Understanding our emotions — what they are and how and why they occur — empowers us to choose how we will respond to them. It’s common for us to say “I feel…” when expressing a thought, opinion, or belief. Our feelings, also called emotions, may inform our thoughts, opinions, and beliefs. Yet, unlike thoughts, opinions, or beliefs, the experience of emotion is largely out of our control. Emotions are part of the human experience.
Emotions are as common and universal as heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, and body temperature. Our emotions can greatly impact other bodily functions. Knowing what emotion we’re experiencing, why we experience it, and how to respond to it gives us the power to choose.
Understanding our emotions helps us recognize and communicate our emotions more effectively. When we are faced with stressful situations that trigger strong emotions, it can be difficult to identify our emotional state and even more difficult to respond effectively. Thinking of emotions in terms of categories and ranges of intensity can help. Nearly every emotion can be placed in one of four categories. Counselors call these core emotions. The illustration below demonstrates these four core emotions.
There’s an infinite range of emotions for each category. There are not enough words in any language to express the range of emotions we can experience. That’s why we sometimes struggle to identify our emotions. Using categories makes it easier to communicate our feelings. Each category can range in intensity from mild to excruciating. Imagine each category has an intensity scale, ranging from zero (non-existent) to 10 (severe or intense). For those who’ve experienced chronic pain, this scale will seem familiar. What health care providers ask you to determine about physical pain, you can now do with emotions.
By now, you’re probably thinking that a few important emotions were left out. What about love or anger? Aren’t they intense, primal emotions?
What we typically call “love” actually falls into the category of happiness. It’s best described by words like infatuation, attraction, adoration, etc. Love is not an emotion, but a broad description of both the relative happiness we feel toward another person and the commitment we have made to them.
Anger is an intense and primal emotion. However, it rarely occurs alone. Often, it’s a smokescreen for one of the core emotions we do not want to feel or express.
Dealing with unwanted emotions
Every one of us has unwanted emotional responses. Attempting to disguise these emotions is human nature. Secondary emotions are the expression of this attempt. They demonstrate how we feel about experiencing a core emotion.
For example, I may be afraid to ride a roller coaster and also embarrassed that I am so afraid. So my outward response is avoidance. I change the subject or make excuses to conceal my true feeling of fear. If pressured to ride the roller coaster, I might become angry or verbally attack the person trying to convince me.
To be truly healthy, we must learn how to identify, experience, and express our core emotions. In doing so, we share our authentic selves with others. Here is an illustration that might help explain how this is done.