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 that you think of emotions and feelings as distinct, but highly related things -- two sides of the same coin. One side of the coin is an emotion: a physical response to change that is hard-wired and universal. The other side of the coin is your feeling: mental associations and reactions to an emotion that are personal, acquired through experience. Despite seeming interchangeable, emotions actually proceed feelings. Like with coins, what you notice will depend upon where you are looking.
Because emotions are physical, they can be measured objectively by blood flow, brain activity, facial expressions and body stance. Because feelings are mental, they cannot be measured precisely. Emotions are generally predictable and easily understood, while feelings are often idiosyncratic and confusing. Feelings reflect your personal associations to emotions - the other side of the coin.
This way of distinguishing between emotions and feelings is based on the work of a prominent neuroscientist at USC Antonio D'Amasio, M.D. In this model, feelings are sparked by emotions, ignited by the thoughts and images that have become paired with a particular emotion. While emotions are usually fleeting, the feelings they provoke may persist or grow over a lifetime. Because emotions initiate feelings, and feelings in turn initiate emotions, your individual feelings can prompt a never-ending cycle of painful (and confusing) emotions.
I know this can be hard to grasp, so let's look at an example. I used to think I was easy going because I rarely felt angry. I've since learned that I do get angry, often without noticing. For me, the physiological experience of anger often signifies danger, initiating feelings of fear. I am scared my anger will hurt something I value (like a relationship), so I become scared. For someone else, a bully perhaps, their signals of anger might feel good, seeming empowering rather than dangerous. In fact, a bully may have learned that their fear is dangerous -- just the opposite of me. A bully may be someone who overlooks their fear, feeling angry in response to physical indicators of fear. A wuss may be someone who overlooks their anger, feeling fear in response to signs of their anger. Thus, the same emotional signals may cause very different feelings in dissimilar people.
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.
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 understanding the difference between emotions and feelings, you can get to the bottom of the real emotions that underlie your feelings. This will help you break out of the ongoing cycle of emotions and feelings that confuses and torments you, helping you straighten out your inner world to feel better.