It’s surprising how confused we can get by emotion.
Because we “feel” all sorts of things every day… Jealous, embarrassed, frustrated, anxious, excited, hungry, tired.
All types of feelings involve the body — they’re physical. Both our current and past experience forms our individual blueprint for what triggers emotions and 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
Emotions can be identified according to our level of arousal and whether the feeling is pleasant or unpleasant:
They fall into four main categories:
We feel various intensities of these emotions in different ways and at different times. But many psychotherapists are agreed that the various versions of emotions stem from these four core categories.
Hormones and chemistry play a role in our bodily sensations – how often have you been snappy when hungry, or before your period?
But emotions are slightly different. They are generally about relationships, with our self, others and the world. Let’s look at them one by one.
Many survival-related fears are simple ones – heights, snakes, the dark. They relate to our physical safety.
Then there are more complex social 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 to our wellbeing. 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 solvable.
Let’s look at a complex emotion: 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). 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 at the “rejection”.
But these are actually thoughts or judgements attached to the emotion beneath. They come from our interpretation of what’s happened. Someone else may experience the same event and feel pride not shame: pride that they were honest and brave enough to express themselves and take a risk.
With negative emotions it is the maze of interpretations that is essentially negative, not the emotion itself, which is necessary.
Anger is probably the most easily identified emotion and in the UK often 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 openly crying. But anger is ok.
When we detect a threat, our nervous system quickly kicks in with one of these automatic responses:
Which of these responses we favour is based on our past experience of threats and how we found a way to deal with them.
Anger is a mobilisation response: it tells us something needs to change. Anger encourages us to move, 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, it’s telling us to notice something.
But we must first identify the thing our anger is telling us to notice. And then ask: Is it really a threat? To you, now, as a capable resourceful, powerful adult?
Once we identify the true cause of our anger we have a choice about what to do about it: retreat, live with it a while, or take a deep breath and face the threat calmly.
Happiness, or joy, can be seen as an array of all the positive emotions.
Joy can be a warm relaxed contentment, or an alive excitement, sexual desire or ecstasy. “Love” is perhaps happiness at its most intense. Most see it as the most positive emotion we can feel.
Human happiness depends to a large extent on the quality of our relationships. Human beings are social beings and we are designed to be connected with others. We are designed to be loved and to express love. This connection requires trust, acceptance and understanding of our self and of the other.
Therefore happiness is something that we can learn and cultivate.
Most of us usually think of sadness as a negative emotion. It certainly can be exhausting. 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.
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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