Not too long ago I was driving on a highway when a large truck switched lanes ahead of me and struck a pile of debris in the middle of the road. I watched as an 18-inch-long steel rod was thrown from the debris and straight at my car. The rod seemed to move in slow motion, turning like a twirler’s baton, end-over-end. I’m sure my face registered shock and alarm! Fortunately the rod struck the bumper and not the windshield. I slowly started to make sense of what just happened, realizing the potential danger my family and I had avoided. I felt fear but also growing anger. Yes, it was an accident, but the driver of that @%##$% truck put my family at risk! After 15 minutes or so, I no longer felt scared or angry. I was a bit sapped but the worst of the emotional storm had passed.

That’s a rather extreme example of how emotions work. Here’s a formal definition of emotions: Emotions are subjective states of arousal that combine a) our initial perception of an event, b) our body and our brain’s initial reaction to that perception, and c) our brain’s secondary appraisal of what happened and how we reacted to it. We humans are hardwired to perceive almost instantly if an event is a threat, a desired object, an obstacle in our way, or something completely new and different. The body’s early warning system triggers an initial response that engages the face as well as the autonomic nervous system, the part of our body that prepares us for fight or flight. Following right behind these first-alert reactions is the mind’s attempt to make sense of what is happening. We call this rapid-fire experience an emotion or a feeling. Typically, after a few minutes, the feeling will go away.

Today’s post is the first in a series that I call “The 10 Most Useful Facts about Emotions”. I wrote this for a forthcoming book about parenting. I was trying to find a way to help parents appreciate what I call the emotional hazards of parenting. So, the 10 most useful emotion facts are applied to parenting but they can be used to better understand the emotional hazards of any relationship.

#1: Emotions Contain Information We Can Use

The notion that emotions contain useful information might seem obvious, but for me it’s like a well-kept secret. We might agree that fear “tells” a dad it’s dangerous for his 6-year-old to run through a parking lot or that anger “tells” a mom it’s wrong for her 15-year-old to call her a bitch. But not all parenting situations carry such clear emotional messages. It’s more common to have a bad interaction with our child and feel a nasty, vague mix of emotion and confusion. We know something is off-kilter, but we don’t know what or why. If there is information in what we’re feeling, we’re not inclined to go after it; instead, we’d want end to our confusion and stop the bad feelings. So we are more likely to make quick judgments about what’s wrong or what we need to do next as parents. We seldom linger and learn from our feelings.

But emotions actually serve a purpose so it’s helpful to take time to consider why a particular set of emotions is stirring around inside us. This might seem silly or irresponsible to parents who struggle with the symptoms of anxiety or depression, but the scientific evidence here is quite solid.

Try this brief exercise. Close your eyes, take a few long, slow breaths, and try to remember a specific parenting event, something that happened and has stayed with you because it still hurts or has left “a bad taste”. Try to see the entire event with your mind’s eye: Picture where it occurred, who was there, and what you and others were wearing. Pay attention to whatever images pop into your mind as you recall the event. When you’re ready to re-feel the emotions of that event (and not before), put yourself back in the middle of all that you’re remembering. Try to linger and wait for what happens next. There’s no need to do anything else—just sit and wait for feelings to arrive.

This exercise is kind of like sticking your hand in a bucket of ice water just to see how it feels, except that in this exercise the “bucket” holds memories and emotions, not ice water. Few would enjoy leaving their hand in a bucket of ice water and the natural tendency is to yank it out quickly. But almost all are perfectly capable of leaving our hand in the bucket, which will provide an experience that is very different from a quick dip. The same is true for a bucket of memory-driven images and emotions; if we linger long enough, we’ll have an experience that is very different from a memory that arrives but is quickly suppressed. It’ll also be very different from a long, unproductive attempt to analyze and re-analyze the events of the past. That’s called mental rumination and it’s a common feature of depression.

So why immerse yourself in a bucket of feelings? If this is new to you, if you rarely lean into your negative emotional experiences, this exercise can give you a glimpse into something profound. It’s the well-kept secret I mentioned earlier. In our culture, the tendency to avoid bad feelings is deeply ingrained. The idea that we can sit with emotions and learn from them is seldom appreciated and rarely practiced. We generally bypass the many chances we have to learn from our feelings. Instead, we chase after short-term escapes from discomfort. The option of feeling our feelings is neither practiced nor developed. Over time, we forget that it’s even an option. So if you did the exercise as intended, you have taken an important first step in a process that could change the way you manage emotions and change the way you manage relationships, including the relationships you have with your children. Congratulations!

I recognize that it’s not easy to lean into emotions. We’re wired biologically (most of us anyway) to move toward things that are appealing and away from things that are aversive and unpleasant. Also, culture and “common sense” tell us to avoid bad feelings. In fact, entire industries are betting that we’ll pay good money to avoid feeling bad or uncomfortable. Some are legitimate and designed to heal or entertain without harming; others are selling fool’s gold that promises a short-term fix but damaging, long-term consequences. Once we learn reliable ways to escape bad feelings, it’s hard to let go of the habit, which is why habits involving alcohol, tobacco, drugs, gambling, over-eating, or pornography are so common.

Another caveat is that the information in our emotions is vague, frequently jumbled, and sometimes misleading. Small wonder we often bypass it! Emotions, by themselves, are seldom a sufficient basis for action unless we’re confronted with imminent danger. And in those instances, our primitive, early-response system operates without thinking or planning on our part. Much more common are feelings that contain important but limited information. Feelings don’t provide deep wisdom, detailed plans, or the ability to know the future. Feelings are simply nudges or urges. That’s it. Nothing else. Emotions arrive as whispered suggestions or screaming exhortations for us to move in a particular direction. Run! Hide! Attack! Stop! Give up! Wait!

If we pay attention to the information in our emotions, we can use it to our advantage, but we need to follow these two steps.

The first is to step back from our feelings so we can recognize where we’re being nudged to go. We need a bit of wiggle room, a small gap between us and our feelings. Without that gap, we’re at risk to act quickly and unwisely, simply as a way to escape bad feelings.

The second step will sound a bit odd but bear with me. When we take the time to lean into our emotions, we often find that the first emotion we encounter is not the only one operating. This is a critical part of using emotions wisely. Emotions are like geological strata, feelings stacked in layers, one on top of the other. If we don’t lean into our emotions, taking the time to feel our feelings, we only experience the feeling that sits on top. It could be anger or fear or shock. We get a brief taste of that emotion and we’re off, acting quickly to end it, to get away from it. It all seems fairly logical: When I feel x, I have to do y.

But parents who take the time to lean into their feelings will discover that other emotions are often hanging around. Anger could be followed by hurt, which might then be followed by sadness or disappointment. We can’t know any of this if we bail too quickly from our emotional experiences. We won’t know all the different feelings we’re having and all that information will be lost to us. We won’t be using emotions; emotions will be using us.

So here’s the deal: If the only information in our emotions is a nudge, we have to know all the directions we’re being nudged to go before we choose a course of action. That’s critical because what we do when nudged by sadness or disappointment is very different from what we might do if nudged by hurt or rage. Our ability to parent wisely will be greatly helped if we can routinely lean into and learn from our emotional experiences.

Here’s an example. If it’s raining and I’m feeling scared about driving, I might choose to stay off the crowded, speeding highway. That would be me making a wise informed choice, recognizing my fear and using it to consider other factors. If I’m an emotion-driven person, I might decide that I’m simply too scared to drive and stay home. If I can’t tolerate strong negative feelings, my behavioral choices shrink dramatically. And this is true for so many areas of life. Instead of doing what is reasonable, or what is healthy, or what is fun, or what is wise, our only option is to do what emotions “allow”. With the freedom to feel comes the freedom to act wisely.