We currently serve patients exclusively via telehealth.
April 1, 2022

Exploring Emotional Urges

Let’s start with some personal history 

My mother is from the Philippines and immigrated to the United States in the 1960s. Shortly thereafter, she met my biological father of Western Samoa at the famous Pike Place Market in Seattle. My mother came to this country without any English and had the equivalent of a second-grade education. As an adult and psychologist, it’s now also apparent to me that my mother did not understand emotions, and as a result, I did not grow up with any emotional language or understanding in our home.

I do not blame my mother for not understanding emotions. In my opinion, this is the field of psychology’s responsibility. CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) was not popular until the 1970s and Marsha Linehan’s DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) was unavailable until the 1990s. My mom didn’t know because the field of psychology didn’t know, and pop culture and marketing on current research in psychology sucks. 

We can’t change what we don’t understand. So the more we know, and the more advancements we make in the field of psychology, the better we can understand ourselves and work on any issues regarding our feelings, emotions and urges. 

Keep this in mind while you’re reading the rest of this blog: When you experience an emotion, you have an urge before you act. 

Here’s an example: When my son was 2 years old, he was very upset with me. He screamed, “Mama! I WANT TO THROW THIS TRUCK AT YOU!” I was thrilled he did not throw the truck, and I responded, “You noticed your emotional urges! THIS IS WONDERFUL!”

If you learn to identify your urges, it can offer a degree of control over your emotions and affect the way you behave. Eventually, you’ll be able to find the most helpful skill to successfully deal with your underlying emotion. But the first step is that observation and identification process. And that’s what I’d like to focus on today. To show you what I mean by identifying urges, here are a few moments from my past: 

Age 10: Anxiety | Freeze 

I don’t remember exactly what happened — maybe someone said something that offended me, or I felt left out or confused. I just remember sitting in the fetal position in the corner of my cousin’s bedroom, frozen. I couldn’t talk, move or look at my cousin who was frequently checking in on me. I remember feeling bad for her; she seemed lost trying to help me out of my emotional mind. I felt a familiar sensation around my skin that I called and continue to call ‘static cling’ — picture the white zigzags around the monster chasing Scooby Doo. My brain and body wanted to keep frozen. 

Age 14: Shame | Hide 

I had the biggest crush on a boy I nicknamed “the Clown” for years. One day, I randomly saw him out and ran over to say hello. In my excitement, I tripped and fell on my face. The Clown was so kind that I wasn’t necessarily embarrassed by him. But a friend he was with was also a part of my close squad, and by that afternoon, my entire group knew about the incident before I had a chance to tell them. They teased me so hard I wanted to crawl into a cave and hide forever.

Age 26: Anxiety | Run 

I lived alone in a house that was burglarized. For years, I would stay up, or wake up in the middle of every night, frightened someone would break-in. All I could think about was how I wanted to move out, run, escape to anywhere but that house. 

Emotions have urges. Before you act, you have an urge to act. 

Common Urges of Common Emotions 

Anger commonly wants you to be aggressive, say mean things, run, avoid, yell, implode, flip a table, explode, blame, etc.

Sadness wants you to cry, hide, suppress, avoid, or be alone.

Anxiety wants you to avoid, back peddle, find an excuse not to go, engage in catastrophizing or black and white thoughts, freeze (hello, my 10-year-old self), and run or escape (hello, my 26-year-old self).

Shame mostly wants you to hide. Although, I have seen interesting and uncharacteristic urges (and behaviors) come with shame. Brene Brown talks about the power of vulnerability which, I agree with and believe showing vulnerability is challenging, especially when every bone in your body wants you to forget it (hello to my 14-year-old self). 

Guilt can want you to apologize, sit or dwell in your regret, seek approval or forgiveness, etc.

Depression wants you to stay in bed all day, skip work, overeat, eat too little, or escape. You might lack motivation or have no motivation at all. 

Envy wants you to hate on others. I can talk about envy for hours and will focus on this particular emotion in another blog. 

Your Homework: 

What are you feeling right now? Not yesterday or last time you felt a particular way, right now — whether or not you’re in an intense emotional mind. Where in your body do you feel your emotions? What does that emotion want you to do? Cry, hide, nothing? Practice identifying your urges when you feel your emotions. 

Tips for Parents:

Encourage children to use emotional labels, identify physical sensations, and observe the urges of their emotions. Ask your kid, “What does anger want you to do? How does sadness feel in your body and what does sadness want you to do at this moment?” Redirect, if needed, to think of a specific sensation or urge happening now. There is no right or wrong answer, and don’t forget to reinforce these behaviors.