What are Meta-Emotions? | Center for Growth Therapy

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What are Meta-Emotions?

Janna Frieman

MFT — Associate Therapist

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We’ve all heard of emotions. But have you ever heard about meta-emotions? Mindfully noticing and addressing our meta-emotions can be a powerful tool to reduce suffering and relieve shame and guilt as we move through our daily lives. Put simply, meta-emotions are how we feel…. about how we feel.

Where do Meta-Emotions Originate? (Mindfulness Therapy in Philadelphia, Mechanicsville, Santa Fe, Ocean CIty)

A human experience is rife with opportunities to feel a wide range of emotions. No human life is without pain, disappointment, frustration, sadness, or anger. Suffering is a necessary and unavoidable part of life, and in some traditions is even welcomed as an opportunity for growth and self-reflection. However, many clients seeking therapy have internalized narratives that they should somehow be immune to or unaffected by these unavoidable emotions and the experiences that elicit them. They have unrealistic expectations of themselves to be almost robotic in their ability to withstand extremely difficult circumstances without reacting. Why do they have these unrealistic expectations, and how are they affected by them?

All humans learn about ourselves, others, relationships, and our emotions in a very specific context. For most people, that context was within a particular family unit. For all people, it was within a specific broader culture. Families and cultures provide narratives and scripts which guide how humans feel about and deal with the circumstances of their lives. As one compares how they are doing to how they learned they “should” be doing, these narratives become the basis for meta-emotions. Meta-emotions can be key drivers of anxiety, depression, and low self worth.

In some families, emotions are welcomed and validated. Children are given coaching on appropriate ways to express and handle their feelings including their anger, frustration, sadness, or disappointment. In other families, and in Western culture more broadly, many of these “negative” emotions are dismissed or punished. Sadness, anger, frustration, loneliness, and hurt may pose challenges for caregivers, who in turn discourage their children from expressing them. In these families, children may receive suppressing messages like “boys don’t cry,” “get over it,” “you’re overreacting,” or even “I’ll give you something to cry about.” They may be discouraged from expressing emotions at all, or only permitted to express happy feelings without punishment.

When these children grow into adults, they hold on to these narratives about emotions unconsciously. When they experience one of these punished emotions, they may have a meta-emotion crop up– a voice that tells them they “shouldn’t” feel upset, angry, or lonely. Old parental or cultural voices start to play in their minds, and they may become ashamed, frustrated, or even disgusted with themselves for having these completely normal, human, and unavoidable feelings. They may feel guilty for being angry, frustrated with themselves for feeling hurt, ashamed about being lonely.

With practice, all people can begin to mindfully notice these meta-emotions within themselves, or hear them in their speech with the help of a safe friend or trusted therapist.

The Double Burden (Mindfulness Therapy in Philadelphia, Mechanicsville, Santa Fe, Ocean CIty)

These meta-emotions can be a double burden to shoulder: the original hurt or sadness, plus the meta-emotions of shame or frustration about the fact of being hurt and sad. Doubly-burdened with shame, frustration, and guilt about the unavoidable human experience of painful emotions, clients may find themselves stuck in loops, driven deeper into negative spirals by unnoticed and unaddressed meta-emotions. Old shaming voices are replicated within their minds. These self-shaming meta-emotions may drive a struggling person deeper into the depressive feelings of worthlessness and mental exhaustion.

Critical meta-emotions can increase anxiety and depression. A person who tells themself that feelings of pain or discomfort are ‘too dramatic’ or ‘inappropriate’ often worries that they are “being a baby.” They may expect others to judge them for having negative feelings as well. This might look like a person kicking themselves for “weakness” or “being ungrateful” or entering a script wherein their sadness or pain is “a burden to everyone.” This fear of interpersonal judgment causes some folks with depression and anxiety to isolate or clam up about the very real problem or difficulty they face. Self-isolation is likely to compound their struggles, and even add loneliness to the unpleasant mix.

In addition to piling (unnecessary) suffering through self-judgment upon the unavoidable suffering that life brings, unaddressed meta-emotions can also have negative impacts on our relationships with others. Unless we are aware of our unconscious bias against certain emotions, we pass on or act out our judgments when people around us display those emotions, leading to conflicts or misunderstandings. This could look like:


  • A parent who judges or hates their own pain may chastise or shame a child for crying when hurt. This may alienate the child from seeking care when they need it and cause a rift in the bond between parent and child.

  • A partner who judges or hates their own feelings of neediness may be particularly harsh when their mate displays dependency. This can lead to perpetual issues and conflict around asking for and receiving help, and feelings of unfairness or imbalance.

  • A person who is uncomfortable or judgemental of their own sadness may go too quickly into “problem solving” mode, trying to stop the flow of emotion when an upset friend really needs a listening ear. This may damage the relationship and lead the upset friend to seek a safe place elsewhere to share their feelings.

Misunderstanding or being unaware of one’s own meta-emotional scripts can lead to all kinds of conflict and interpersonal difficulty. This is particularly true when people come from different cultural backgrounds, different generations, or even just from different types of families—with different narratives around emotional expression.


Mindfully Notice Meta-Emotions (Mindfulness Therapy in Philadelphia, Mechanicsville, Santa Fe, Ocean CIty)

Managing meta-emotions requires first recognizing that they are part of one’s emotional experience. Using mindfulness, we can bring awareness to that “second layer” of feelings about feelings-- the narrative of judgment or commentary.

Opportunities to practice mindfully noticing our meta-emotions abound in our daily lives–most of us are having feelings and reactions multiple times each day! Begin by choosing one emotion to track and explore. Perhaps we want to take a closer look at our experience of anger, loneliness, or sadness. Cue in to each time that emotion is triggered, and notice the tone and content of thoughts surrounding the event. The tone might be one of judgment, urgency, worry, frustration. The content might suggest we feel that the emotion we are experiencing means we are weak, bad, pathetic or dangerous. Mindfully note both tone and content of the narrative around the primary emotion.

Example: Tracking anger. I’m angry right now, and I notice my anger makes me feel like a bomb about to go off– I need to isolate myself to protect others. Anger is a scary emotion I should never let others see.

Do we notice some feelings that make us want to hide from the world? Do some make us immediately want to “change the channel” by distracting with compulsive behaviors like overeating or using substances? Which ones give us the urge to apologize profusely, or to isolate ourselves completely? These are clues about our meta-emotions and what feelings we judge and reject ourselves for experiencing.

Example: When I feel angry, I think I should get high to relax and make the anger go away. Nobody likes an angry person, but they do like a calm, chill person.

Make some notes about the tone and content in the narrative, then feel free to get curious about why you might feel that way. Can we recall how this emotion was treated when we experienced or expressed it in childhood? How did our past partners or important friends react when we talked about having this feeling? What does our culture have to say about the usefulness, validity, or appropriateness of that particular emotion?

Example: In my childhood home, only my dad was allowed to get angry– and his anger was terrifying! If I got angry my parents sent me to my room and left me alone for hours. I have also learned that women should be sweet, not angry, if they want men to like them.

Have you identified a judgmental or negative meta-emotion in yourself? Great work! For guidance on how to diffuse and soothe a meta-emotion, see Part II: Self Compassion & Meta-Emotions.


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