Advise Me

How to Recognize Your Meta-Emotions and Learn From Them

We all have meta-emotions, which are emotions about emotions, or feelings about feelings. Say you feel sad because you can’t see your parents during the pandemic. Then you feel guilty about feeling sad, because so many other people have it worse. That feeling of guilt is a meta-emotion.

“A meta-emotion is a reflection or review of the emotion or emotional experience we had,” said Srinivas Dannaram, MD, a psychiatrist with Banner Thunderbird Medical Center in Glendale, AZ. “Meta-emotions could be conscious or unconscious.” Even though we all have them, you might not be familiar with the idea of feelings about feelings. You might notice your guilty feelings but not connect them with your sadness, for example.

Some people are more tuned-in to their meta-emotions, while others don’t notice them as often. By learning to recognize your meta-emotions, you can get better at regulating your emotions.

That’s because examining your meta-emotions requires you to think about your emotions. Say you burn your dinner and that makes you angry, and then you get angry about being angry over something that you think isn’t a big deal. Self-processing this event as a meta-emotion can help you respond differently the next time you burn your dinner.

Why processing your meta-emotions is important

When you recognize meta-emotions in yourself, don’t disregard them. If you ignore them, you’ll keep responding and behaving in the same way. You’re not giving yourself a chance to grow.

Processing your meta-emotions takes thought. “It involves openness and active reflection about your own emotional experiences, with an effort to work towards change,” Dr. Dannaram said. But it’s worth it. When you think about why you feel guilty about feeling sad, or why you feel angry about feeling angry, you’ll recognize when your responses aren’t helpful. Then you can change the way you respond in the future. “It’s self-coaching,” Dr. Dannaram said.

By understanding emotions better, you may also develop better people skills and resolve conflict more easily. And, when you notice your meta-emotions more often, you’ll get better at showing other people how to process their emotions in a positive way.

Recognizing meta-emotions in people close to you

Don’t ignore meta-emotions in the people you’re close to. Look at them as an opportunity to grow closer. Emotional processing can be especially helpful during the pandemic, when a lot of couples and families are spending more time interacting with each other day-to-day.

For example, parents are more likely to observe their children’s emotions during the school day. “They can encourage them to talk about their emotional experiences and feelings,” Dr. Dannaram said. If you’re helping other people deal with their emotions, it’s important to guide them toward problem-solving. It’s tempting, sometimes, to offer solutions instead of advice.

The bottom line

Meta-emotions—feelings about feelings—are powerful, and by paying attention to them in yourself and your loved ones, you can learn, change, and grow.

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