripped through my area and flooded my apartment. In the past I would have gone 100% into problem solving mode, feeling nothing, but totally focused on the task of dealing with it all by myself. Instead I allowed myself to feel the dismay and shock. While I still dealt with what needed to be done, in my vulnerability my neighbor showed up unsolicited to help (never happened before), insurance people were incredibly helpful and I reached out to my daughter who was so supportive and kind. That night when trying to sleep I acknowledged to myself and allowed my feelings of vulnerability, fear, hurt, shock and sadness. I realised that these are the feelings I’ve had all my life but never before given myself permission to feel. There’s still a lot of practicalities to deal with but for the first time ever I feel supported (versus dismissed), empowered (versus exhausted), optimistic (versus burdened), grateful (versus resentful) to name a few. There’s no doubt it’s all going to take ages to replace and fix everything and it’s not over by a long way yet. But the thing I can say is that allowing myself to feel my reactions instead of suppressing and bottling them up has energised me and gotten me in a good mental space to get it done without the drag of the unexpressed sadness etc pulling me down. So once again thank you for your wisdom and compassion, not to mention another timely article!

    Jonice - February 19, 2020 Reply

    Dear Karen, I absolutely love how you described the difference between feeling and not feeling. What an amazing accomplishment! Thank you for sharing it.

John - February 16, 2020 Reply

When you write about the pain we with CEN experience, please say something about the pain us kids of divorced parents experience. My mother abandoned my dad for no good reason other than she wanted her dad’s name and money back. She tried her best to keep my dad from me. She constantly ran him down and told me she did not want me to be like him. Well, to tell the truth she wished she had had a girl. Along with that, as her only child, I became a partnerfied child.

    Jonice - February 19, 2020 Reply

    I’m sorry that happened to you, John. Divorce is a complicated thing and it sounds like you were a victim of your parents’ divorce. I will keep that in mind as a topic.

David - February 16, 2020 Reply

Your Feeling/Function chart is very helpful. My request would be for a more comprehensive listing. I know I would find that extremely useful.

    Jonice - February 16, 2020 Reply

    Duly noted, David! I will put that on my list of future blogs!

    Mindy - February 17, 2020 Reply

    Yes, I agree! This would be an amazing resource to have!

Notaddingup - February 16, 2020 Reply

Hi, I don’t see how I’m supposed to have everything fixed by just paying attention to feelings. It has not worked for me. It just causes me more issues in relationships.

    Jonice - February 16, 2020 Reply

    Dear Notaddingup, you’re not supposed to have everything fixed just by paying attention to your feelings! That’s one of the stages of CEN recovery and a good start. But then you also have to follow up by learning what to do with your feelings which is another of the 5 stages. I encourage you to learn more and work through all of the stages. My website and books and programs are here to help!

Claire - February 16, 2020 Reply

I remember as a child feeling hurt, sad, lonely, apprehensive, or angry often. I was quite aware of what I felt but I didn’t know what to do except endure the feelings and act normal. My high school year book described me “quiet as a mouse; a cheerful hi for everyone”. One teacher called me up to her desk and told me I had an inferiority complex. I just stared at her and thought no, I’m just inferior. I didn’t know how to talk about such things or how to respond so I kept quiet.

    Jonice - February 16, 2020 Reply

    Dear Claire, now that you are no longer a child, you can start to value your inner self more; meaning, you can pay attention to your feelings and consider them as something that matters. Then, find your voice so you can express yourself more. I hope you will take on this work because it can make a very big difference in your life!

Shannon - February 16, 2020 Reply

Dr. Webb,
I have read both of your books and there is no doubt I have CEN as well as lots of other trauma from childhood. I have been attempting for a couple of weeks to do the Feelings Sheet and find myself unable to do it, any suggestions? Also, unfortunately and sadly, I know I have passed it on to my kids. I welcome any suggestions as to how to begin to repair the damage. I know my sons need to slowly be approached, but don’t know where to start. They are still young, right around 30.

    Jonice - February 16, 2020 Reply

    Dear Shannon, Running On Empty No More has lots of concrete suggestions to repair and enrich your relationship with your adult kids. And, in my first book, please reread the Identifying & Naming Exercise. It will help you with the Feelings Sheet, I think.

Esther - February 16, 2020 Reply

Really grateful for your work. I would not know where I would be today if I had not had a light shown on my CEN by your work a couple of years ago. It began a transformative (but difficult) process, and I’m so thankful for it.

    Jonice - February 16, 2020 Reply

    I’m thankful too, Esther! Keep up the good work.

Olivia - February 16, 2020 Reply

I only knew about some of these purposes of emotions. I didn’t know about the purpose of hurt, sadness, anger or fear. I thought hurt meant I was oversensitive; sadness meant I was a negative person; anger meant I was overreacting and crazy; fear meant I was a coward.
I’ve copied the chart now so I know why I’m getting certain feelings and what to do.

    Jonice - February 16, 2020 Reply

    Dear Olivia, thank you for sharing what you thought your emotions meant. You are speaking for scores of other emotionally neglected people too. Now that you realize what’s wrong with them, I hope you can turn this around.

      Olivia - February 21, 2020 Reply

      Thanks Jonice, I hope so too. I ask myself regularly these days: how do I feel right now? And emotions are becoming more familiar.

        Jonice - February 21, 2020 Reply

        That’s wonderful, Olivia. Keep it up!

Abby - February 16, 2020 Reply

I enjoyed this article so much, it’s excellent! I’m going to check out the original article to see if it has a little more to it.
There is a big part of my life when I had to ignore my real feelings in order to survive. Now I need to learn to appropriately recognize and express them to have a more meaningful, productive life. To be more available for friends and family.
I see that understanding our emotions and expressing them is vital to living.

    Jonice - February 16, 2020 Reply

    Dear Abby, you can learn much more from this entire website and my two Running On Empty books! I’m glad you are seeing how important this is.

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