It’s surprising how confused we can get by emotion.
Because we “feel” all sorts of things every day… Jealous, embarrassed, frustrated, anxious, excited.
All of these feelings elicit sensations in the body — emotions are physical. It is our past experience which forms our individual blueprint for how we interpret them.
An emotion is your brain’s creation of what your bodily sensations mean, in relation to what is going on around you in the world.
Lisa Feldman Barrett, Neuroscientist
To understand our emotions better, we can boil down these “feelings” into their elements:
We can then put our bodily sensations into four main categories:
We feel various crenelations, intensities and shades of these sensations in different ways and at different times. But many psychotherapists are agreed that the various versions of feelings stem from these four core emotions.
Hormones and chemistry play a role – how often have you been snappy when hungry, or before your period? Joy/love may be a precursor to reproduction and fear to identifying a threat – both are necessary for the survival of the human species.
The other two emotions — sadness and anger — are closely connected to love and fear. Sadness is a response to loss, and anger a response to fear.
The rest of our so-called emotions are more complex. They can be picked apart or whittled down — to one of our many beliefs and judgements that ultimately gives rise to them. We interpret our internal sensations based on our past experience.
Many survival-related fears are simple ones – heights, snakes, the dark. They are primal.
Then there are more complex fears: being alone, trusting people, committing. This list is endless and we all have our own unique frame of reference based on our upbringing and what we historically found threatening. All children have a valid fear of abandonment, or being left alone, and likewise all children must trust others to survive. So these fears are in fact rational, we just carry them into adulthood when they are now solveable.
Let’s look at a complex feeling: embarrassment.
Let’s say you’ve asked someone you really like out for a drink and they’ve said no. You feel embarrassed. It’s a mixture of berating yourself for something you’ve done that didn’t get the outcome you wanted (your “mistake”), and judging yourself as being unworthy (a lack of appreciation — or love — for yourself).
But these are actually thoughts or judgements attached to the emotion beneath. They come from our interpretation of reality. Someone else may experience the same event and feel pride not shame: pride that they were honest and brave enough to ask for what they wanted.
With negative emotions it is the maze of interpretations that is essentially negative.
If you knew without a doubt that despite the outcome, you are worthwhile, you are loveable and you are undoubtedly a success in many ways, then you might not feel so embarrassed.
Anger is probably the most easily identified emotion and the most socially acceptable. A good test for this is your office tea point. This is a place where people will often have a rant but wouldn’t dream of crying openly, or bear hugging someone, or cowering in the corner hiding behind the water-cooler. But anger is ok.
When we detect a threat, our autonomous nervous system quickly kicks in with one of these responses:
Which we choose is based on our past experience of threats in the most similar current context.
Anger is a mobilisation response: it tells us something needs to change. Anger encourages us to act.
In order for babies to learn to crawl they must first feel frustrated (a watered down form of anger) – this is their reaction to their static situation, which they want to change. The baby’s anger tells them they need to do something: they need to move.
Anger motivates us. And sometimes we need that. It’s useful as the anger is telling us to notice something else.
But what we do have to first identify is the thing in ourself that our anger is pointing to: the threat that our anger is telling us to notice. Is it really a threat? Are we angry at someone or something else instead of feeling angry at ourselves? Are we quick to fire accusations in our defence when we realise we’ve let our own boundaries be crossed?
Once we identify the true cause of our anger we have a choice about what to do about it. We can retreat if we need to, or live with it sitting on our shoulder for a while, or take a deep breath and face the threat calmly.
Happiness can be seen as an array of all the positives.
“Love” or joy is perhaps happiness at its most intense. It is the most positive, perhaps the purest, emotion we can feel. You can’t reduce it. It just is.
Same with fear. It’s instinctual. Primeval. We need both to survive, and to thrive.
Happiness can be a warm relaxed contentment, or an alive excitement, sexual desire or ecstasy.
Happiness or contentment often requires trust, acceptance and understanding. In this way it is something that we can learn and cultivate.
Most of us usually think of sadness as a negative emotion. It certainly can be painful. It can be intense. But sadness might actually be classed as a positive emotion. The reason is this: it comes from love.
For without love, we’d struggle to feel sad. Because sadness comes from loss — from the loss of someone or something you value.
Sadness can also be empathy, for ourselves and for others. It honours our self and those we love. And that is a beautiful and honest thing, and something we cannot and probably wouldn’t want to live without.
When we start identifying and allowing ourselves to understand and feel all the joys and fears buried beneath all the complex things going on in our life – things can start to become a little simpler. And often a lot richer.
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