What Truly are Emotions and Feelings?
Everyone can certainly say they know what feelings/emotions are. They are constantly a part of our lives. Have you stopped to reflect on their very nature, though? Let’s start with a simple definition of thoughts ~ they are ideas or notions created by your mind…they don’t need emotions in order to exist (although people will usually have emotions associated with the thoughts; still, they are two separate things).
Now for emotions. They can be described as sensations; simple enough ~ you FEEL them. They are your EXPERIENCE, the way in which you are affected by a situation or event. They are internal bodily responses and reactions. First, there is some kind of sensory input that you then Perceive, which then can lead to a SHIFT in your internal state or disposition. Throughout the day these shifts occur constantly, whether major or minor, in a dynamic flow. Thoughts will be in the mix of course, in an interplay with the inner states, sometimes provoking the shifts and vice versa sometimes being colored by them.
Another way to look at emotions is to see them as energetic states; they are producing some changes in you. Take a look at the literal meaning of “emotive” ~ to cause movement. Many agree that the function of emotion is to prepare you to take some kind of action (for example, if you’re feeling anxious or scared, the sympathetic nervous system, which is your fight/flight/freeze response, is activated, giving you some nervous energy and hyper-vigilance to make it through a possibly endangering situation; even positive emotions are reward signals promoting behavior that is perceived by your body or mind to be beneficial to your well-being and survival.) In any case, I’m sure we can agree that it is, indeed, an energetic state…a flow of energy, a kind of movement. Something arises in you, something charged. And now you decide how you’re going to interact with that and incorporate it into your life.
So what is the purpose of emotions? Emotions are highly valuable in alerting us to and repulsing us from any sense of danger, threat and unfavorable circumstance; also, to immediately attract us to what we sense as good or pleasurable. When you experience emotions, it means your psyche has determined the stimulus to be significant enough to focus on, to have an opinion on, to relate to in some way. You perceive something, which is then interpreted to warrant a particular emotional reaction — enough so that your system kicks into gear to bring about that emotion. Voila. You are now embodying a certain emotional stance to a situation. You could say that those emotions are the product of judging your perception of the situation. I.e.: This is what I perceive, and this is bad/good, or this means such and such. Emotions bring you to a state where you are primed and motivated to respond to the stimulus, whether that be simply forming thoughts and feelings, or by taking some kind of action.
One important concept I found is that there is a distinction between what you immediately feel in response to a stimulus and how you feel all other times. The first is emotion, the second is feeling. Different areas of the brain are activated in these two instances. An emotion occurs when your brain releases chemicals that alter your physical state, and it is a hardwired knee-jerk response. Feelings, on the other hand, occur when we process and interpret situations and our emotions. You will ride out an emotional wave; it is only temporary; but a feeling state will persist longer.
Feelings give you a next-level system of emotional navigation. When you’ve processed a situation, a feeling state will remain with you. It’s like a final imprint. Feelings are the ultimate physical manifestation of our perceptions. We hold onto experiences through our feeling states. These physical imprints not only solidify our experiences, they also help to shorten the process of mental analysis in future situations. This is because feeling states contain their own kind of wisdom through their framework of emotional experience and cognitive input (such as analysis, conclusions, values). Say you come across a situation with some similarities to a past experience. Instead of having to analyze and situate yourself to the situation completely from scratch, the feeling state associated with that past event will likely surface within the current situation. When these “body memories” are triggered, they will color your experience and influence your actions and decisions. We will now have a kind of advantage by having access to visceral data that helps you more quickly, and hopefully constructively, navigate through the situation at hand.
Essentially, feelings utilize your repertoire of experiences in order to help you navigate your external environment more efficiently and effectively. They in essence prepare you for action and reaction, for what may come. Our feelings will drive us toward certain kinds of actions, just as emotions will. Although feelings are there to aid you in a more long-term manner by helping you choose ‘good situations’ and avoid getting into ‘bad situations’. They help in the process of determining whether something would be more detrimental or beneficial to your well-being and survival.
EMOTIONS Basic emotions (e.g. fear, happiness, shame, etc.) biologically manifest in a similar way in everyone. And there are certain circumstances that are likely to evoke certain emotional responses from us — for instance, you’re walking along a quiet street and someone jumps out from a dark alley and grabs you; no doubt you will feel surprise and fear. Having those emotions will definitely serve you in that situation. But life is usually a bit more complex, not as clear-cut as that example. It is not uncommon for someone to perceive something completely different from what another person perceives in the same exact situation. But let’s say they do perceive the same thing. Does this mean they will have the same emotional experience? Not necessarily.
The interesting thing is that much of the time, we’re conditioned to react the way we do. The ways we emotionally respond to things are built through our habits, beliefs, thoughts, and stored feelings — all of which affect how we personally relate to our perceptions, as well as further refine or add onto those perceptions. People are definitely influenced in this area by society and the people they spend time around, but in large part, we are the shapers of our own conditioning, by conscious or unconscious choices in adopting certain mindsets, allowing outside patterns to influence us in certain ways, accepting certain things as unchangeable or otherwise not worth the effort to deal with, etc. Basically, we are always the final filter in the process of perception and experience.
To give an example of how two similar perceptions can result in different outcomes, let’s say that both Tom and Jim perceive that someone has acted unfairly toward another person. Tom does not have any motivation for investing himself in any way in the matter…it’s not his life…it wasn’t a huge thing anyways…the person isn’t in any obvious distress…no emotions about it show up in him, except perhaps a distracted curiosity. Jim, on the other hand, has a tendency to focus on injustice…he’s personally had negative experiences with unfair treatment in his past and is hyperalert for it and automatically feels rage if he perceives it…and predictably, he does. After five seconds have passed since the initial perception, Tom’s attention is drawn by a loud child entering the area in a vivid pink outfit, and he promptly forgets about the unfair incident; whereas Jim’s attention has been held by the unfair incident, and his initial perception has rapidly evolved to include that the perpetrator did it on purpose and is a horrible person and that the victim has been very hurt by it, which further fuel his emotional state.
Even if Tom and Jim perceive the same thing and then feel the same emotions, the picture doesn’t end there. The way they progress from their initial emotions is a big step in the emotional process. Everyone has a unique way of relating to their emotions, what with the unique things they have going on backstage. For example, when we feel an emotion, we can choose to identify with it without questioning it, we can ignore or amplify it, we can believe that we need to take some sort of action on account of it. Some people may experience additional emotions in conjunction with a particular emotion. Perhaps someone will automatically feel shame when they feel anger come up because they think, for some reason, that it’s not right to feel anger. We definitely have “relationships” with particular emotions, with beliefs and attitudes surrounding them. We may have a tendency to negate some or to glorify/pay more attention to others. Emotions play out very quickly in real time, but you can see how much is involved.
FEELINGS Once the initial emotions have occurred, we will engage with our thoughts and feelings. How are feelings brought about? In order to generate feelings, our psyche comes into play (with its beliefs, values, thinking habits and perceptual framework we’ve developed over our lifetime) to make sense of things. Our psyche will define and place a meaning onto an event, essentially directing us how to concretely feel about it. This is usually a rather automatic process because people tend to have set ways of interacting with and relating to life — and, as we know, life happens in a split second.
All of our experiences and interpretations in life help make up a collective framework of perception, and any further experiences will be measured with our current understandings and biases. This is only natural because we need to have some way to make some sense of life, and unless proved wrong or useless, our previous conclusions will continue to be held onto. Furthermore, our memories of past experiences and the feelings we’ve developed toward life help us to have a solid and stable sense of life and self, which is highly important — we need a sense of stability and order.
Consequently, we naturally develop familiar states of being (mindset + feeling state) that we identify with, that we bring into the picture again and again. Kind of like ready-to-go templates or stances that can be quickly called up and placed into action. That doesn’t mean they are simple; they can be quite complex; but they are dynamics that we are used to and that we trust. They provide a stance for us in relation to external reality, and have acted as a kind of road map to live by. They can, and often do, last for years, even a lifetime. Our personality is significantly shaped by our interpretations of life and how we feel in response; they help make up our “program”, who we are as we go about life. Since we’ve been building this framework throughout our whole lives, some things will be very entrenched in us and it can be difficult to change up the lens we’re used to using because we’ve become so identified with it.
BEING CONSCIENTIOUS With that said, though, we do have the option to respond in a not-so-habitual manner, to be more consciously directed. Emotion comes about as a reaction to perceptions you have, in the context of how it relates to yourself and your views of life. Therefore, the emotions you experience can tell a lot about the workings of your inner world. If you observe your emotions, they can reveal what your psyche finds important to focus on and what kinds of thoughts and beliefs you have in regards to those things. It’s possible that you’ll find ways in which you’ve been influenced to respond, or to view the world, which don’t align with your authentic self, values and personal experience. You can ask yourself questions like: Is it really necessary for me to be feeling this right now? Is it totally logical? Do I want to be feeling this way? What does it say about my underlying feelings? What are the thoughts that led up to these emotions and where did those thoughts come from? We can use our minds to look objectively at the situation and to question our emotions and perspectives instead of slipping into habitual responses. With an open mind and a willingness to take a close look at our underlying patterns, we may be able to identify certain aspects that are in need of an update!
Thanks for coming along on Journey through Emotions and Feelings: The Ride. We hope you enjoyed yourself. Please wait until the car is completely stopped before exiting. As a final thought, feelings and emotions, at a more fundamental level, are a way of engaging with the world; they are the means through which the world, people, our environment, make an impression upon us. They allow us to experience and navigate life in a vivid, “alive” manner, in a way that’s meaningful and personal. So perhaps I can say: feelings and emotions are a gateway dynamically connecting our being with the universe around us. Let’s utilize this gift well.