After watching a clip of Robert Elliot explaining emotions on YouTube, it highlighted to me that in my experience, clients seem to fall into two camps- those that are really aware of their emotions and feelings and those that hide away from them and do not want to experience them.
So let’s break this down a little- what is the definition of a feeling and that of an emotion?
An emotion is a low-level response in the brain (the amygdala and neocortex) to situations that you experience. These responses generate electrical impulses and biochemical reactions that impact upon and mobilise the body. It is a stimuli and response mechanism, i.e. situation= emotional response.
Emotions are genetic and evolutionary. They assist with our physical response mechanisms- such as the Fight or Flight response when we feel threatened or fearful. Emotions affect the body, are our first response and are immediate but temporary.
Some examples of emotions:
anger, fright, guilt,
happiness, hope, jealousy,
love, pride, sadness.
A feeling is a reaction, that occurs in your mind in response to an emotion. Your brain allocates meaning to your emotion and these meanings are individual. They happen AFTER an emotion is detected. They are generated when an emotion is triggered in us and are interwoven with our past experience, personal history, learned behaviours, belief systems and the morals we hold. We can act according to our old associations to emotions because of our feelings and the history attached to them; even if the behaviour is now no longer suitable for our current life, highlighting that ingrained patterns can be difficult to break.
Abandoned, Accepted, bored,
Confused, disappointed, embarrassed
Energetic, hopeful, important
It seems like the emotion is the base label of what has been triggered for us and we then have hundreds of words to express the feeling(s) that the emotion has brought up for us. Feelings happen in the mind, represent our attitudes and are maintained if we choose to keep accessing memory triggers.
If we know what we are feeling then we can address our needs. Issues arise when we have no access to our feelings or when we push them down. Choices and simple decision making become difficult because we are stopping the information being processed; we feel lost and powerless.
Whilst I’m a person-centred practitioner, I read other modalities and Elliot is coming from an EFT (Emotion Focus Therapy) perspective. It works for me to view emotions in this particular way as a way of explaining them- it may not for you. I encourage you to read around and let me know what was helpful for you!
Elliot suggests that we get stuck in our emotions if they are too high or overwhelming in nature; they flood us and leave us unable to action a behaviour. He further suggests that when feelings are not experienced- or are too low to gauge then we become blocked too, because we don’t have access to the full set of information, which again prevents any action being taken. These are underdeveloped emotional responses.
A third scenario is we feel an emotion but then block it with another emotion. It defines and denies the original emotion, often hiding the source and causing us to catastrophise. For example: we may initially feel fear in a situation- we don’t reflect on why and become angry at others or ourselves for being fearful. The anger is a secondary emotion and we haven’t processed the fear (primary emotion).
I mentioned breaking patterns earlier can be difficult… note I didn’t say impossible! If you can become aware of your patterns towards your emotions then you can monitor your feelings and thoughts- which will in turn change behaviours to suit your current life. You can extinguish old behavioural and thought habits but it means engaging with primary emotions by recognising that you might be covering them over with secondary emotions.
For example: You may have a short temper, are often in a rage, angry at the small things that are going wrong, annoyed with your self and others and find that you are not good company at the moment as a result of this. Your relationships are suffering. The emotion here is Anger, but have you considered:
- What else is going on in your life?
- When did you start feeling angry?
- What triggered this for you?
- Who has impacted on your life that coincides with this anger?
- Are the people you are getting angry with really the source of your anger?
- Did you contribute to what is making you angry?
Continuing with the example: some reflection time uncovers that you recently lost a friend, someone you trusted, someone who listened and took the time to care for you and about you. You didn’t treat them well and continue to not treat them how they would treat you. You’ve lost a confidant and you are slowly realising that they are not coming back to support you, or to be your friend. The friendship has been over for sometime. You feel abandoned but your primary emotion is actually Guilt.
Anger is your secondary emotion and the one you are choosing to action with, because you are unable to process guilt right now. You blocked the guilt and do not want to consider how your actions have impacted upon someone else. It forces you to look at yourself less than favourably and this is uncomfortable for you, so you have not engaged in doing so. You have chosen to affect all your relationships based on how you have handled the loss of a friend- with anger. There is likely some grieving going on too.
So what can you do about this:
Engage with the behaviours you displayed towards that person:
- Were they humane?
- Would you want to be treated that way?
- What motivated you to behave that way towards them?
- Can you see it from their point of view?
- Are you still hurting them with your behaviours?
- Did they hurt you?
- What did they do which has made you angry?
- What feelings are brought up by their loss?
Own your actions and take responsibility for your part.
- When you form a new friendship in the future- what can you remain mindful of, in order to not repeat these patterns of behaviours?
Change the tense of which you speak about them- it is no longer current- it is past tense. This will help shift how you think about the situation.
Move towards acceptance that this particular friendship is over, but new friendships will be possible if you are mindful of your behaviours in the future and chose to not repeat the patterns that did not work for you.
None of this is easy work- it can be painful to realise that you hurt somebody and that they hurt you. It is not easy to realise your actions may have been interpreted as bad, hurtful and painful, however it is only with reflection and noticing our patterns that we can move towards changing what is no longer working for us. Emotions and feelings can be overwhelming but I hope that you take away from this blog that you are not bound by them; with effort you can change your direction and the way you react to your emotions by looking a little deeper into what you are feeling, in order to understand what and why you are feeling it- it is not always what is at the surface.