The Circle Line

The Four Emotions


There aren’t as many emotions as we think: why it helps to know this

It’s surprising how confused we can get by emotion.

Because we “feel” all sorts of things every day… Jealous, embarrassed, frustrated, anxious, excited.

But when we pause and start to take notice we see that all of these feelings elicit similar sensations in the body — emotions are physical. It is our past experience which forms our individual blueprint for how we interpret them.

It helps to boil “feelings” down into their elements:

We can then label our bodily sensations as:

We feel various crenelations, intensities and shades of these sensations in different ways and at different times.

Many psychologists are agreed that it helps to categorise all the various versions of feelings as stemming from the four core emotions.

The four emotions happiness, fear, sadness and anger.

Joy (or love) and fear are the core emotions involved in, and connected to the hormones needed for, reproduction; necessary for the survival of the human species.

The other two emotions — sadness and anger — are closely connected to love and fear.

The rest of our so-called feelings 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.


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.

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”, as if you did something wrong), and you judge 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 experiment.

The negative spiral

With negative emotions the maze of interpretations is essentially negative — and usually complex, involving such fears like that we are not worthy, that we’ll never be loved, that we are a failure.

If you knew without a doubt that despite your behaviour and despite the outcome, you are worthwhile, you are loveable and you are undoubtedly a success in many ways, then the rejection in that moment might not embarrass you so much.

You might notice the embarrassment and learn from it, but you probably wouldn’t stay embarrassed for long. You can reason with it and realise there is no shame attached.


Anger is the 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 kicks in and we either:

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 a resistance to something, including to accepting a reality? Does our anger at others disguise the anger we feel at ourselves? Are we quick to fire accusations in defence of ourselves when our boundaries are shot, or when we realise we’ve let our own boundaries be shot?

Then we have a choice about what to do with our anger. 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.


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: the positive spiral

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 within us.


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 love.

Sadness is a response to loss. 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 know and feel all the joys and fears buried beneath all the other more complex things going on in our life, we often start acting a little differently — and things can start to become a little simpler. And often a lot more lovely.

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