What's Your Emotional Color?

We all at times feel sad, anxious, or angry. Although these are normal human emotions, they can cause difficulties for people who have a hard time regulating or managing them. (Regulating an emotion is the ability to modulate its intensity, much like adjusting a volume control, while managing an emotion is the ability to respond appropriately to its different intensities, much like a surfer who is able to ride many types of waves.)

Anger, sadness and anxiety can be thought of as three of the primary "difficult" emotions (I don't use the word "negative" because each can be appropriate at different times). It's useful to think of the three primary colors of blue, red and yellow.  When applied to emotions blue represents sadness (hence "the blues"), red represents anger (as in "seeing red"), and yellow represents anxiety or fearfulness.

In this primary color wheel most of us have a typical "tint": we are most likely to tend toeward sadness, anger or anxiety. The risk is that we risk using that emotion inappropriately at times, and then wonder why matters went from bad to worse. Each emotion has a useful function, but if you usually substitute one for another the result will sometiimes be an unbalanced emotional response. 

Many difficulties are caused by one emotion doing the job of another. I've worked with extremely angry people who were essentially full of sadness or fear but who couldn't admit it because these emotions seemed weak or useless. Similarly, many depressed people have anger buried deep within themselves without a safe and constructive way to express it. Likewise, ongoing anxiety can mask a deeper depression or repressed rage that can be difficult to recognize under all of its emotional turmoil.

So if you are struggling with recurrent sadness, anger or anxiety it can be helpful to focus on identifying the other emotions on the primary color wheel. If you're angry, what might you be sad or worried about? If you tend to experience chronic anxiety, try to identify any unexpressed sources of anger or sorrow that may be deeper within yourself. If you get sad easily, deeply and often, make sure such depression isn't doing "double duty" for one of the other emotions that you don't typically feel or express.

Just like an artist works with a full range of colors to mix into various shades, people need the ability to access and express the full range of emotions in a healthy and balanced manner.


Bill Herring is an Atlanta psychotherapist and counselor who has provided services to adults for over 25 years.  In addition to his general practice with individuals and couples, Bill has a speciality working with people who repeatedly engage in sexual behavior that violates their relationship commitments, non-sexual values or sense of self-control.