Decoding Emotions

Smarter About Feelings: Part Two


Part One introduced the idea of becoming smarter about feelings — and how that can help you (kids) get more of what you want… and less of what you don’t want!  In that article I promised that I’d also write more about emotions and the meaning behind our feelings.  In Part One I also talked about the Know Yourself, Choose Yourself, Give Yourself “Six Seconds EQ Model.”   The next article in the series, Part Three, is called Getting Off the Trouble Train.

overwhelming emotions

This article is focused on the “Know Yourself” part:  Noticing and understanding your feelings and reactions.  Please share this with others — and also please let me know how you like the article, and tell Nicolas how you like the pictures! :)


For most of my life, I found feelings completely confusing. They seemed to happen by themselves, suddenly a feeling would arrive and take over. Now that I’ve learned more about emotional intelligence, feelings are more making sense to me, but sometimes I still find them confusing.

When you were little, did you ever read the book, Sometimes I’m Bombaloo? The girl in that story gets so incredibly angry she feels like she’s turned into someone else. I guess everyone sometimes feels overwhelmed by big feelings. Sometimes by anger, but also by sorrow or fear or jealousy or guilt or a big mixed up ball of feelings all rolling together in a thunderstorm. Even excitement can become so big it seems to take over.

People sometimes call emotions like anger and fear “negative” or “bad” feelings, but I’ve come to see it a different way. Now I believe feelings are just part of us, and they’re not good or bad. They’re information and energy. What we do with that information and energy could be good or bad. It’s like electricity: It’s dangerous if you put a fork in the electrical outlet, it can even kill you. But that doesn’t mean electricity is bad, it means we need to learn about it and to use it carefully.

Putting Your Toe In

One of the most important steps to learning more about your feelings is to make friends with them. I mean, if you’re telling yourself your feelings are confusing and overwhelming and bad, then you are not going to be very patient learning about them.

When I was younger, I tried not to think about feelings because they scared me, I felt like they would overwhelm me. I remember in college I took an acting class, and my teacher, Marie, kept asking me how I was feeling. I was sad and scared because I was far away from the people I loved. One day I told her I didn’t like thinking so much about feelings because I thought I might drown in all the feelings. She said, “I’m not asking you to jump into the water, just to put your toe in it.”

That was a turning point for me. I experimented with Marie’s advice, and I was surprised to learn that I could notice my feelings and tune into them without being overwhelmed by them. I could get closer to my own feelings instead of hiding from them. I could put my toe in the water and it was interesting, not dangerous. I still didn’t understand feelings, but they were getting less scary.


Chess Moves

Do you ever play chess? For someone who doesn’t know the rules, it’s confusing. Why do some pieces go one step, and some jump, and some zoom around in diagonals or lines? If you didn’t know any of the rules, it would be hard to play!

I was talking to a work friend named David Caruso about feelings, he said, “Feelings are like chess pieces, there are certain moves they make.” This is a surprising idea: there is a logic to feelings. There are basic rules to learn about how they can move and change.

feelings as chess pieces

For example, here are three of the rules I’ve learned:

color wheel1. Emotions get more or less intense. Every basic emotion, such as joy or sorrow, fear or trust, can start out small and get bigger. A tiny bit of joy is peace. Add more and it’s contentment. Add more to get happiness. More might be pleasure, then delight, then bliss. So imagine someone was feeling peaceful because everything was going well, and then she got even more good news… the feeling would get more intense. Of course, feelings can get less intense too. It’s like a color wheel with all these shades and varieties of feelings.

2. Emotions combine. We usually have many feelings at one time. Maybe we’re happy to be seeing friends, worried about a test, and sad about an argument… all at the same time! That makes it hard to sort out what we’re feeling. Sometimes we name different combinations with a new word. For example, if I’m sad because something didn’t go the way I wanted it to, and a little angry that happened, I could call that mixed feeling “disappointed.”

3. Emotions focus our attention. We have feelings because something is happening – something inside us or something outside. For example, we have feelings when we think about a choice we’ve made. If we don’t like what we’ve done there is something going on inside us, so we have a feeling to say “Hey! Notice this, you may have a problem!” That feeling could be called remorse (or guilt or disappointment in ourselves). We have feelings when we see something new and unusual; we could call that surprise or interest. The purpose of an emotion is to get our brains to pay attention to this news.



Emotions as Potions

Imagine you discover this beautiful wooden box carved all over with intriguing symbols. You open the box, and nestled in soft velvet are eight bottles. Each looks different, some are cut crystal sparkly and bright. Some are dark glass with complex swirling designs. Each bottle has a different color potion inside. These potions are the eight basic emotions.

There are around 3000 different words for feelings in English. Where do all those come from? Different researchers have their own theories about what emotions are basic, and what emotions are combinations. There was a scientist named Robert Plutchik who said there are eight basic emotions and they combine in many different ways. Plutchik said we have these emotions because they help us survive.

Here is my interpretation of the way the emotions help us:

Basic Emotion Why We Have It
Anger To fight against problems
Anticipation To look forward and plan
Joy To remind us what’s important
Trust To connect with people who help
Fear To protect us from danger
Surprise To focus us on new situations
Sadness To connect us with those we love
Disgust To reject what is unhealthy

painting emotionsYou could draw the box with the eight bottles and decide the look and color of each emotion.

What color is Anger? How about Joy? What are their bottles like?

I imagine joy is in very sparkly bright bottle that seems to shine from inside.

The bottles come with a special dropper to release just a little of each one at a time. Imagine you open the bottles and combine drops of these emotions to make incredible potions. The different chemicals mix, changing colors – sometimes the colors stay bright and clear, sometimes they are swirling cloudy and confused. Sometimes sparks come flying out, sometimes a thick fog.

I’ve never seen a recipe book for this chemistry set, but here are some ideas of how different feelings could be a combination of the basic emotions:

Feeling Possible Recipe
Impatience Anger (there is a problem) + Anticipation (looking ahead)
Worry Fear (danger) + Anticipation (looking ahead)
Boredom Disgust (rejection) + Sadness (loss) + Fear (risk)
Hope Anticipation (looking ahead) + Joy (wants fulfilled)
Respect Trust (accepting) + Joy (wants fulfilled) + Anticipation (looking ahead)
Disappointment Sadness (loss) + anger (there is a problem)
Jealousy Anger (there is a problem) + Disgust (rejection) + Fear (risk)
Loneliness Sadness (loss) + Fear (risk) + Disgust (rejection)


While this might seem like a fantasy story about wizards, emotions really are chemicals. Like the imaginary box of potions, our brains and bodies produce these different chemicals. The chemicals combine in our bodies and they go into our blood, then they affect every single part of us. Emotions are part of your body’s way of communicating with itself.

What is each guy feeling?

What basic emotions are in the recipe for each feeling?

feeling expressions



Reacting to Feelings

One of the most important truths of emotional intelligence comes from learning the difference between feelings, thoughts, and actions.

Imagine your brother messes up your project, you are mad and you tell yourself, “my brother is a jerk” and you hit him.

Notice in that story there is a feeling, a thought, and an action. The three are related, but different. A feeling is just a feeling. The feeling doesn’t create the thought or the action. The though, feeling, and action are influencing each other and they work together to make a problem. On the other hand, you could have the same feeling, the same thought, and a completely different action.

Why do you sometimes use problematic actions? While there are many ways of responding to each situation, most of us tend to use one reaction over and over. In a way, it feels good to get mad and hit. We do that, and we like something about it, and do it again. We KNOW that’s not the best solution, but it seems to happen automatically. It’s important to remember that behavior is not automatic, it’s something we’ve learned by practicing.

If we’ve practiced, “when I feel angry, I hit,” then we learn that pattern and we tend to use is over and over. Each of us tends to learn several patterns of reacting. For example, do you know someone who tends to “blow up” when they’re mad? Or someone who usually gets very quiet when they’re upset? Or someone who often leaves the room to get away from an uncomfortable situation?

How about you?

How do you usually react when you’re sad? Do you tend to cry, or get mad and blame someone, or pretend not to be sad, or make a joke, or something else?

How do you usually react when you’re mad? Do you hit, or say mean words, or get grouchy and prickly, or ____?

A pattern is your usual reaction. When (thought or feeling), I (how you usually react) .

For example…

When I think someone is not listening to me not listening

I feel hurt .feel hurt


Remember the “observing like a scientist” idea I wrote about in part one? Observe yourself as if you were a scientist studying you. For a few days, notice when you have a big feeling, and notice how you tend to react. Do you fight? Get quiet? Run away? Do you cover your feeling with another feeling? Over time, notice how there are some patterns you use over and over.

When you do find some of your patterns: congratulations! You’re making great progress in being smarter about feelings.



Don’t forget!

1. Emotions are energy and information. They combine, like potions, into many different feelings. They’re not good or bad, but each one has a message – a message from one part of you to another part of you.

2. Thoughts, feelings, and actions are not the same.


feelings, thoughts, actions

Practice noticing the difference between Feelings, Thoughts, and Actions!

Next:  See Part Three: Getting off the Trouble Train 


©2010 Joshua Freedman, Six Seconds ( All Rights Reserved. Illustrations by Logoxid.

Thank you to Ayman Sawaf for the idea about the “drops” of feelings, to David Caruso for “Emotions Chess,” and to Emma Freedman for the idea about the color wheel.



About the author - Joshua Freedman

Joshua is one of the world’s preeminent experts on developing emotional intelligence to create positive change. With warmth and authenticity, he translates leading-edge science into practical, applicable terms that improve the quality of relationships to unlock enduring success. Joshua leads the world’s largest network of emotional intelligence practitioners and researchers.

View more posts from Joshua Freedman

Comments for this article (27)

  • anam says:

    nice discussion.

  • This is one of the best articles I have come across in my career as a Holistic Counselor. It incorporates such important elements about our emotions and makes them accessible not just for children but for adults. Well done. Thank you.

  • Thank you, Josh, for a wonderful article. The piece on what emotions mean and how they combine is so insightful. I will use it over and over again at Synapse!!



    Barbara A. Fatum, M.Ed., Ed.D.
    Director of Research/Learning Specialist
    The Synapse School
    3375 Edison Way
    Menlo Park, CA 94025

  • Susan Stillman, Ed.D. says:

    Josh, This is fantastic! I will be sharing this with all my school counseling interns and other graduate students, as well as practicing school counselors. Great also for use in the debriefing of the SEI-YV. Thank you so much for these two articles! I’m so excited to use them.

  • Josh,

    It is no easy task for an adult to be able to tap into the thinking of a 10 year old and write something that they can relate to and easily use. You have done a remarkable job! For those of us that work in the area of emotional intelligence it is often easy to forget that for many adults emotions can be a strange and frightening place. This article would be quite helpful for them. Once all schools start teaching children how to recognize and manage their emotions we will be on our way to a brighter future.

    Harvey Deutschendorf
    Author of THE OTHER KIND OF SMART, Simple Ways to Boost Your Emotional Intelligence and Success, published by American Management Association

  • Craig says:

    Thanks for this wonderful post. As an ongoing student of life and emotional intelligence, I learned a lot here. The writing is so straightforward and accessible and shows how emotional intelligence is simply understanding our ordinary human nature.

  • Laura Purello says:

    Thank you for sharing the imformation with us. It is very insightful and helpful to me. I like learning about this information.

  • arati suryawanshi says:

    Dear Josh,

    Hi, thanks for sending these two articles. They are so much kid’s friendly. My daughter has become red house captain today of her school,& I am forwarding these two articles to her as a gift from me, she will utilise it I am sure about it. Because she has ledership qualities already.
    May I take this opportunity to convey you about the course?
    I am everyday giving some important new, novel, yet noble gift to me.
    And I think now that, was it my destiny to get into the rope of emotional intelligence group?
    I feel indebted, there is a feeling of gratitude.
    My action will be keep going on own path with others.
    Thanks again

  • arati says:

    Dear Joshua,

    For my school (KSIS) I wanted to apply the information from your special articles for children & That is mixing of emotion, intensity of emotion and actual application of the meaning of 6 seconds.
    I received these articles while EQ cert. course in Mumbai. And from then I was thinking about it. I shared some with Sherise, while having EQ walk on Marine Drive, she agreed to it , and we both of us worked towards it. The detail report of EQ workshop in the school KSIS is in your way.. soon..

    thanking you again,
    with warm regards
    Arati S.

    • Joshua Freedman says:

      Thanks Arati – that sounds great! There is so much important emotional intelligence info in these articles for kids, I think you could do a lot of sessions with the students on these topics.

  • Anne Brocklesby says:

    I think these 2 articles are great. I like the allusions to the colour wheel, the chess game and the drops of feelings. There is a logic to feelings – there are basic rules to learn about how they can move and change.and that it is important to note that we can change our behaviour.

    If we practice noticing the difference between
    Thoughts and
    Then Actions
    we understand more about the process of change of behaviour.

    New behaviour emerges.

    If we relate your articles Josh to the idea of creativity and enhancing the creativity of the brain, then first we need this knowledge about what our feelings are, both individually and compounded, and that feelings can lead to either positive or negative thoughts. How do we change those negative thoughts into positive ones. Affirmations is one way perhaps.

    You talk about the body’s response to itself – sending messages chemically to other parts of the body – in the phase of experiencing the emotions, so we have learned patterns of behaviour and also learned patterns of response, which we can break.

    If we link this in to the senses in our body – we have five main senses, some people say seven, and others loads more. What are the most basic first senses we use. What is our body relying on? is it the sense of smell? Is that the first emotional experience we have when we are born? Is that why it is so basic? Linking the idea of ‘drops’ of feelings, as you mentioned, to the idea of creating smells, with our emotions is an area of study which is being done, so far as I can understand it. It seems a very complex area this knowledge about our senses.

    What do you feel about these ideas of enhancing our creativity.

    • Joshua Freedman says:

      Thanks for commenting Anne. I am not sure about the senses — I guess it depends on learning style. For my son, auditory information is very powerful — for my daughter, her visual sense is more primary. Probably true for all.

      In terms of creativity, my sense is that emotion is central. Emotion catalyzes the linkage between different neural networks, which is the basic process of creativity. All emotion seems to be tied into creativity, not just “positive” feelings (ala Van Gough) — but we know that certain emotions tend to expand and open our perspective (such as joy, curiosity, trust) while others then to narrow our focus (such as anger, fear, jealousy). So probably the KIND of creative process can be matched to the kind of emotional energy that will push that process forward.

      Two articles: — some ideas on increasing creativity — interview w Dan Pink, which includes some thinking on changing patterns which is important in creativity

      – Josh

  • V. Cruz says:

    Wonderful article….Considered EQ as my topic for my doctorate program, then reconsidered b/c I just thought it too vague, but it has been on my mind constantly. Article has helped me reconsider once again to go back to it. School system where I’m at could use the insight on this topic and apply its concepts first at the adult level; Once done, the results will trickle to the students for whom we got into this profession to begin with for.

    Thanks again!

    • Joshua Freedman says:

      Hey V, glad to hear EQ is still “tickiling your brain” and heart… I so agree that the critical step is for us, the adults who support kids, to integrate these skills… So we can model and encourage them in the next generation. Thanks for your comment.

  • Catherine Bentley says:

    I loved the article – it deals with the topics in a very simple but detailed way and leaves many memorable images. Thank you !!

  • hi mnr. Freedman! I would please like to know if you can help me… I am a teacher and a mother of 2 boys… It is so sad that certain kids in school get labelled as naughty or even “not clever” because of situations and circumstances out of their control.. I currently want to do my Masters degree in the line of “emotional intelligence in the classroom” I do want to make a difference in South African schools and would at end want to be able to assist teachers with knowledge on how to create positive classroom environments for ALL students as well as to help the students with emotional barriers causing barriers to learning… I would like to develop a program/strategy that will help teachers to master this in their classrooms as they mostly have excuses of not having time, etc..

  • Manuela says:

    I really enjoyed this article. It’s full of valuable information and explains things in a very easy and accessible way. I particularly love the comparison of feelings to electricity :-) Brilliant! Thanks for this great article Josh!

  • Alice Tubley says:

    Love the pictures and the content – I really liked the phrase in regards to emotions “learn about & use carefully” – wise advice – thanks.

  • Julie says:

    Very interesting & useful

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