The Purpose of Emotions

I’m pleased to share this collaborative blog on the purpose of emotions & how to deal with them. Licensed Clinical Psychologist Dr. Kelly Zbojovsky has created a great resource about the importance of listening to our emotional experiences & how to ‘sit with’ difficult or intense emotions without allowing them to get the better of us. Hope this is helpful.

Why do we have Emotions?

Many of us have been in the throes of a difficult emotion and wondered why in the world we must experience them. We question why some emotions must be so painful and envision living life without the anxiety, shame, or depression impacting our lives. In these moments it feels like the emotions do nothing but cause us pain and suffering.

The truth is some emotions can feel painful and intense at times. Nobody wants to feel intense fear or anxiety. Nobody wants to be in the throws of a deep depression. Nobody wants to feel alone, scared, or rejected. Those same emotions, however, play an integral role in our lives and listening to our emotional world provides us with important information about how to find balance & meaning.

Understanding the purpose of our emotions, even the unpleasant ones, can increase our willingness to sit with them and can even help us to learn to appreciate them, if not pay close attention to the meaning behind those uncomfortable experiences. Let’s look at the three main purposes of emotions.

The Purpose of Emotions


The first purpose of our emotions is to motivate us, or to encourage movement toward something/someone OR away from something/someone. Each one of our emotions are associated with specific urges that are often hardwired in our bodies, like reflexes. These urges tell us what to do in situations. Our natural reflexes save us processing time and prepare us for action in urgent situations, such as when we are in danger, so that we can react with speed & efficiency. For example, our fear is what makes us react quickly to a driver in front of us slamming on the brakes. Our emotions also motivate us to do hard things, like sitting down to study for a test because we are worried that we might get a low grade. Our emotions also move us toward things that bring us feelings of love, contentment, lust, fascination & curiosity.


The second purpose of our emotions is to provide information & communicate something to ourselves. Our emotions give us a host of important information about what we need in the moment. If we tune into our emotions, it can tell us that something is happening that requires an action or further reflection.

Our emotions are responsible for our “gut feeling” that tells us something is not quite right in a situation. For example, our feelings may tell us that traveling somewhere with a complete stranger doesn’t feel right or those emotions may tell us to remain alert or not to trust a person we just met (*Note* it’s important to “check the facts” on our emotions and over time we’ll learn when to trust our emotions and when they are false alarms).

Equally our emotions tell us about positive things that we might benefit from having in our lives.

Emotions carry information about positive experience as well, things that we would benefit from having more of in our lives. For example, a warm fuzzy feeling might give us the impression of safety & comfort in a place or around a particular person. Such emotions are providing information about what brings relaxation, security, & love. Feelings of glee & delight might give us information about activities that bring us joy & meaning in life, things we want to do more of more often. I

t is very easy to get in the habit of ‘tuning out’ of the information that our emotions try to bring to our attention. But notice that when we stop paying attention to how we feel, we are missing vital information and feedback about our choices, surrounding & circumstances.


Finally, our emotions communicate important information to others. One of the best examples of this is with babies. Babies have an innate ability to use their emotions to communicate to their caregivers that they are hungry, tired, sick or in need of a new diaper. We continue to use emotions to communicate to others through adulthood. We communicate to others that something important is happening through our facial expressions, body posture and tone of voice and this in turn influences how others respond to us.  For example, expressing our sadness may prompt others to ask us how we are doing or offer their support.

Emotions in relation to other people or their actions also give instant feedback about what is good for you and what isn’t working. Using words & conversation to communicate your emotions within important relationships will help set the tone for future interactions and define what conduct is appropriate and desirable.

Understanding the purpose of our emotions gives us insight into our inner needs and allows us the opportunity to develop curiosity and appreciation of them. It can also increase our willingness to tolerate the unpleasant ones which is key to learning how to regulate and manage our emotions.

Emotions are often so complicated & intense, we don’t always know what to do with them.

Sitting with Emotions

The concept of sitting with our emotions or ‘sitting with it’ is almost cliché in psychotherapy practice but this technique is so powerful and needed in modern life.

Because emotions are often nuanced & layered, sometimes we don’t know what to do with them. And we’ve been socialized to repress & ignore our emotions, especially the powerful & unwanted ones. We don’t, as adults, kick & scream at the supermarket checkout when we don’t get a chocolate but we’ve all felt sad or reactive when someone says ‘no’ to a request. In the process of learning to control our emotions, we’ve also become slightly out of touch with our inner emotional world, we deny it a little bit. And in that process, when we do feel the surge of an intense emotion, good or bad, we tend to not fully experience it in the moment but stuff it away. Ignore it. Discount it. And as a result, we tend to ‘hang onto’ difficult emotions and let them the stew in the undercurrent of our emotional world. This very action of ignoring our emotions causes our emotions to last longer & feel more intense. The more intense they become in their ‘unfelt state’, the more we avoid and the bigger & scarier they get. A vicious cycle indeed.

But our emotional cupboards have a finite capacity too. And sometimes they cannot accommodate the request for more storage & then rather unexpectedly, they discard their contents altogether all at once. Society has coined this occurrence a ‘mental breakdown.’ Essentially, our emotional storage runs out & we feel an intense wave of ‘everything,’ which is not only exhausting & overwhelming but often exceeds our ability to cope.

When we sit with our feelings, we allow ourselves little moments of relief so that they don’t get stored in the emotional cupboard. To do this, you really need to trust the science behind emotions. That is, a typical emotion lasts about 90 seconds. I know, I know. I always doubt this myself. It seems like the world will end if we allow ourselves to express an intense rage, grief, sadness. But with practice, you’ll soon realize that it’s not like like how you imagine. Our feelings are fleeting & short lived when they get the right amount of care & attention. So sitting with an emotion is allowing that 90 second burst of emotional activity wash over your being like a wave and then be finished with it. Move on with your day.

Sounds too simple you say. It will be, with practice. Lots of practice every day here and there.

Think about it. If I gave you the opportunity to choose; a) to feel an intense emotion for 90 seconds; or, b) to feel a moderate emotion for 3-5 hours plus 3-5 secondary emotions and then remain really tired & irritable for the remainder of the day. Suddenly, sitting with something for 90 seconds feels an easy choice. It’s essentially allowing that feeling to exist without judgment or reaction for 90 seconds. Accepting it with all of its unwantedness. Or perhaps all of its glory? To fully feel a feeling and meet the needs of that feeling in the moment. Without it meaning anything negative about you. And don’t forget the moving on with your day & feeling better sooner bit.

Interestingly, the more space we give to our emotions, how we feel each day becomes more fluid & diverse. Less monotonous & blah. Days become a bit more interesting & this novelty excites the brain. The most interesting thing about increasing emotional awareness is that it means the positive emotions start to feel more intense as well. Joy feels more joyful because we allow it to exist longer. And that’s something we all want to feel more of, more often. Bliss.

Of course, we’re not saying it’s practical or reasonable to go around fully feeling every single emotion each day. Humans experience thousands of daily emotions. Some are fleeting, some are ‘sticky.’ But sometimes, with enough reflection & careful selection, you can begin to find a place of stillness to examine common emotions that continue to lurk beneath the surface & find those that need to be released. Go ahead and explore those. Let them out. Let them breathe. Let them fly away.

Are you still feeling weary about sitting with the unpleasant emotions? Let’s end today’s blog post with a few helpful reminders:

  • Emotions are designed to protect us. That’s pretty darn awesome. If you can find an appreciation for that, it will certainly help you feel more comfortable accepting them.
  • All emotions will pass, and they will pass more quickly if you don’t resist or suppress them.
  • Even if it feels uncomfortable, emotions are temporary, and you will get through it. You’ve survived 100% of your emotions to date.
  • Don’t hesitate to use your support system. If you are struggling to learn how to manage big emotions, consider giving therapy a try.

More about Dr. Kelly Zbojovsky

Dr. Kelly Zbojovsky is a licensed Clinical Psychologist, Founder and Director of Zbojovsky Cognitive Behavioral Consulting, LLC, which provides comprehensive evidence-based psychotherapy to children, adults, & families in New Jersey, New York, & Pennsylvania, USA.

Dr. Zbojovsky graduated from Princeton University with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University. Dr. Zbojovsky’s clinical training included working with a range of psychopathology in outpatient and acute inpatient settings. Dr. Zbojovsky was the recipient of the Outstanding Child/Adolescent Track Student Award and Black History in the Making Award for academic excellence and service to the University community.

Dr. Zbojovsky’s mission is to provide evidence-based mental health treatment and make an impactful change in the lives of individuals struggling with mood, behavior, and relationship difficulties. She is devoted to understanding her client’s current capabilities and providing the support and tools to help her clients to grow and create a more fulfilling life.

You can also find her work on Instagram (@drkellyz_phd) where she shares her professional expertise with a sense of humor to help break barriers & stigma in mental health.  

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