Emotion Theater!

June 30, 2011

Last week, I taught Emotion Theater to the Master’s of Counseling Psychology program at the University of San Francisco. Emotion Theater is a teaching tool I created to give people an idea of how emotions interact in real time.

In the book, I give each emotion its own chapter and talk about what each emotion is for, what gifts it contributes to you, how it works, how it can become disordered, and how you can get into a better relationship with it. In some chapters, I talk about interactions between emotions such as anger & sadness, anger & fear, fear & confusion, and so forth.

However, in a book, I can’t really show you how all of the emotions interact — because there are so many emotions, and because their interactions are too numerous and too rapid to get down on paper.  So I created a live action teaching tool, where people take the place of each of the different emotions and behave in the way each emotion does — and it’s sort of impossible to explain it on paper without writing a whole new book … so here’s a quick video about it.

The difference between feelings and emotions (updated!)

Last year, someone asked me about the difference between an emotion and a feeling, and my answer was that emotion is a noun, and feeling is a verb. I didn’t really understand why the distinction was important, but I thought about it a great deal. I really wondered what the confusion was about — I mean, you have an emotion, you feel it, it’s identified, bing. Right? Then, because you know what emotion it is, you know exactly how to work with it. Right? Why, it’s so simple, a child could … oh. Thud.

I realized that it’s not so simple for many people.

So I went back to the books, and after re-reading Antonio Damasio’s books (Descartes’ Error, The Feeling of What Happens, and Looking for Spinoza), some sociology of emotion (How Emotions Work by Jack Katz) and some neurology of emotion (The Emotional Brain by Joseph LeDoux and On Being Certain by Robert Burton), I finally figured out what’s up.

It’s the difference between having and knowing

An emotion is a physiological experience (or state of awareness) that gives you information about the world (emotions are action-requiring neurological programs), and a feeling is your conscious awareness of the emotion itself. I hadn’t really understood why the distinction was such a big deal, because I don’t experience a huge gap between emotion and feeling. I mean, if there’s an emotion going on, I feel it. Bing.

But this isn’t true for everyone. Many people are honestly unaware that they’re having an emotion. For them, the emotion and the consciousness of it are not strongly connected, and they don’t even realize that, for instance, they’re fearful, or angry, or depressed. Their emotional state has to become so persistent that it drags them into a severe mood (or is pointed out by someone else), and then they can realize, “Oh, I guess I’ve been really sad about my mom, or afraid about money, or angry about work.”

For many people, there’s a disconnect between emotion and feeling; there’s little consciousness of emotions. They have emotions, but they don’t know about them. The emotions are certainly there, and their behavior displays the emotions (to others at least), but they aren’t feeling the emotions properly.

Maybe they need a chart to show them what emotions look like! Thank goodness the Department of Lolcatz has provided us with one!

Photo of cat emotions

But srsly, I hypothesize in my book that this disconnect between emotions and feelings stems from the constant, repetitive, and relentlessly anti-emotion training we get, where emotions are allegedly the opposite of rationality (wrong), the opposite of spirituality (wrong), and the center of all the world’s problems (wrong [ish]). I think people aren’t aware of their emotions because they’ve been trained since birth to repress, suppress, ignore, demonize, and avoid them.

This training isn’t helping anyone. It makes us emotionally unaware and emotionally chaotic — because when we’re emotionally unaware, an unfelt emotion can carom around inside us like a hyperactive pinball. Luckily, if we can feel our emotions, we can become more aware and more intelligent about them. And contrary to the rotten training we get about emotions, feeling and knowing our emotions can actually help us relieve them.

Feeling, naming, and knowing

Mathew Lieberman at UCLA has done some interesting research on emotion recognition, and apparently, if you can name a troubling emotion, you can calm yourself and your brain down. Lieberman’s research suggests that there is a healthy link between having emotions, feeling emotions, and cognitively identifying emotions.

In the book, I write about using your verbal and cognitive abilities to identify, articulate, and support your emotions, and I’ve noticed over the decades that this does three things:

1) It helps you learn to feel and identify your emotions, which helps you calm and focus yourself;

2) It helps you understand when, why, and how your emotions arise so that you can become more emotionally aware, and;

3) It recruits your verbal skills to support and consult with your emotions so that you can learn from them and take constructive, emotionally appropriate action.

In The Language of Emotions, you use your rational, verbal skills to support your emotional awareness, and that’s a huge leap away from the old, tired “emotions are the opposite of rationality” drivel.

Emotions certainly are not the opposite of rationality. Emotions are physiological signalers of what’s going on in your world. Emotions are simply data; you are the interpreter of those data, and how you interpret and work with your emotions determines whether the outcome is rational or not.

Current neuroscience is showing us how vital emotions are to our thinking and decision-making processes. If we can learn to feel emotions intelligently, we can widen the boundaries of our intelligence so that emotions and rationality are partners instead of combatants. To that end, it’s vital to know how to feel, name, and understand emotions, especially when the emotions are uncomfortable, socially unacceptable, or possibly injurious.


Let’s look at the simplest healthy pathway from emotion to feeling to action (these flowcharts are simplified, clearly, and there’s a great deal more complexity involved when emotional disturbances are present, but these broad strokes are worth understanding):

Emotion → Feeling → Naming → Acting on the information the emotion provides

Let’s put sadness into this flowchart. It would go like this: I have an emotion; I feel that it is sadness; I name the sadness; and I take the action my sadness requires (which might be sighing, slowing down, letting go of tension, or crying, among many other sadness-based actions).

But wait! I didn’t include the situations and stimuli that evoke emotions; let’s not leave those out. Emotional stimuli can be anything that evokes an emotion, including your own thoughts. Emotions tell you that something is up, and that something can include your own thoughts.

Notice that I’m using the word evoke here. Emotions are not created out of thin air, and they’re not created by your thoughts. Emotions have evolved over millions of years to help you understand and respond to the world. Emotions exist as distinct and reliable action-requiring neurological programs, and they are evoked by specific stimuli. So let’s add those stimuli into our flowchart:

Emotionally evocative stimulus → Emotion → Feeling → Naming → Acting on the information the emotion provides

But wait again! You may misperceive the stimulus! For instance, you may see a coiled up rope and experience fear as if you’re seeing a snake. Or, if your emotion is evoked by your thoughts, you can misperceive reality. Your thoughts might not be right, especially if you don’t regularly stop to question them. If you act on emotions that were evoked by stimuli that aren’t valid, you might do something misguided or clueless.

Stimuli can also be unrelated to emotion, yet evoke an emotion anyway. For instance, if your heart rate or your adrenaline rise, your body may respond as if a fearful stimulus is present. Similarly, if you are smiling or frowning, your body may respond as if you are happy or angry. Emotions give you information that something is going on, but it’s up to you to figure out what that something might be.

That’s why I inserted a step that allows you to identify the stimulus and (hopefully) figure out what’s really occurring.

Emotionally evocative stimulus → Emotion → Feeling → Naming → Questioning the emotion → Acting on the information the emotion provides OR deciding not to act because the stimulus is invalid

I know this seems like a long pathway, but you can actually do it in a split second once you get your emotional skills under you. It’s not hard. It’s actually much harder in the long run to sleepwalk through your life, being jacked around by emotions you can’t identify or understand.

So an emotion does this: It gives you information about an emotionally relevant stimulus. It tells you what you’ve perceived and what you’re experiencing. Your job as the partner of your emotions is to feel the emotion, name it, ask the correct questions, and act in a way that is both emotional and rational. I’m saying it’s doable.

Why, it’s so simple, a child can …

Okay, I won’t go that far, but when you know how to feel your emotions, the process becomes easy (and fun, and enlightening) once you get the hang of it! More importantly, when you know how to feel your emotions, then your big, intense, and potentially dangerous emotions become less toxic, and so do you. Learning to feel your emotions rocks!




Simon July 1, 2011 at 3:26 am

I like the videos! 🙂

Karla July 1, 2011 at 4:05 pm

Thanks Simon!

Jonathan July 1, 2011 at 5:15 pm

The conflation of the two terms feeling and emotion is certainly indicative of the prevailing view concerning the value of emotions.

This error is made all the more dangerous because of how we unconsciously rationalize our largely emotion-driven decisions after they are already formed. When utterly ignored, emotions can be very dangerous – quite the opposite of how conventional wisdom sees things (consciously allowing our emotions to inform us being a ‘bad’ thing). With all this unconscious behavior, no wonder the world is in the state it’s in!

I hope that your readers who are raising children are able to pass along this wisdom and help effect a shift in society’s attitude toward emotion.

Once again, you’ve clearly delineated an issue around emotions in an understandable and immediately useful way. Bravo.

Terre Spencer July 5, 2011 at 10:15 am

These are fabulous, Karla! I especially appreciate your explanation of the relationships between emotions. When one is absent, another must work overtime to keep the psyche intact.

And the permission to be less-than-superhero powerful at all times is especially important in this power-worshipping/power-drunk culture.

Ahh. All my emotions like this very much. They all feel invited to life’s party and that very much matters.

Thank you and well done!

Mo Bailey July 11, 2011 at 12:34 pm

Karla – can you speak toward “Betrayal”?

1. If someone betrays another and then misrepresents the other person (to protect themselves), is that applied shame?

2. Or is the action of “betrayal” in a different category than applied shame? If so, what – and what’s the best way to deal with that?

3. If one takes awhile to realize they have been betrayed, and is in protective-mode of the betrayer until it sinks in, what message would you give the person who was still protecting the betrayer (during a state of schock/disbelief/inproper trust, over protecting or advocating for themselves?

Karla July 11, 2011 at 8:29 pm

HI Mo, I’m not really sure in the context which emotions are going on. If you’re betrayed, you often feel a host of emotions after the shock wears off, including fear, grief, shame, depression, anger, etc.

For clarity’s sake, applied shame is social control. Applied shame is an attempt to control the behavior of others — which is sometimes necessary in the case of children or people who can’t manage their own behavior appropriately. It can be as benign as “Don’t you think you should leave some candy for the other kids?” to “You’re a fat, selfish, lazy slob.” As it is with every emotion, applied shame has its uses — even though it can be totally abusive in the hands of some people.

Lisa Morris July 15, 2011 at 3:56 pm

Hi Karla.
Will you be offering the emotional theater again in the Bay area any time soon? I would love to attend!

Karla July 15, 2011 at 5:00 pm

Lisa – let me look in to it. I’m thinking about venues (something nice and central, maybe in Oakland, Berkeley, or San Rafael), timing (Saturday, 1pm to 5pm should do it), and costs versus venue rental, etc. Also, critique this: I’m thinking it should be for readers of the book, so that I don’t have to take the time to teach the emotions from scratch. Agree?

Connie August 16, 2011 at 5:33 am

Thank you Karla. Just got the book yesterday and I will now hear your voice and laughter as I read which will make it more able to be absorbed.

Seusen August 26, 2011 at 12:13 pm

Hiii sweet soul…what a sinuous voyage…from thetreeoflifecelebration.com, hearing Barbara Hand Clow (who is an admirer of you and recommends your book The Language of Emotions everywhere, and, hey, you two must enjoy a cup of tea together and laugh, hhhh, sure you’ll trigger each others’ joy)… so, here I am from Spain, ordering through amazon your book, and have just listened to these videos on theatre emotion, and wow…it’d be wonderful to attend one of these seminars…and why not, here in Spain, or France, UK…I already feel we’ve met, hihi!!!a biiig hug and thank you

Karla August 26, 2011 at 8:26 pm

Buenos Dias! Thanks for your note. I wonder — could you take my online class what will be hosted by Sounds True in March? It’s will be 8 weeks of video, audio, message board, and journal segments, plus three live events that will be held in the evening Pacific time. It would be great if you could make it! I’ll post more information about the course when the time is nearer.

Seusen August 30, 2011 at 12:54 pm

Wow! it sounds great! I ll be waiting for your posts! thank youuu

Maureen February 17, 2012 at 7:40 pm

Your videos are excellent; thank you so much for such a clear and enthusiastic explanation – it really comes across – have signed up for your course! Very much looking forward to it! Cheers Mo

Karla February 18, 2012 at 5:45 pm

Thank you, Mo!

I look forward to seeing you there!

Kate March 16, 2012 at 10:24 pm

OMG, I have just watched your interview on youtube, and found your website. I’ve struck gold!!! LOL You are FABULOUS!! I’ve just ordered your book and I’m going to be in and around your blog for some time to come. Finally an empath who sings sweet music to my ears. Bless you Karla for being you, you are awesome. xx

Karla March 16, 2012 at 10:45 pm

Hiya!!!!!! Welcome!

Devin Akin May 23, 2013 at 10:25 am

These videos are terrific! Well done Karla!…and thanks!


Karla May 23, 2013 at 12:08 pm

Thanks Devin!

Jon October 28, 2016 at 1:51 am

Could you please put up the videos again?

Karla October 28, 2016 at 10:47 am

Whoops! We removed the old videos. I’ll post the most recent one, which is a talk about the theater in general.

Were looking at making an actual video of the process, so I’m clearing out YouTube in preparation.


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