This is the first in a three part series on Feelings
Many people use the words “emotions” and “feelings” to mean the same thing. However, I suggest you think of them as two different, but highly related things -- like two sides of a coin. One side of the coin is your physical reaction to change (your emotion) -- an experience that is nearly universal. The other side of the coin is your personal impression of your emotion (your feeling) - an experience that is highly personal.
Emotions have predictable triggers and can be objectively measured by blood flow, brain activity, facial expressions, and body stance. Feelings are their mental companions; they reflect the meanings and images you bring to your emotions. Feelings represent your subjective experience of your emotions - the other side of the coin. They occur in the mind and are often unique to you.
For example, sometimes when I get angry, I feel scared. For someone else, a bully perhaps, the experience of anger might feel empowering rather than frightening. Among dissimilar people, the emotion of anger may cause very different feelings (fear versus exhilaration in this example). Whereas emotions are inborn and common to us all, the meanings they acquire and the feelings they prompt are very personal. Feelings are shaped by individual temperament and experience; they vary enormously from person to person and from situation to situation. There are so many ways to feel a particular emotion.
This way of differentiating between emotions and feelings is based on the work of a prominent neuroscientist at USC Antonio D'Amasio, M.D. In this model, feelings come after emotions, stirred by the thoughts and images that have become paired with a particular physical reaction. Emotions are usually fleeting, while feelings can develop and persist over a lifetime. Because emotions stir feelings, and feelings can then spark emotions, feelings can prompt a never-ending cycle of emotions.
Learning to recognize and differentiate between your emotions and feelings is critical to becoming an Emotional Detective. It helps explain why feelings can be so different from one person to another. Even better, grasping this distinction helps make room in your mind for having a wide variety of feelings, and puts you on the trail to understanding them.
How to distinguish between emotions and feelings in your own life?
Most people are more comfortable feeling certain emotions, and staying away from others. For example, you may be more prone to fear than to anger. Or you may be more used to feeling sad than happy. Take a minute to think about what you are most prone to feeling, and what emotion you might be missing.
When you don't get your way or when someone hurts you, are you most likely to become sad, anxious, or angry?
- Think back to a recent situation that was frustrating (someone cut the line, you couldn't make some technology work, you lost a parking space, etc.) Did you feel angry or sad in response to the frustration? Or did you feel something else like resignation, self-blame, shame, or even nothing?
- Think back to a recent situation that was disappointing (a friend let you down, you didn't get something you'd hoped for, you didn't live up to your own standards). Or did you get sad, mad or hurt? Did you feel something else like hopeless, guilty, or embarrassed?
- Look back on each of these situations and see if you can find clues that you experienced an emotion that you didn't feel at the time.
By differentiating between emotions and feelings you can get to the bottom of the real emotions that underlie your feelings. This will help you straighten out your feelings and break out of the ongoing cycle of emotions and feelings that keeps making you feel bad unnecessarily.