We all have feelings and emotions, yet most of us rarely consider what function these powerful inner experiences serve. This is unfortunate because emotional signals are among the most important tools that we have for learning to navigate the world successfully.
So let me answer the question for you,"What are emotions?" Emotions are automatic bodily responses that occur in response to a meaningful change. We do not choose our emotions - they happen with or without our awareness. Even animals have emotions, as any animal lover will tell you.
The question of which emotions are "basic" or "primitive" has fascinated philosophers and other scholars for centuries -- with Darwin, Descartes, Hume, Hobbes and Spinoza all weighing in on the matter. Based on his cross-cultural research, psychologist Paul Ekman suggested five universal emotions that seem to be "hard-wired" into us. Each of these basic emotions has a distinct "physiological signature" that includes fixed, automatic, neuro-muscular changes and characteristic facial expressions. Ekman developed a rating system that reliably identifies emotions using micro-facial expressions which made him an expert at detecting lies (the TV show "Lie to Me" is based on him). Although scholars continue to debate about exactly how many basic emotions there are (and in fact Ekman has since changed his ideas), this column relies on a simplified version of Ekman's initial analysis.
Ekman's initial five basic emotions are: anger, fear, disgust, sorrow, and joy. Given the preponderance of negative emotions (4:1) it is no wonder so many people want to get away from their feelings! However, as unpleasant as they can be, our emotions are invaluable signals that our body sends us to help steer us successfully through life.
Emotions are responses to changes that we believe will affect our happiness. Changes can occur in one of three places: our minds (for example, new images or ideas), our bodies (for example, illness, pain or growth), or the outside world (for example, a death, victory, or threat -- here the list is endless).
Certain changes (or so-called triggers) predictably cause certain emotions:
- When we feel offended or frustrated from achieving an anticipated goal we experience Anger.
- When we feel threatened we experience Fear.
- When exposed to germs or something unhealthy we experience Disgust.
- When we lose something we experience Sadness.
- In response to approaching safety, success, connection, or deep pleasure we experience Joy.
The more a change affects our happiness, or our expectation of happiness, the more intense the emotion. These physical impulses, our emotions, suggest strategies for dealing with change. Or you could say that they prompt a tendency to action. When sad we are inclined to mourning, when angry we hurt or threaten, when scared we want to retreat, and when disgusted we want to wretch. When joyful we want more.
How do you feel about the primitive emotions of anger, fear, disgust, sadness and joy? Which of these emotions are most troublesome for you?
Start investigating your emotional life by thinking about your reactions to your own emotions. Begin to think about why some emotions are more comfortable for you than others.
- Think about which basic emotions (anger, fear, disgust, sorrow, and joy) you experience most frequently.
- Which emotions feel most uncomfortable to you? What is about these emotions that makes you uneasy? For instance, some people are scared of their anger, or ashamed of their fear. Sadly, may people are uncomfortable feeling joy.
- Which emotions feel most comfortable? Are you someone who is comfortable with joy in all its forms? Can you revel in natural beauty, emotional intimacy, and new ideas? Or are you someone who is drawn to particular negative emotions, because they seem safe and familiar. This might mean you have a well-worn tendency to regularly feel sad, scared, angry, or disgusted.
- Are there any basic emotions (anger, fear, disgust, sorrow, and joy) you never feel? Which ones? Why might you be disconnected from, or ashamed of, these emotions?
Starting to identify how you feel about various emotions is a good first step to expanding your range of emotion. Tolerating a full range of emotions will help you find new parts of yourself.