The Majesty of Emotions
Prison psychologists are required to write lengthy and in-depth psychological assessments of their clients. After a while, I can tell you that they all start looking a bit familiar, and of all the things they say there is one phrase that rules them all – “Maladaptive Emotional Coping Behaviours”. It’s psychology talk for using drugs and alcohol to avoid uncomfortable feelings.
But it’s not just criminals who do this. Emotional avoidance is ground zero for most psychological problems and unhelpful human behaviours, from procrastination to violence. It’s so prevalent a problem that we have even labelled these uncomfortable feelings as “negative feelings”, as if they are themselves a problem we have to solve. For the record, there’s no such thing as a “negative feeling”, only negated ones.
Feelings are the greatest gift we could ever have been given, so I’m going to take this opportunity to give you quick down low on exactly what they are and how they serve us.
Feelings are our friends
In the psychological literature, feelings are often referred to as “signals of need”. Translation – they tell us how well we are doing at meeting our needs. Pleasant feelings reward us for doing a good job, they encourage us to keep it up (the carrot). Unpleasant feelings are telling us we need to do better or change something (the stick). So, you can see how avoiding unpleasant feelings not only doesn’t solve the problem, it makes it worse. They just get louder and more painful until we pay attention. That’s why I call them “restorative” emotions, they are trying to bring us back to balance.
In short. Do good, feel good. Do bad, feel bad.
“Simples” (imagine the cute meerkat on the television advert saying it. PS: Dear advertiser, I remember your character but have no idea what your product is. Hmmm).
Well, not quite that simple. You see, nature doesn’t really trust us with our own wellbeing. She knows how limited, distracted, easily influenced and just plain wrong-headed we can be. So, she has a backup plan – make most of our decisions at the unconscious level according to some genetically hardwired rules and punish us for not obeying them. The rules are our basic drive to fulfil our basic human needs and the punishment is unpleasant emotions.
Each of our basic needs has both a pleasant and unpleasant feeling associated with it, and these feelings are the result of our surprisingly intelligent unconscious brain. To put that another way, emotional intelligence isn’t just about being intelligent about our feelings, it’s also about appreciating the intelligence of our feelings.
How does this emotion thing work?
Now, let’s get into the nitty gritty. Each of our emotions is constructed in a very specific way. All emotions have the same components.
The first is affect, what we call feelings, which is the pleasant or unpleasant sensation that we experience in our body. The more we are succeeding or failing at meeting our needs, the stronger the affect (good or bad).
The second is motivation. Each feeling impels us to act is certain ways. Anger says fight, fear says be cautious, grief says get support, and so on. They make us “feel like” doing something.
The third is physiological. Each feeling produces different states in the body. Some energise it, some shut it down, some make it numb, others make it highly sensitive. These physiological states prepare the body to do the thing the emotion wants us to do.
The fourth is cognitive. Each of our feelings have a direct effect on the way we think. Some make it more positive, some more negative. Some make us empathic while others make us more careless. They influence our thinking to make us behave in the way it wants us to.
The sum effect of all this is behaviour. Feel the feeling, take an action, get an outcome. Of course, human beings also can choose to not do that. We can choose to behave contrary to our feelings. We can ignore them, defy them and exaggerate them. Sometimes this is wise, and other times it’s dumb.
Ideally, we want to learn the art of understanding our emotions and consciously choosing how to respond to what they are wanting from us. But first, let’s look at each of our seven basic feelings.
Deep fried emotional intelligence – quick, easy, fulfilling
Below I have outlined what our seven basic unpleasant feelings are and how they relate to each need (the pleasant ones aren’t usually a problem, unless we get overly consumed by chasing them). It’s useful to think of this as an emotional colour wheel. Every feeling we have, in their many hundred hues, seems to be a combination of these basic seven emotions. For instance, feeling hurt is a mixture of sadness and anger while feeling outraged is a mixture of anger and disgust.
Our most basic human need is for survival, which means we need to be safe and secure. When this need is threatened we experience fear, ranging from mild apprehension to full blown terror, depending on the level of threat we perceive (which may not always be accurate). Fear’s job is to wake us up, make us focus, assess the situation and make a decision.
Fear can also alert us to the possibility of an opportunity rather than danger. For instance, an attractive potential mate is an opportunity, but we need to convert that opportunity, so fear tells us to put our best foot forward. It’s the same with a new business opportunity, job, friendship or social group. Ideally (when we embrace it) fear sharpens our awareness and our thinking and prompts us to play our best game.
Of course, too much fear or fear that we ignore can have the opposite effect and make us freeze – but this too is an adaptive strategy when faced with an unbeatable threat. If we don’t draw their attention they may not notice us and may not attack us. Either way the ability to respond to our fear gives us the ability to respond to a threat or opportunity rather than react to it. Avoiding or ignoring fear robs us of vital information and usually leads to overreacting or acting too late. The opposite of fear is confidence, a sense of being able to deal with life.
Our second basic human need is for love, connection and belonging. This is because human beings are social animals. A human being alone is some other animal’s food, but in a large group we are unbeatable. That’s why public speaking, which threatens public humiliation, is so terrifying for so many. Exclusion from the group is the equivalent of death.
We know when we are not meeting this need because we feel sad, ranging from slight disappointment to paralysing grief. Social exclusion, a disagreement with a friend, relationship breakdown, loss of self-assurance or loss through death all leave us feeling this way. Sadness tells us to reach out (unless it’s accompanied by shame or guilt) and to connect with people.
That’s why we cry, to signal to others that we need comfort and help. The opposite of sadness is contentment, the feeling that we belong and have all the love we need.
Shame is tricky, but sensational. Shame relates to our need for autonomy, freedom and self-expression, but it also relates to our need for social esteem. This is based on our values, our felt sense of who we are. When we behave according to our natural values we feel a sense of pride. When we don’t we feel shame, ranging from mild embarrassment to gut-wrenching humiliation.
Shame is a double-edged sword – it says try your best, be your best, express yourself, but don’t be too arrogant or loud or overly prideful. If you don’t do your best you feel shame about not being good enough, not trying hard enough and not making your unique contribution. But big-note yourself or try to be too important and you will be rejected for being a taker. Shame’s job is to keep us in the middle – do your best, but don’t get so full of yourself that there is no room for anyone else.
The opposite of shame is humility (yes, it’s a feeling) – a sense of being valuable and justifiably proud of yourself but combined with an awareness of your limitations and flaws and your need for others. Humiliation is dependent and below others, arrogance is independent and above others, humility is interdependent and equal to others.
Anger gets a bad rap, but it’s an awesome emotion, that creates some great music (rap). Anger is the energy of life. We know it by many names including passion, will and determination. Anger has two important jobs to do – set boundaries and pursue goals. Get rid of the things we don’t want and attain the things we do.
Anger gives us the ability to overcome fear and fight against a threat if it’s needed. Anger also gives us the motivation to overcome challenges, discipline ourselves to the boring tasks and keep going when it’s tough. Suppress anger and you will fail at goal attainment and become a pushover for others. Anger relates to our need for esteem, status and recognition – to be given our fair share of the spoils of life, meaning the share that we have earned through the value we contribute. The opposite of anger is satisfaction.
But, (it’s a big but) anger can be problematic when we over use it to avoid having to deal with our more vulnerable emotions. Anger reduces our empathy, which is a good thing if you need to fight, but a bad thing if it permits you to fight when you don’t need to. We often say that people who do this have an “anger issue”, but the truth is they usually have a fear and shame issue, and anger is how they are avoiding it. Which leads us to our next emotion.
Guilt is nature’s way of stopping us from being selfish, or overly selfish. For a social group to be successful it must be fair, or people start getting angry with each other. That doesn’t mean that everyone gets an equal share, but that they get the share they have earned by the contribution they have made. If we take too much, or give to little, or do unnecessary harm to others, or neglect our obligations to them, we feel guilty. Guilt is very painful, but it’s meant to be, or we would all be psychopaths.
Guilt relates to our need for contribution, and the opposite of guilt is peace. However, because guilt is based in a subjective evaluation of what is fair and what is right, it is open to being manipulated.
Throughout history people have gained power over others through manipulating three emotions: fear, disgust and guilt. Fear is manipulated through intimidation and power, and guilt is manipulated through the threat of social rejection. Some religions have been masterful at manipulating guilt though creating an arbitrary set of moral rules and convincing people to make them more important that the natural morality of emotions. This takes the authority to determine guilt and innocence away from the person and gives it to the institution, backed up by the fear of being socially vilified or excluded.
The trick to healthy guilt is to take that power back, to claim the right to live by our own values and our own inbuilt sense of justice. If we feel guilty, we need to ask ourselves if we have done wrong and make it right if we can. Guilt is the glue that binds society together.
“Oh, come on, you have to be kidding! There can’t be anything good about feeling hopeless, depressed and powerless, can there?” said a very dubious client of mine. I got it, these things feel horrible, but they too have their purpose, and it’s a good one.
Despair is the great course corrector of life. The truth is that many people spend many years following paths that are not in alignment with their sense of purpose and which are not satisfying or meaningful to them. They continue because they think they must, or they can’t afford to change, or they are afraid of taking a risk, or they are just unaware that they are unhappy. Sometimes people continue doing what they know even if it really isn’t working and they are beating their head against the same brick wall day after day.
This is when despair steps in. Our brain wants to be happy, to follow our passion, to enjoy our existence, to grow and develop. If we don’t let it, it goes on strike and takes away all the pleasures and motivation to live until we make a better choice about how we live. If we will not listen to ourselves trying to move us to a better destination, despair stops us dead in the water to make us change course. Despair relates to our need for growth and self-actualisation. Its opposite is excitement.
Like all emotions, disgust is on a spectrum starting with distaste and disillusionment and going all the way up to contempt and hatred. The essence of disgust is wanting to put distance between us and something or someone we perceive to be toxic, lest they infect us with their “poison”. Unlike anger which tries to beat a threat into submission, disgust wants to either get away from it or, if necessary, destroy it.
The purpose of disgust is discernment, and it’s very intelligent, but also easily fooled. Disgust ties back into our core values like honesty, fairness, contribution and kindness and it wants to remove people who don’t behave in accordance with those values. The problem can be that our emotional brain only knows the reality we tell it, so our natural disgust can be manipulated into things like prejudice and discrimination, even genocide, if we are made to believe that some other group is toxic or degenerate. The history of world conflict is people being manipulated into believing the other group is an enemy who will destroy all the good in their life, making it a necessary and “righteous” act to destroy them first.
So being able to acknowledge and consciously engage with disgust is very important. It never goes away, no matter how much we may repress it and tell ourselves that “we aren’t like that”. In fact, making our disgust unconscious just makes it easier for other people to manipulate and makes us more likely to perpetrate on others with our righteousness.
Consciously engaging with this feeling makes us more discerning and we can learn to separate behaviours we don’t like from the people doing the behaviour and set appropriate boundaries without going too far. Ultimately, disgust is like a compass that helps us steer towards the things we do want in life, and away from the things we don’t. Pretty useful, huh? The opposite of disgust is empathy.
There they are, the big seven. Hopefully getting to know them a bit better can give you some new ways to engage, appreciate and work with your feelings to get the life that you want.
What I say to many of my clients struggling with their emotions (or more accurately, struggling with their rejection of their emotions) is that “if you want to feel good, you have to be willing to feel bad for a while”.
When we are compassionately curious about what our feelings are trying to tell us, we learn and grow, and those feelings will naturally resolve to a good feeling when we have started to meet those needs. Emotions are amazing.