People have emotions. Yet we receive very little education about our emotions, how they work, or how to manage them in this culture. So, as I work with clients I’m often conducting a certain about of education about the nature of emotions. This is especially true when I’m working with a couple because the currency of the relationship is emotional. Therefore, I’m writing a couple of blog posts dedicated to emotions to try to make them more understandable. In this post I identify 6 basic facts about emotions that people need for understanding and changing of their experiences.
There are seven basic emotional facial expressions
I have seen emotion word lists in English that run hundreds of words long. Yet, emotion research documents that there are seven basic emotions expressed by facial expression: anger, contempt, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise. For a bit more information you might check out this page at the American Psychological Association.
This list of seven emotions is important in therapy for three reasons. First, if you have alexithymia (a fancy word that just means you don’t have a strong ability to identify and name your emotions) you might want to start discerning your emotions by asking which of the seven basic emotions is closest to your experience. This would be a good way of beginning to develop your emotional vocabulary.
Second, what these seven expressions tell us is that while there might be a lot of subjective nuance within each category, the face may not reveal that nuance. For example, the emotions frustrated and enraged might both go in the anger family, and might look similar on a person’s face, but there is a vast difference between the subjective experience of these two emotions. I think this difference is the reason that I sometimes hear a couple in my office have a dialogue like this, “Why are you angry?”, “I’m not angry?”, “Yes you are, I can see it on your face.” When we unpack the process, the person accused of anger will often identify frustration, annoyance, irritation, or sometimes even just confusion. But the subjective nuance doesn’t get communicated in their facial expression and what gets read by the partner is most likely one of the seven basic emotions.
Third it is just as important to notice what the seven basic facial expressions for emotions are as it is to notice what isn’t on that list. Other emotions that are very important for relationships like love, concern, tenderness, curiosity, openness, receptivity, and more are not on the list. That means that while you might feel those feelings very strongly, it might be hard for your partner to detect that you are feeling it. So, at a certain point in relationship therapy I often find myself helping the members of the couple learn to express their feelings more explicitly so that the inner experience is conveyed more clearly.
Emotions aren’t stories
When I ask you, “How do you feel?” and you reply with, “I feel like. . . ” or “I feel that. . .” I know that only very rarely you follow-up with an actual emotion word. This is one of the most common errors that I see from clients when we start talking about emotions.
Emotion words point to subjective experiences, that is, to internal states. They do not accuse someone else of a behavior or an intention. So, to help clients stay focused on their emotional experiences, I often pull out my 4 page hand out on Nonviolent Communication. You can find the feelings lists that I have incorporated into my handout at the Center for Nonviolent Communication.
Admittedly, there are some tricky in between words that I sometimes have to check-in with clients about. For example, if the client says, “I feel abandoned” I might ask, “When you say that are you saying that your partner is abandoning you? Or are you saying that you have a pit of fear, loneliness, and emptiness in your gut that you recognize as the feeling that arises when you perceive abandonment?” In the first case, the word was a story. In the second, it is an emotion word.
The reason this distinction is so important was alluded to in my last blog entry where I wrote, “I’m in pain, but you didn’t hurt me.” If you can make the distinction between the internal state of your feeling and the story that you are telling yourself about how that feeling got there, you have gone a long way toward halting the negative cycles that can occur when one person’s hurt feeling triggers an unfortunate feedback loop for the relationship.
Emotions take place in the body
Sometimes I’ve had a client say, “I don’t know how I feel. How can I tell?” This happens much more commonly with men because in American culture, men are not often socialized to develop an emotional vocabulary or comfort with detecting, communicating, and expressing their emotions (men are therefore more likely than women to experience alexithymia referred to above). While feeling word lists can be helpful, they sometimes don’t do the trick. Sometimes, the client needs help actually noticing what an emotion is.
Emotions are bodily experiences. The body doesn’t just express the emotions, the bodily changes and the emotions are the same thing. You can try this at home. Lift your chin a little, spread your mouth wide with lips closed, open your eyes, raise your eyebrows, push your shoulders back, chest out, soften your abdominal muscles, breath into your belly, and sit up straight. Feeling better? You changed your physical state and most likely your emotional state changed too.
So, when a client wants to know how to detect their emotions, I direct their attention to their body. Is your face pointed up, down, or neutral? Is your breathing fast or slow? Shallow or deep? What is happening with your eyebrows? How do your gut, chest, back, or shoulders feel? These physiological states are the specific components of emotions. If a client still doesn’t recognize an emotion, then we might have to do a little more work to help them link the emotionally relevant content (e.g., the event in session that might have triggered an emotion) with the present moment but that could be a whole blog entry of its own.
Emotions incline you to actions
Emotions aren’t random events that happens to your body. Emotions are evolutionary adaptations that prepare for actions to will help you respond to your environment. Fear prepares you to run away. Anger prepares you to fight. However, sometimes the action motivation is out of sync with what is actually called for in the complex social world we live in. For example, if you are afraid while preparing for an interview, the action motivation to run away or freeze is not helpful or adaptive. Or if you are angry because your wife hurt you emotionally in an argument, a physical fight is not ever appropriate.
The action motivations arise to help prepare us for behaviors, but the consequences of the behaviors that emotions prepare us for aren’t always the consequences we want. This is why we have to figure out how to cope with our emotional states, why we need to be aware of our feelings, and why we need to be able to slow our reactions and responses down so that we don’t act or speak in ways that damage our relationships and that we will regret later.
Despite your emotions, you have choices about how you will act
With the exception of situations of physical threat or a crisis of safety, we don’t need to act on pure emotional assessments of the environment. There is time for us to pause, think, speak, and ask questions in most situations of our lives. Yet our thought processes move more slowly than our emotions. Our emotions are constantly and unconsciously responding to our assessment of our environment (physical and interpersonal). So, though it is true that our emotions incline us to certain actions, we have choices about how we will or won’t express those emotions in our behavior.
Almost all of my clients recognize that at work, as parents of children, or owners of pets, we are required to identify and regulate our emotional expression. Yet fairly often when it comes to an intimate relationship with a spouse or partner, people rarely ask for help regulating their behavior, but almost always ask for help changing their partner’s behavior.
The key to making a choice to act according to your aspiration is noticing what your emotion is. By becoming aware of the old pattern, the triggering events, and new situations where it is taking place, the person can begin to develop the awareness of the behavior and can work to get to the point where they are aware in the moment of their capacity to make the decision and then the person can enact their aspiration. This is almost always a turning point in couples therapy.
Especially when a client is learning to change their response to a particular emotion, there may be moments when the client is aware of the emotion, still inclined to follow the old action motivation, and not yet able to act in the new intended way. There is very good news for people in that part of the change process, emotions pass. Sometimes, emotions are strong, sometimes weak but the feeling as an emotion moves through your body and changes your physiology at the same time, will pass. Sometimes a client says, “But I stay angry with my partner for days” (usually the partner is nodding agreement here). However if I inquire about this, there are almost always breaks in this emotional process. The client might have laughed at a sitcom, or concentrated at work. Almost certainly in those moments, the client wasn’t angry at the same time. What the client usually means is that whenever they talk to their partner or think about their partner over those days that they become angry again.
This is important information for me as the therapist. First it tells me that the couple likely has a pattern of conflicts reigniting after the initial argument (otherwise the person who stays angry for days wouldn’t need to maintain their defense system for that long). Second it tells me that the person who stays angry for days, while maybe capable of distraction, may not be very skilled at self-soothing and resolving their emotion processes. I have emotions for both of those challenges.
In the meantime, telling clients that emotions pass can often help them begin their journey to new (hopefully improved) relationship patterns. Knowing that emotions pass can help you ride out the action motivation that comes with the emotion. In couples, the action motivation (especially when you’ve been hurt by your partner) is a part of the old pattern that the couple comes to me to resolve. So, telling clients to wait while the emotion passes before they try the new skills learned in therapy, creates a stronger possibility that something new will happen.
Some people seem to be always angry or always happy and this might seem to be counter evidence. But if you observe the happy person closely you will see that as they evaluate their interactions and environment they are interpreting events in ways that reestablish their characteristically happy emotion. So, I maintain that emotions pass, but happy people are experts at travelling the path from neutral to that characteristic happy emotion. Anger people are experts at travelling to their anger. This is what we’re referring to when we’re talking about mood. It isn’t an emotion, but an inclination toward an emotion.
The distinction between an emotion and a mood becomes important in treating depression because if we can make the link between the fact that emotions pass, but that regularly reinforced emotions become moods, then a person with depression can begin to imagine a way out of that mood. The way out of that mood is to change the emotional state one moment at a time, and then repeatedly until the mood shifts with it.
This entry has covered a lot of ground. In my opinion though, this information is so vital, it is user manual level information about living a human life. So, the points in this entry could bear repeating.
- Given that there are seven universal emotional facial expressions, if you want to start learning about your emotions, start learning the feeling when you have those faces. And since there only seven that means that there’s a lot of subjective emotional nuance that can get lost from expression or interpretation between two people.
- Emotions aren’t stories. Emotion words are summaries for an internal experience. Your stories and interpretations can confuse you into thinking that others made you feel a certain way. Learning the difference between emotions and stories gives you a chance to change interactions.
- Emotions take place in the body. Emotion words are summaries that suggest bodily experiences. Knowing this can allow you to both evoke emotions by changing your body and to recognize how emotions change your bodily experience.
- Emotions incline you to actions. Emotions are states that prepare you to do something. If what you want to do is incongruent with your emotional state, then you may want to figure out how to bring the emotion and the action into alignment.
- Despite your emotions, you have choices about how you will act. By becoming aware of the emotional triggers, associated action motivation, and how you aspire to act (often different from the action motivation) you can change your behavior by acting in accordance with the aspiration.
- Emotions pass. Knowing that they pass can help you wait out problematic action motivations until a new emotion takes its place. Knowing that emotions pass can also help you tolerate the experience of negative emotions. You can reassure yourself that you won’t always feel this way.