Understanding Emotions


Emotions are part of our basic functioning as humans writes Guest Blogger Onno Van Der Hart. They are present in everyone and they are there to guide us and help us make decisions. Emotions are felt in the body; the involve somatic sensations, specific postures or movements and tendencies toward certain actions. They are also understood as signals to behave in certain ways during particular circumstances. Generally, emotions are not voluntary, that is, you cannot “make” yourself feel a particular emotion. they are a bit like internal weather, coming and going, changing from time to time, flowing from one to the other, sometimes stormy, sometimes calm. This internal weather is as normal and expected as outside weather. And like weather, emotions are influenced by various environmental stimuli, either internal or external effects. Emotions are spontaneous (Involuntary) reactions to events outside and inside ourselves. They are primary guides that help us best adapt our behaviour to what is happening in the present. For example, love helps us be closer to someone we care about; fear helps us avoid a dangerous situation; joy helps us seek out pleasant experiences.

Because emotions are basic to our functioning, it is essential to understand and learn to “read” them. The fir step is being able to name and recognise basic emotions, and then to understand their functions and how to respond to them.

Basic Emotions and Their Functions

There are many lists of basic emotions. I have chosen to describe eight that are based on our evolution from animal emotions and are found universally in people around the world. These emotions are paired in a range from mild to intense.

  1. Interest-Excitement
  2. Enjoyment-Joy
  3. Surprise-Startle
  4. Distress-Anguish
  5. Anger-Rage
  6. Fear-Terror
  7. Shame-Humiliation
  8. Disgust

Judging Emotions

Although we often tend to view emotions as good or bad, this is not a helpful judgment. Emotions are neither good nor bad; they simply are part of our functioning as humans. It is true that we recognise some emotions as pleasant and others as unpleasant or painful, but you will find it very useful to focus more on the purposes and meanings of an emotion rather than judging them. This is a step forward toward accepting the as part of you and part of life.

Emotions Help Us Meet Our Needs

One major function of emotion is to motivate and initiate behaviour that is directed toward specific goals, that is, behaviour that can meet our needs. For example, anger directs us to fight when we are provoked, hopefully keeping us safe; fear prompts us to run away or avoid something that is frightening or threatening; love directs us to behave in ways that draw us closer to the ones we love because we need safe relationships.

Emotions are not really separate “things”; they are part of bundles experiences that include not only emotions, sensations, thoughts, and physical actions but also our perceptions of what is happening in the present and our predictions of what will happen if we act in a certain way. Emotions are as essential as thinking behaving to our survival. However, when the ability to regulate and tolerate emotions is disrupted or inadequate, this entire bundled experience becomes difficult to manage.

Two kinds of Emotional Experience.

Some feelings or emotions are involuntary reactions to events that happen around your (for example, feeling joy because someone is especially nice to you; anger because someone crticises you or forgets a date you made; fear because something startles you). Other emotions are primarily a reaction to your own thoughts, actions and feelings (for instance, being ashamed of your body because an inner voice tells you that you are ugly; feeling embarrassed that you feel sad; feeling guilty or afraid because you are aad with someone)> These “feelings about feelings”, that is, emotions about our inner experience, particularly those that involve variations of shame or pride are called self-conscious emotions. They can often be problematic because they are paired with inner negative judgements about we experience.

Feedback Loops of Perceptions, Thoughts, Feelings and Behaviours

As noted earlier, our emotions are intimately connected with our thoughts, behaviours, sensations and the ways in which we perceive the world. These experiences are not actually separate but rather bundled together, in continuous feedback loops with each other. For example, when people feel afraid, they will tend to view the world through the lends of fear, perceiving many things as threatening, when daily life may not be dangerous in reality. These perceptions are related to fear-related thoughts and beliefs, for example, “That man is frowning, he must be angry with me; anger is dangerous, I must get away” These thoughts and beliefs heighten the perception of danger, which heightens the feels of fear, which heightens thoughts of danger and so on. And perceptions, emotions and thoughts induce decisions to act in certain ways. Eventually, people may become so sensitively conditioned to an emotion such as a fear that merely having a physical sensation of fear, such as a sinking feeling in the stomach, may prompt them to believe the danger is near and to act in a fearful way.



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