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3 Ways that Emotions Are Like a Wave

Metaphors, similes, and figurative language are all an essential part of how we as humans literally come to terms with big ideas and emotions. One of the most often used (cliché) similes about feelings is that emotions are like waves. You experience a wave of emotions. You’re overcome by a wave of emotions. You’re experiencing waves of conflicting emotions. Almost all of us have heard, thought, or said something along these lines. So, it begs the question – why is this language so often used to describe our feelings? Are emotions like a wave? I think they are. I’m Christine Tomasello, a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT), and in this blog, I’m going to explore three ways that our emotions really are like waves. More importantly, I’m going to talk about the hope we can find in this apt figurative language.

They have a Beginning, a Middle, and an End

Waves begin as a small breath of air over the water sometimes miles away from shore. That ripple on the surface of the water flows into shore gaining momentum. Then, it hits the shore, breaks apart, and is returned to the depth of the ocean. Emotions often work the same way. Some trigger begins the emotion within us. Then, it builds (sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly). Emotions can build to an overwhelming height in the middle or just feel a little more intense. Then, the wave of emotions breaks and recedes at the end as it runs its course. Emotions, like waves, are not constant. They come and go, ebb and flow. In the middle of a wave of emotion, it can be hard to remember that this feeling will pass, so try to hold onto that thought when you feel overwhelmed by emotion.

They Have a Natural Rhythm and Flow

There is a lot of hope in this idea that waves and emotions both have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but it may not feel very helpful when you’re overcome by that first hard impact of a difficult emotion. Like a tidal wave, you may feel overwhelmed by the size and intensity of your emotions, but like that tidal wave, your emotion will recede. In fact, scientists discovered that our bodies are naturally built to accept and process emotions in just 90 seconds. We hold onto emotions (positive and negative) by choice. If you’re having trouble letting go of feelings, try out the 90 second rule. When you first feel an emotion coming on, don’t avoid it or ignore it. Instead, feel it. Set a timer for 90 seconds, and just let yourself focus on that feeling. How does it make you feel? What does it remind you of? Why are you feeling this way? After the 90 seconds is up, change your perspective. Do something else. Go for a walk. Do the dishes, or get back to your work. You’ll be surprised how much better you’ll feel if you allow yourself the 90 seconds to fully experience an emotion rather than fighting against these feelings for hours, days, or longer.

We Can’t Stop Them

Both waves and emotions exist in nature and are outside of our control. Take a deep breath and really accept that. You cannot control how you feel in a given situation. Our feelings aren’t good, bad, or controllable. We may not be able to stop our feelings in a given situation, but we can learn to accept, manage, and process our feelings in healthier ways. This allows us to take charge of the way we react to these emotions. This is different than just ignoring or suppressing our emotions. Maybe you’ve heard the old self-help gem, “What we resist persists.” That’s another cliché that happens to be very true. If we don’t learn to embrace our emotions (even those tough or painful ones we don’t necessarily want to feel) and find healthy ways to process and express them, they will find their way to the surface eventually. Sometimes, that means they’ll overwhelm us. Instead, we need to learn to ride the waves of our emotions rather than letting them overwhelm us.

Having a Tough Time Riding the Waves of Your Emotions?

Finding ways to describe and more deeply understand the way that our emotions impact our daily lives is an important aspect of the work we do in therapy, but even gaining this deeper understanding doesn’t always make it any easier to process the flood of emotions (see what I did there). Don’t feel like you ever need to figure it all out on your own. I’ve you’re interested in working with me at my San Diego therapy practice, Beachside Counseling, I hope you’ll reach out to schedule a session. I make the process easy. Simply complete my contact form, call me at (858) 863-8695, or email I look forward to hearing from you soon.


About the Author

Christine Tomasello is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Founder of Beachside Counseling in San Diego, CA, where she helps clients work through grief and loss, major life changes, and challenging relationship patterns. Christine identifies as a helper, healer, and highly sensitive person (HSP), and specializes in working with other therapists, helpers, healers, and HSPs.


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