What does it mean to feel, and why does it happen? Today, most people see emotions as “good” or “bad” — which leaves us in a constant state of internal struggle against our own feelings. Is there another option? And how did we come to this point?
Imagine the “archetypal” child and parent; let’s take a boy, about eight years old. His parent is busy dealing with 3.3 million tasks and chores, it’s been a long day and everyone’s on thin ice. The child is going about the business of childhood and something happens – almost irrelevant what it is, perhaps his Wii stops working and, unsurprisingly, he gets upset — it’s been a long day for him too. Let’s suppose he’s highly upset, unreasonably upset, and acts that out: he slams something down, he kicks something, he shouts, and overwhelmed by this rush of feelings (and afraid of his parent’s reaction) he starts to cry.
What is the parent’s typical reaction?
Perhaps asking a question, perhaps comforting, but more likely dismissing: “Stop crying honey, it’s not that big a deal.” “You shouldn’t get so angry.” Or even the absolute dad-classic: “Knock it off or I’ll give you something to cry about.”
What did the child just learn about these feelings?
What have you learned about these kinds of feelings – feelings like anger, fear, hurt, or jealousy?
Around the world, people have told me much the same thing: Those are “negative” feelings. Even “bad” feelings. We find them uncomfortable, overwhelming, scary, out-of-control (and now we’re having “bad feelings” about our “bad feelings”).
So, what is the natural, reasonable, response to something bad? Control it. Push it away. Cover it over. Squish it. Or at the very least, hide it. Maybe after some therapy, “manage” it.
What about embracing it?
Increasingly we’re happy to do that with “positive” emotions — the current fad is that if we’re not flooding our families, schools, and offices with bliss then perhaps we’re just mean (because “happiness” is seen as ideal). But even this attitude is fraught with judgment; we’re limiting the motivating power of feelings to a select few. We’re deciding that some emotions are good… which requires that others are bad.
In the last 14 years of teaching about emotions as a driver for positive change, I’ve come to consider that this vilification of our own emotions is the single biggest obstacle to emotional intelligence.
So I’d like to propose a different way of thinking about emotions. First, let’s explore an intriguing model from a scientist named Robert Plutchik.
Plutchik studied the way animals experience, express, and respond to emotions. He saw, following in Darwin’s tradition, that there is an adaptive purpose to emotion. Feelings help animals survive by alerting them to threats and opportunities, and by providing a universal, cross-species communication mechanism. If you’ve ever heard the angry snarl of a wolf, or been enchanted by a puppy’s playful grin, you’ll understand this viscerally.
Plutchik proposed a model of eight basic emotions that each has a physiological response. He said that each of these could be more or less intense, and they could combine. They are portrayed as opposites because they provoke opposite physiological responses:
There are many different ways of defining emotions, but researchers in this “adaptive” tradition tend to see that these basic physiological responses each serves a different survival need, and (a) focuses our attention to a threat or opportunity, and (b) motivates a response.
Emotions Are Signals
Anger, for example, is a signal that our pathway is blocked. We want to be promoted, we perceive someone is interfering with that, we are angry at the person. The anger serves to focus our attention on the threat and motivates a response of fighting or pushing through the obstacle.
Here is a chart of the eight basic emotions and a likely description of the focus and motivation provided:
We can use this table to “decode” our emotional experiences. It shows us that emotions serve a purpose, that there is value in all feelings. But it’s still easy to say that some are “negative” because they’re tied to problems or threats.
We can try to remove the judgment and call some of these “pleasant” or “unpleasant,” but that doesn’t quite work: Sometimes when I think my son is defying me, it feels very pleasant to express my anger. When my dad died, it felt right (not exactly pleasant, but good-hard) to feel sad.
Another approach is to characterize them as “contracting” versus “expanding.” Feelings tied to problems narrow our attention and cause use to zero-in on the issues, to slow us down, to restrict our risks. At the other end, some feelings energize us to look outward, to become more open, and to take risks. Of all the “polar” characterizations this is my preference because it’s genuinely non-judgmental. However, I’d like to go a step further.
In Buddhism, and many other faith traditions, there is a notion of “non-duality.” Rather than good and bad as opposites, they can be seen as one, a whole with balancing sides. This is visually represented in the yin-yang symbol. In that graphic, the universe (a circle) is half and half… but not actually divided. The black and white are interlocked – they are one circle with two aspects.
Could we take a non-dualistic view of emotion?
Rather than characterizing feelings as opposites (good/bad, pleasant/unpleasant, contracting/expanding), is there a way to see them as a linked whole? Often people in my work describe emotions on a continuum – a spectrum from one extreme to another, taking an emotion and it’s opposite as ends of the number line. This has some merit because we’re starting to link them as part of a whole, but it’s still dualistic: There are positive and negative integers on the number line.
Let’s go back to the definition of anger: You feel angry when you want to go someplace, but your way is blocked.
So anger arises from that sense of an obstacle. What, then, could we call that feeling of “wanting to go someplace”? Perhaps anticipation? Or maybe commitment is a more powerful version of that word?
In that case, we could say that there is actually no such thing as anger without commitment: If you don’t want to go anywhere, you won’t get angry! In other words, they are not two separate things: Anger only exists in contrast, in balance, in context of commitment.
How about fear? Fear is a message of potential threat – a signal that something you care about is at risk… so if you don’t care, you won’t feel fear. In other words, fear and caring (aka love) are also a non-duality.
Sorrow arises when you are losing someone or something that matters – a meaningful relationship, a significant person. But when we feel that sense of meaning and significance, we experience it as joy.
Finally, disgust is a signal of violation. It means rules are broken, agreements at risk, the systems and structures of relationship are in peril. Yet if we did not feel trust in those very same things, if they did not signal a sense of safety and balance, then we wouldn’t care if they were imperiled.
Are They Really Opposites?
At this point, I’m fairly content with a hypothesis of these constructs – not as opposites, but as wholes. The dark and the light of the candle, but there’s still something missing.
I’ve been thinking about this problem for several years, and recently I heard an idea that I’d like to consider. I was privileged to be on a panel with Dan Shapiro, a professor at Harvard Law & Medical Schools, and the co-author of Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate. The conference was on emotional and spiritual intelligence in negotiation at Harvard Law School.
In describing the challenge of first identifying – and then actually dealing with emotions in the complex dance of negotiation, Dan’s succinct summary: “It’s really tough!” So his proposal is to notice emotion, but to go to a deeper question: What’s the basic need driving the emotion? Since there are a relatively small number of basic needs, perhaps five, it may be easier to handle this set. If we can attend to these five basic needs, Shapiro’s compelling case is that it’s far more likely that a true negotiation will arise.
Emotions: It’s Really Tough!
Typically when talking about basic needs, the premise is that a whole range of emotions will surface in response to a need being met or not met. In Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg and colleagues have done wonderful work illustrating these dynamics. Hearing Shapiro use basic needs as a way of explaining the emotional dynamics of negotiation, I wondered if we could look at the “emotional non-dualities” through this lens:
Anger-Commitment is tied to wanting to move, a need to achieve. It’s pretty easy to see that this emotion-pair arises in conjunction with a basic need that could be called accomplishment.
When we feel Disgust-Trust, it means the social contract that produces order is vulnerable (this contract can be within ourselves, and when we violate our own precepts we feel disgust turned inward). While fear also signals risk, it’s not usually tied to the contract but to the human implication. And it’s trust that signals safety; so perhaps the specific surety of trust balances with a specific peril of disgust, in which case this construct is tied to the basic need of safety.
While the Fear-Love dynamic can arise a connection with an inanimate object (fear of losing a home), I suspect it’s most deeply rooted in a desire to nourish others, to be in a balance or harmony. To be connected. This could be called the need for belonging.
Again, the Sorrow-Joy dynamic seems to arise in a range of situations, but I’ve been thinking about the biology of joy. Joy is produced by opiates that are absorbed in many parts of the brain, but especially in the frontal cortex, the seat of evaluation. This is an intriguing pairing because it implies that somehow when we truly understand, we’ll get the reward of inner bliss. We could call that pursuit of meaning the need for purpose.
Three Key Messages About Emotions
It’s likely that in our day-to-day lives, there are more basic needs than these, and certainly many, many “wants.” The needs and wants are tied to a big range of feelings. But perhaps if we can distill this down to a simple level, the complexity of our feelings becomes easier to understand – and to manage. While I’m uncertain if these labels are wholly adequate, there are three key messages that I hope you’ll take away:
1. Emotions are signals that serve a function. They should not be “blindly obeyed,” but nor should they be ignored.
2. There is an innate connection between needs and emotions. In trying to make sense of your own or another’s feelings, consider that they might be signals about a core need.
3. Although feelings can be uncomfortable and overwhelming, resist the urge to judge them – and to judge yourself and others for having them. Instead, consider that each feeling is part of a larger story, a story of what’s truly most important.
Thank you to Ayman Sawaf for sharing Lazarus’ work and explaining that emotions come in pairs, to David Caruso for teaching me about the adaptive value of feelings, and to Dan Shapiro for the thinking about needs.
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