What is an emotion?

As an emotionally-focused therapist, I spend a lot of time thinking about the complex nature of human emotions and the way they work. I was delighted to see that a recent issue of Psychotherapy Networker magazine was dedicated to understanding emotions and how they factor into the therapy process. Susan Johnson, a pioneer in emotionally-focused couples therapy, wrote an article on “The Power of Emotion in Therapy” which brought together insights from her couples work and research by cognitive neuroscientists who have studied the brain and how emotions work in our central nervous system.

It’s not easy to explain what an emotion is. Part of that stems from the fact that emotions are whole-person experiences. Part of it also comes from the fact that we have emotional responses to so many different stimuli – both external and internal. Looking at the literature on emotions, we see some of the following ideas expressed:

Feelings… nothing more than feelings

This approach to understanding emotions stems from the fact that our emotions are so fickle, unreliable, and illogical. In this view, emotions are just feelings and something to be avoided. We shouldn’t make important decisions based on emotions, since they are always changing and often misleading. Emotions, in this view, change like the tides and we shouldn’t pay attention to them. We need logic to overcome our emotions and help us to make objective, rational decisions based on facts, not feelings.

A universal sign language

In this view, supported by anthropologists and popularized by the work of Paul Ekman, emotions are a universal means of nonverbal communication that has developed through human evolution. We can understand what a person’s emotions are by observing his facial expressions, measuring his vital signs, and checking his eye contact. This is a powerful view that is echoed by Susan Johnson and other emotionally-focused therapists, and it’s useful in understanding the power of nonverbal communication. It isn’t what we say. It’s what we express emotionally that matters. And as we are learning in the study of mirror neurons, human beings are exquisitely capable of paying attention to the emotions of others and pick up on these emotions in an unconscious way.

A motivational response to stimuli

In this view of emotions, an emotion is a physiological response that prepares us to act. In the classic example, when we see a snake, we might immediately and reflexively respond with fear. Fear triggers our limbic system, causing an automatic flood of neurotransmitters that activate our sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system response increases heart rate, opens blood vessels, and causes our pupils to dilate. The body’s “fight or flight” system is in gear as muscles clench and we are ready to move. Moments later, we realize that the snake is a non-poisonous garden snake and our parasympathetic nervous system sends out an “All Clear” signal, telling us it’s safe to rest.

Nico Frijda and others have studied extensively the motivational component of emotions. Anger, fear, disgust, surprise, and other emotions have a motivational component, and understanding how these emotions get us ready for action can help us to pay attention to the messages they’re transmitting through our bodies and minds. Once you understand the message, you can evaluate whether you need to react or not.

All of these views of emotion are reductionistic in one way or another. The “nothing more than feelings” view suggests that emotions are divorced from reason and logic. Much of neuroscientific research focuses on the evolutionary value of emotions to help us survive. In these views, emotions are pre-rational and pre-cognitive.

Thoughts and emotions

Adding thoughts to the equation increases the complexity of understanding emotions. The fact is that emotions aren’t just feelings or motivations. We have thoughts about feelings, and create a snap judgment about what the feelings mean. For example, if my stomach hurts and I feel tension in my lower back, I might be feeling indigestion. On the other hand, I might be feeling anxious about the presentation I’m about to give. How are we to know what is really going on? We begin to tell ourselves stories about the feelings and motivations.

Part of what makes therapy work is the fact that we are able to talk ourselves into and out of emotional states. Our reasoning can help us make sense of the feelings and emotions, analyzing where they’ve come from and whether or not they are useful. Depending on the stories we tell ourselves about the world, our relationships, and ourselves, we are set up to feel certain emotional states more readily. Our beliefs affect our emotions and prepare us to feel certain emotions more readily. For instance, if our core belief is, “The world is an unsafe place and you cannot trust anyone,” it is likely that we will be more ready to feel fear and anger because we have already prepared ourselves to be threatened.

Emotions and core values

Emotions are affected by our core values. We don’t get emotional about things unless we feel some concern about them. We get emotional about things that are relevant to our goals. As Mark Twain said about getting older, “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” If, on the other hand, we are worried about items that haven’t been checked off our bucket list, or we feel that we’re being cheated by mortality, we are going to mind a great deal.

Theorists like Anthony Demasio have made a distinction between “basic” or “primary” emotions (the six basic emotions are fear, anger, disgust, surprise, happiness, and sadness) and secondary emotions such as shame. The fact that we can have emotions about our emotions points to the complexity. Secondary emotions, in Demasio’s view, are highly individualized based on our life experiences. They are not innate and they are affected by the culture, our religious and moral beliefs, and our families.

Emotions help us learn. The positive and negative feelings associated with emotions help us to learn what is desirable and undesirable, safe and unsafe. Emotions help us make decisions quickly, and when we learn to trust our feelings, we generally make better decisions. At the same time, because emotions bias our thinking, our judgment can be skewed. And since our thinking affects our emotions, it is easy to create a self-fulfilling prophecy that keeps us stuck.

Understanding emotions helps us understand ourselves deeply. Learning to pay attention to our primary emotions, and to the messages that they are giving us, can help us make wise decisions. And when we identify where we learned to feel secondary emotions (and the judgments and core beliefs that drive those emotions), we regain some of our freedom, confidence, and clarity. We begin to realize that we have choices and that we don’t have to be victims of our emotions. We can choose to think, feel, and act differently.

If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to my RSS feed!
You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to RSS Feed Follow me on Twitter!