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  • Writer's pictureAbby McCormick, MEd, LCMHCA

Navigating Complex Emotional Experiences

Have you ever found yourself confused about what you might be feeling or noticed difficulty identifying your emotions? Often, this may indicate that you are feeling multiple emotions at one time rather than a single emotion. This challenge with navigating complex emotional experiences can be both a gift and a challenge for us as human beings. Sometimes when we have difficulty identifying our emotions, we can feel overwhelmed and frustrated. This can lead to actively pushing our emotions away so that we can escape the secondary feelings of frustration. Other times, we may give up trying to identify the emotions and instead fall into apathy or numbness.

However, if we can identify the specific emotions within complex emotional experiences, we can often find a richer experience in present-moment living and a deeper connection to our values. Consider the experience of nostalgia as an example. When we break down nostalgia, it is a mix of both sadness and gladness. We often feel sadness that the experience we are remembering is no longer occurring in the present, yet there is gladness for being able to hold a fond memory. Each of these two core emotions can reveal different values, and values give us a sense of meaning and purpose in life. Sadness reveals the importance of things that we’ve lost and helps us honor them while, in this case, gladness might reveal a value of connection. Together, these emotions create the unique gift of nostalgia.

If you find yourself unsure of which emotions you may be experiencing or stuck in navigating those emotions, consider the following process as a resource:

  1. Identify: Hold space for identifying which distinct core emotions (loneliness, hurt, sadness, gladness, guilt, shame, fear, anger) are occurring simultaneously. An emotions wheel can be helpful for narrowing down to the core emotions: Notice how your body is feeling as this may provide clues to emotions. For example, a racing heartbeat can indicate fear, or feeling warm may indicate anger. Allow yourself to explore lots of possibilities for which emotions you may be feeling - if you are feeling multiple emotions at once, it’s likely that no single emotion will feel “right” as you’re determining what may be showing up.

  2. Hold Space: Practice allowing yourself to feel competing feelings at the same time. This relates to a concept called dialectics, which says that two things that seem opposing can both be true at once. No single emotion invalidates another! You might practice holding space for these emotions by simply sitting in a posture with open palms facing upwards on your lap as a gesture of willingness to feel these emotions. Notice what thoughts come up and how your body might respond when you allow yourself to notice the full picture of your emotions.

    1. If this becomes overwhelming again, return to regulating your breathing or pause and use a different coping skill that you’ve learned. Then return to noticing the emotions.

  3. Pursue Needs: Once you’ve allowed yourself to connect to each emotion, spend a moment “interviewing” this emotion to identify any needs that it may reveal. You can ask yourself, “Why is this emotion here?” “What does it need/want?” “How is this emotion trying to be helpful to me, even if it may not be enjoyable to feel?” Seek to pursue these needs in a healthy way. For example, if the emotion of hurt reveals a need for comfort, try engaging with soothing sensory objects or process the emotion with a trusted friend. See if you can additionally connect to gratitude for yourself as you pursue these needs.

The therapists at Cornerstone Counseling & Wellness would be glad to assist you in developing skills for understanding and navigating complex emotions. For more information and to connect with a counselor, please visit our website at

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