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  • Writer's picturekevinkoulang

Emotions 101: What are they?

A phone screen is pictured with several emojis to share different emotions. The photo is focused on a smiling emoji with hearts.

"Navigating life without emotions is like traversing a vast open sea without a compass"

When it comes to emotions, we're all quite familiar with them, some might say they know them too well - at least they think they do. We might be familiar with them in that they're the thing that comes up for us when we're too overwhelmed and we reach our "last straw," or it's the thing that people call us as tears begin to flood our eyes because we're "too sensitive," or even when our own excitement gets the best of us and others begin to suggest we're being "too much." For some, they are just things that come up when something good or bad happens. For many others, they're the things we've grown to have a strained relationship with because somewhere along the way, we've learned that they're negative, bad, or even, a burden to others.

What I've come to learn the past few years, as a clinician, is that most people don't actually know what emotions are, where they come from, what they do, what purpose they serve, how to utilize them, or how to deal with them, other than sweeping them under the metaphorical rug, never to be examined again, until they show up - inevitably. Most of us aren't taught how to navigate, identify, or process them properly, so we grow up dealing with them the best way we know how, and usually, it works... That is until it doesn't. That's oftentimes the point clients are at when they come to see me.

The purpose of this post is to briefly share my learnings about emotion in an attempt to help shift peoples' ideas of what emotions are. This is especially useful information when combined with therapy. To put succinctly: emotions are physiological (bodily felt) responses to things we perceive in our environment. So let's back up a bit and lay the groundwork for what emotions are not.

What emotions ARE NOT:

  • inherently 'good' or 'bad'

  • thoughts or beliefs

  • a sign of weakness

  • things we control

Judging emotions as "good" or "bad" is a pitfall many people find themselves in. They begin to desire the 'good' ones, and try to dispel quickly of the 'bad' ones. This is particularly difficult because emotions come and go -- they ebb and flow -- and we cannot hold onto 'good' ones indefinitely, nor can we keep 'bad' ones at a distance for eternity. Emotions are transitory, for better or worse. Meaning the good ones will be fleeting, but it also means the bad ones will not loom forever.

"Feelings" are obfuscated by the way we use the word feel in everyday language. We tell ourselves we feel dumb or feel like a failure. To be clear, these are thoughts and beliefs, not emotions. Holding such beliefs, however, may result in feeling sadness or fear of rejection. Our thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors play a role in how we feel, and vice versa, but they are not to be confused with each other.

Whether we've been conditioned socially, or by our family, to believe being in touch with our own emotions is equated to being weak, or we are called "too emotional" in a pejorative context, it's important to realize, these are social conventions. More often is the case that these family rules (i.e. "We don't talk about emotion," "You're not allowed to cry," etc.) were used as emotion regulation strategies that can work in the short term but often result in anxiety, depression, and emotion regulation issues later on. Back in the day, those who were able to utilize emotion effectively, to communicate and connect with the group at large, were able to survive much better than those who were isolated and disconnected from others.

It's undoubtedly that many people would agree that emotions like happiness and excitement are comfortable, and more difficult emotions like anger or sadness, are uncomfortable or distressing. It's natural to want to feel these more comfortable emotions more often and decrease the distressing or uncomfortable ones. But when we write them off as bad and try to cast them away, it immediately becomes a fruitless task, which only serves to worsen our mental health and we fail to listen to what valuable information they might have to offer us because emotions just are. No matter how much distracting, deflecting, injecting humor into the situation, they will exist. Now let's move onto what they are.

What emotions ARE:

  • a physiological response

  • a means for communication

  • a mechanism for connection

  • useful information

If you were asked how you know you were feeling sad, without identifying thoughts (i.e. "I really am alone") or behaviors (i.e. crying), how would you know it? Thoughts and behaviors can clue us into our emotions, but the best way of knowing is the felt sense we get. Fundamentally, emotions are a physiological response that we feel in our bodies, in response to things we perceive in the environment. The heaviness in our chest, the weight of our limbs, the "frog" in our throat, the tears welling up behind our eyes, all are ways to tell how we are feeling.

Emotions are with us from the very beginning of our lives. As infants and toddlers we use emotions to communicate our wants and needs. When we're really young, we don't have the means to communicate these through language, so instead it can be observed as crying to be fed or held, fearful reaching or searching when we feel scared or alone, angry protest when we don't get our way or we are being ignored, or even giggling and babbling at the prospect of excitement. Our emotions communicate many things that we might not have the words for in the moment.

The second half of communicating our emotions is that there are others to receive them. Prototypically, we have a parent, or caring other, to depend on to respond to our emotions. When we cry to be fed and our communication is met by a responsive, caring other, we feel connected to and seen. When our sadness is met with compassion, validation, reassurance, and/or care, we might not have our immediate problems resolved, but in that moment, we feel loved and supported, and that can help us to get through our issues. By the expression of emotion by one party and the use of empathy (the emotional connector) by another, we are connected and feel seen. When we have that felt sense of connection with another we feel safe and well.

Emotions, in a more practical sense, tells us about ourselves. It shows us what we like, what we don't like, and what we need or want. The tinge of excitement I get when I think about butter pecan ice cream feels slightly different than when I imagine mint chocolate chip. The way my chest fills with warmth when my back is gently rubbed starkly contrasts with the sharp constricting sensation when I'm being scolded. When I hear terrifying news, and I sense myself getting small, I feel the need for physical proximity to my partner, or a warm hug. When I'm angry, I might need my partner's soothing voice to respond with understanding or validation. Or when I'm filled with excitement, I feel the need to spread it and share it with an equally interested other. Navigating life without emotions is like traversing a vast open sea without a compass. When used properly, emotions allow us to truly know ourselves. They color our world, give it meaning and purpose, and connects us to others.

Core Emotions

Depending on where you look, you'll likely find different "core emotions" (also referred to as "primary emotions," as opposed to "secondary" or "instrumental" emotions.) There is no true consensus on what constitutes the basic fundamental emotions. But something that holds true universally, across different cultures and ethnic groups, is that emotions have the same function and purpose. The core emotions I refer to through my own learning are:

  • Joy

  • Anger

  • Disgust

  • Excitement

  • Grief/Sadness

  • Fear

To quickly explain the other types of emotions, which is beyond the scope of this introductory blog post, secondary emotions are emotional responses we have to primary emotions (i.e. anger about feeling angry.) While instrumental emotions are emotions that are summoned in order to elicit specific or desired responses from others (i.e. "crocodile tears".)

This is just a brief, non-exhaustive, explanation of emotions as I've learned it through Emotion-Focused Therapy. Emotions are pivotal to the Theory of Attachment which I hope to eventually write about soon. I do hope this can serve as a good starting point for anyone who may just be starting on their journey to working with their own emotions.

Practice Identifying Your Emotions

Next time an emotion comes up, turn your attention inwards, into your body, and just notice, without judgment, what is happening. Is there any sensation? Do you notice any pressure? Is there weight? What does it make you want to do? What would it say if it could speak?

If this is your first time examining your emotions in this way, you might not notice anything. Neither did I when I was first asked this in my own therapy. But over time, whether on your own, or with the help with a counselor, you may begin to notice and learn to feel it. So give yourself grace and time. When you get a hang of it, you can begin to explore what it needs or wants in order for you to feel slightly better.

So next time an emotion comes up for you, be sure to slow yourself down a beat and ask what am I feeling right now?

Ascent Therapy LLC is a private practice owned and run by Kevin Lang with billing and administrative support by Mindful Therapy Group based in Portland, Oregon. Information in this blog is not a replacement for mental health treatment.

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