What does it mean to feel, and why does it happen? When we look at emotions as “good” or “bad” we’re in a constant state of internal struggle against our own emotions. Is there another option? How can we shift away from this dualistic view and make friends with ALL our feelings? This article includes Josh’s feeling list (explained at the end of the article) you can access with the button:
by Joshua Freedman
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, and 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? Frequently it translates to “stop” – sending a clear message of invalidating the child’s feelings. Most of us have grown up with those messages, and we’ve learned: “Some of our emotions are bad” – but what if that’s wrong?
In your own experience with emotion, what did you learn? What’s the story you heard about feelings like anger, fear, hurt, or jealousy?
I’ve been privileged to work with people from over 100 countries, and 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. As Marge Simpson said to Lisa: “Push the bad feeling down down down ’till you’re standing on it, and smile.”
What about embracing these difficult feelings?
Increasingly people are happy to do that with “positive” emotions – the happiness-fad seems to be slowly waning, but there is still a pervasive message: Happiness is good, so if you’re not happy, there’s something wrong. 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 24 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.
What if we imagine all feelings (yes, even difficult ones) are here for a reason. Can we reframe our feeling about feelings to make them allies?Click to tweet
Going Deeper with Pluchik’s Wheel of Emotions
The Plutchik Model offers a beautiful framework for exploring the meaning of emotion. I’ll explain the model and the value of it — and then the fatal flaw of dualistic thinking. Then we’ll look for another view.
If you’ve not explored our interactive version of the Plutchik Model, it will give you insight on why this feeliings wheel is so useful, but below I’ll go in more depth about the meanings and the limitations.
What’s Useful in Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions
Robert Plutchik was a psychologist who became interested in the way animals (including humans) use emotions to help aid survival. Following in Darwin’s tradition, that there is an adaptive purpose to emotion. In other words: Feelings help animals survive by alerting us 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 he organized in the 3D “ice cream cone” model shown on the upper-left of the wheel. He placed them in opposite pairs based on the physiological response each provokes. For example:
An angry dog gets big, loud, and move towards a threat.
A scared dog gets small, quiet, and moves away from threat.
Most emotions researchers organize feelings in other ways, eg putting fear and anger side-by-side because we often experience them together… but remember Plutchik was looking at physiological responses:
|Emotion + physiological response||Opposite emotion with opposite response|
|Anger → Attack||Fear → Protect|
|Disgust → Reject||Trust → Embrace|
|Sorrow → Close||Joy → Open|
|Surprise → Look Back||Anticipation → Look Ahead|
Emotions Are Signals: Understanding the Meaning of Emotions
There are many different ways of defining emotions (and here’s an explanation of emotions vs feelings vs moods). Researchers in this “adaptive” tradition define emotions as basic physiological responses to help us survive and thrive where emotion (a) focuses our attention to a threat or opportunity, and (b) motivates a response.
The key to understanding emotions: They focus our ATTENTION on what’s important now and they MOTIVATE us to do something about that.Click to tweet
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:
|Anger||Problem||Fight or push through|
|Joy||Opportunity||Do more of this|
|Trust||Safety||Connect with others|
|Surprise||Uncertainty||Stop and look|
|Sadness||Loss||Stop and clarify|
The Good & Bad of Thinking of Emotions as Opposites
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.
Unfortunately, even though Plutchik came from an adaptive tradition (all emotions have value), in this model it’s still easy to say that some are “negative” because they’re tied to problems or threats.
This judgment of some feelings as negative leads people to use strategies such as emotional suppression. What’s wrong with suppression? In some cases, it’s helpful, but as a long-term coping mechanism, it’s not. For example, this study shows suppression reduces about ability to think clearly, this one shows it contributes to increased intensity and psychological distress. There’s also a concern, as explored in this study, that suppressing “negative” feelings also reduces happiness.
One of the main challenges I see is that when we’re judging some feelings as negative, and we feel those, then there is something wrong with us.
I remember talking to a coaching client who’d heard me explain this, and she said, “I know that there are no negative feelings, but I have a problem with anger.” When I asked her to explain more, in essence her conclusion was, “Anger is bad, and since I feel angry, I’m bad.” Try as I might, we couldn’t get past this obstacle because her cultural norms around feelings (and particularly gendered feelings which I explain in this video) were so deeply entrenched.
Can We Use Less Negative Judgments to Describe Problem-Related Feelings?
We can try to remove the judgment and call some of these “pleasant” or “unpleasant” to reduce the negativity bias. That doesn’t quite work because so-called unpleasant feelings are often not unpleasant. For example, sometimes when I think my son is defying me, it feels very pleasant to express my anger. Conversely, 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.” It is useful to consider that 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. How could we step out of the “negative emotions” trap and find a way of characterizing emotions without judgment?
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.
“Fear is a question: What are you afraid of, and why? Just as the seed of health is in illness, because illness contains information, your fears are a treasure house of self-knowledge if you explore them.” – Marilyn FergusonClick to tweet
When we treat some emotions as negative, we end up going to war against ourselves… intensifying difficult feelingsClick to tweet
Is there a way to think of emotions as neutral data … as messages from us, to us, about what matters?
Is there a non-dualistic view that values all emotions?
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.
Anger as part of Motivation
To find a different way of thinking, let’s go back to the definition of anger from the Plutchik Model: You feel angry when you want to go someplace, but your way is blocked.
So anger arises from that combination of “desire to move” and “obstacle in the way.” In other words, 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.
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?
Fear as a signal of Priorities
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 as a message of Significance
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.
Disgust as a part of Safety
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.
Grappling with Emotions Can Be Really Tough!
In all this abstract thought about feeling, it’s also to remember the visceral power. Emotions can be BIG and confusing. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed or lost in the emotions. Yet what if… maybe… those are the times of greatest insight?
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; the problem is that’s a dualistic model – again, is sorrow inherently about an unmet need? Or is sorrow sometimes present because we have loved so deeply?
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. But rather than being in the duality of met/unmet needs… what if emotions are all signals of something important?
What if feelings tell us: Something important is happening?
With this principle, I began to consider emotions in a new way: Instead of thinking of emotions as opposites, what if they are ALL simply signals of something important?
Here are some examples:
Anger or Commitment are 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 or 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 Fear and Love can arise a connection with an inanimate object (fear of losing a home), I suspect this dynamic 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.
I’m continuing to work on this approach, and have identified several feelings in this logic of “big messages”; more are below, plus, you are welcome to access my google sheet where I’ve categorized several hundred common feelings:
Download Josh's Big Feelings List
I’ve been working on a list of feelings in categories based on this logic of emotions as signals of what’s important. You are invited to access the list to use it for your own learning… And, if you’d like, please add comments / suggestions to help it grow.
In Six Seconds’ Unlocking EQ course, we developed this model further using the metaphor of emotions as keys – with tags printed with pairs of feelings on obverse sides.
One pair that personally find challenging is Lonely & Included. I think it’s because I often felt isolated, and I did not know what this meant, I came to see loneliness as something negative. But what if, for all those years, loneliness was an invitation? What if feeling lonely and included are not opposites — what if they’re both messages about what matters to me?
One of the other pairs, shown to the right, is Hope & Despair. It’s awfully difficult to not see despair as negative – such a heartwrenching experience… and in the midst of despair, hope seems like it will never come again. Yet when we’re in the midst of despair, we do care deeply. We’re not apathetic. We’re grieving the might-have-been. This is a time for the work, the exercise, of optimism. And it’s in this state where come to understand the real opportunities in life, and our role, our agency, within the pursuit of what’s possible.
For all these challenging feelings, the key to this shift, for me, is to stop resisting. To say: This feeling matters. It’s here to help me. It’s a message about what I’m perceiving to be truly important. Something that helps me is this quote from Seneca:
Three Key Messages To Remember 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 are here for a reason.
They should not be “blindly obeyed,” but nor should they be ignored.
2. Emotions are about what’s important (that you’re perceiving)
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. Emotions are neutral – data and energy
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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