The Circle Line

The 4 Emotions

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

Our emotions form potent blueprints on our brains. So it helps to understand them.

Our brains contain a thinking centre and an emotional one, which also learns and remembers. We need both. Studies of patients with damaged emotional centres show flawed decision-making despite a stable IQ — feelings are necessary for rational decisions. They need to work together harmoniously.

But it’s surprising how confused we can get by what is a true emotion and what isn’t…

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 and the sensations attached are that different. Really, all of these feelings can be boiled down to four core emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, anger.

We feel various crenelations, intensities and shades of them in different ways and at different times but many psychologists are agreed that all the various versions of feelings stem from the four core emotions.

The four emotions Love, fear, sadness and anger.

Love is 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.

Both love and fear, interestingly and not coincidentally, 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 the so-called emotions are more complex. They can be picked apart, reduced, whittled down — to one of our many beliefs and one of the core emotion that ultimately gives rise to them.


Many fears are simple. Heights, snakes, the dark. They are primal.

Then there are more complex fears: being alone, trusting people, committing. (The list is endless and we all have our own unique blend).

Most feelings (or beliefs…) derived from fear are even more complex.

Take embarrassment. Let’s say you’ve asked someone you like out for a drink and they’ve rejected you. And you feel embarrassed that you asked. 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 perhaps a sense of being unworthy (a lack of appreciation — or love — for yourself). But these are actually thoughts attached to the emotion beneath. Embarrassment is more an interpretation or a judgment than an emotion. A feeling that we “shouldn’t” have done something, or that we are shameful.

Fear: the negative spiral

Underneath that maze of interpretations is essentially fear — and usually a complex web of fears: fear that we are not worthy, that we’ll never be loved, fear 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 bother 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. You might even eventually laugh lightly about it and perhaps realise you and the object of your affection weren’t really very well suited. However, these fears about yourself instead find their way out in something we call embarrassment — but really they can be traced back to essentially, not accepting, respecting or “loving” ourself enough. To fearing we did something wrong and that we’re not ok. So this thing we call embarrassment actually comes from two core emotions: love (or a lack of it), and fear.


An easily identified emotion. It’s the emotion that is 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. Anger is strong.

And sometimes it is. When we detect a threat we either flee (in fear) or fight (in anger, aka signalling something to fear). It tells us something needs to change — perhaps we have genuinely been wronged or seen or suffered some injustice. Anger encourages us to act. When babies learn to crawl they do so as a reaction to their static situation — they must first feel frustrated, which is a watered down form of anger. The baby’s anger tells them they need to do something: they need to move. Anger motivates us. And sometimes we need that.

But sometimes anger isn’t strength. Sometimes it’s resistance to accepting a reality. Sometimes anger at others disguises the anger we feel at ourselves. We’re quick to fire accusations and defend ourselves when our boundaries are shot, or rather when we realise we’ve let our own boundaries be shot. Sometimes it’s covering up or helping us cope with our fear. And that’s ok too. In fact it’s very 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 fear that our anger is telling us to notice. Because then we have a choice about what to do. We can turn round and face it if we’re ready to, or live with it sitting on our shoulder for a while, or take a deep breath, shove it away and do what we want to do anyway.


Plato said that love aims at beautiful and good things, because the experience of beautiful and good things is called happiness, and happiness is an end in itself. Of all beautiful and good things, the best, most beautiful and most dependable, is truth, or wisdom. And that can only come from within us. In this way, happiness — love — is not found or bestowed, it comes from within us.

Happiness can be seen as an upward cascade of all the positives until we reach their pinnacle — love.

Love, probably the biggest topic, the one that occupies so much of our culture, our art and our thoughts. What is it? A topic even the ancient Greek philosophers couldn’t pin down. To think that our little post on Medium could join the musings of those great minds is somewhat ridiculous. So we won’t pretend to. We’ve written a whole other post on the subject which attempts to do a better job, but here we can’t resist adding our small tuppence worth…

Happiness: the positive spiral

Love has many forms. It comes in different shades and different types. Platonic, familial, sexual, universal.

Love is both a noun and a verb. It can be an emotion. A warm happiness, a relaxed contentment, or an alive excitement, sexual desire or ecstasy.

But love is also an action and an active choice — it “aims”, as Plato said. So it is also a range of behaviours that flow from a positive mindset. It flows from choosing to act from a positive perspective. Every day we make choices; to accept, to find the positive, to be patient with others — or not. Love means trust, acceptance, 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, without the positive feeling that accompanied it, we’d struggle to feel sad. Because sadness comes from loss — from the loss of someone or something you love. Sadness is loss. Sadness is 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 loves and the 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.

More from Self Help Tools

The Circle Line is launching soon! Sign up now and we'll be in touch when we're fully working