Part 1 of 5 “Emotions 101.” Today we ask ~
“When my gut knots, how do I know if this is physical or emotional feedback?”*
You feel a sudden knotting in your gut and it could be one of many things, right? A bad shrimp or gas? Possibly. But might it also be a twinge of anxiety, a pang of love, the rolling longing of loss or a wave of fear? Before we conclude whether it’s shrimp or sadness, let’s take a deeper look at emotions.
Simply put, emotions are feelings that identify distinct, shifting states of mind, like sorrow, anger and joy. In more complex terms, emotions are the response of a multitasking brain, which reads cues from the senses and cross-references these with thoughts from past experiences. A crude analogy? Emotions are to personality as weather is to climate.
Emotions may signal a change in our environment, a change within us or a change in both. These signals are generally fleeting in comparison to other states of mind. As a result, emotions are distinct from moods, which can last for hours, days or even weeks. They’re also distinct from personalities, the lifelong set of traits that comprise our individual, predictable reactions to situations
In evolutionary terms, emotions are motivators.
- DISGUST in the face of something gross stops us touching or eating it;
- ANGER in the face of something threatening prepares us to fight or flee;
- FEAR in the face of something potentially deadly inspires caution;
- SADNESS in the face of loss promotes group cohesion;
- SURPRIZE in the face of novelty indicates “warning, something outside our norm”;
- JOY, laughter and a positive affect (whilst still not well understood) seem to provide a rationale for decision-making which promotes longevity.
Bottom line, learning to accurately recognize and express emotions – within our culture, community, family and primary love relationships – is key to our effective engagement in society.
So – back to the question, is this a stomach ache or an emotion? In this case, the answer may be “Both!” Emotions show up in the body to get attention. Ask yourself if it’s possible you have a medical reason for a stomach ache. If so, deal with it first, then check back. Still got that twinge? Sit quietly and ask yourself, “What do I feel?” Pay close attention to the thoughts, images and associations that come up. They’ll probably have your answers in the form of some feelings. You’ll need to be a bit of a sleuth if you’ve become better at hiding your emotions than feeling them. If you draw a blank, cut yourself some slack. It’s not surprising you may not know since neither schools nor society promote emotional intelligence. See if any of these popular avoidance techniques are familiar.
Rather than FEEL, do you ~
- Numb out with too much food, alcohol, sex, drug use?
- Distract with too much exercise, work, TV, reading, busy-ness, other compulsions?
- Dismiss with too much intellectualizing, analyzing, superficial conversation?
- Bury ‘em under righteousness masked as love and peace?
When you dodge – rather than feel – your feelings, you’ll experience ~
- Being both bored and boring
- Blowing up over minor incidents
- Feeling tense, on edge, disconnected, unmotivated
- Minimal love for yourself or others.
What to do?
Try this. Complete the following sentences:
- If I did not [insert your current avoidance behaviours] , and instead just sat still for a while, maybe I’d feel _______________ [guess at a feeling here].
- It makes me so mad when _________________ .
- Last time I cried was when _________________ .
- Last time I felt this pang of joy was when _______________ .
- The one thing that totally disgusts me is ________________ .
- The one thing I really want to do, but fear is stopping me is _______________ .
- “It was such a surprize when _________________ .”
Now you see how you experience the six universal emotions. Great start. There are however over 600 words in English to describe emotions (and 42 face muscles to express them) so odds are good you have other feelings too.
If it is hard for you to find the words for your emotions right when you feel them, try some of these exercises.
- Note any strong emotions you have for a month.
- Keep a dream journal – what emotions are present there?
- Try and be specific – if your sweetie asks “How are you?” check in with yourself and answer honestly.
- Note intrusive memories and the feelings attached.
- Talk with a friend, minister, counselor, therapist.
- If you have Asberger’s Syndrome, here’s a great resource.
Tomorrow: Sad? Mad? How about Lonely, Wistful, Incensed, Ashamed? Dump the kindergarten terms for your complex internal maelstrom.
* I blew through my self-imposed 500 word limit – sorry! This article is 790.