We’ve all seen it. Something is said or written, and someone will go off. I mean off. Rage, hatred, or both at once. A fight starts, and maybe these intense emotions get handled between two people, or maybe they don’t (online interactions specialize in the maybe they don’t category).
So the raging people invite allies to share (and justify) their intense emotions, and a flame war starts. If this blowup isn’t dealt with, the behavior goes unchecked, and people learn that it’s okay to allow their emotions to explode. Moderate people may try to address the emotional issues, but once alliances are formed and people share their emotions in groups, the blowups start to look justified, and not like emotional decisions at all … they become incontrovertible facts, and emotional awareness is lost.
In my book, I call intense emotions like rage and hatred (and panic and the suicide urge) the raging rapids emotions, because if you don’t know what these emotions are supposed to do or what gifts they contain, you can very easily get caught up in their rapids, pulled underwater, and smashed repeatedly against the rocks! You can become a puppet of your emotions instead of their partner.
The trick in dealing with big, powerful, or troubling emotional states is to understand first that emotions are always true (about something), but they’re not always right.
As action-requiring neurological programs, emotions give you crucial information about every aspect of your world; you can’t think, reason, learn, decide, or interact without them. However, when your emotions are very intense, you should insert cognitively moderated pauses between having your emotion, feeling it, and expressing it.
With rage and hatred, those cognitive pauses need to be looooooong because you can really hurt yourself and other people if you’re unskilled with your rage and hatred — or if you don’t even know that you’re feeling rage and hatred in the first place.
But before those necessary cognitive pauses can occur, you have to understand the difference between an emotion and a feeling.
Emotions, feelings, and the difference between them
Someone asked me about the difference between an emotion and a feeling last year, 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’ve 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.
I realize 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, 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 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 no consciousness of the emotion at all. They have the emotion, but they don’t know about it. The emotion is certainly there, and their behavior displays the emotion (to others at least), but they aren’t feeling it properly.
Maybe they need a chart to show them what emotions look like! Thank goodness the Department of Lolcatz has provided us with one!
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. Or, they swing to the opposite pole and allow their emotions to explode soon after they arise.
This training isn’t helping anyone. It makes you emotionally unaware and emotionally chaotic — because an unfelt emotion can carom around inside you like a hyperactive pinball. Luckily, if you can feel your emotions, you can become more aware and more intelligent about them. And contrary to the rotten training we get about emotions, feeling and knowing your emotions can actually help you relieve them.
Feeling, naming, and knowing
Mathew Lieberman at UCLA has done some interesting research on emotion recognition, and apparently, if you can simply name a troubling emotion, you can calm yourself and your brain down. Lieberman’s research is showing us 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 in decades of practice and teaching 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 the emotion so that you can learn from it 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 thought 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. It’s vital to know how to feel, name, and understand emotions, especially when the emotions are big, uncomfortable, or dangerous.
Let’s look at the simplest healthy pathway from emotion to action (these flowcharts are simplified, clearly, and there’s a great deal more complexity involved when emotional illnesses 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 within your brain and body, and they are evoked by specific stimuli.
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 an emotion that was evoked by stimuli that aren’t valid, you might do something misguided or injurious.
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. For instance, it could be that your anger and depression are being evoked by the fact that you’re slumping and frowning without being aware that you are! Emotions give you valuable information about something that 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 empathic skills under you. It’s not hard. It’s actually much harder in the long run to sleepwalk through your life, being pushed around by emotions you can’t identify or understand.
Let’s look at rage
So let’s put rage into the flowchart and see how it works when people choose to explode with rage.
Something threatens your sense of self, standpoint, or voice → Anger is evoked →You don’t stop to name the anger; instead, you add assumptions and accusations on top of it → More anger is evoked (this time, by you), and the anger morphs into rage → You attack → The other person backs down or attacks back → Rinse and Repeat → Welcome to Hell
Okay, we all know that flowchart! It’s active on the internet (and in the U.S. Senate and Congress) pretty much every day!
Now, let’s look at rage again, this time with cognitively moderated pauses (please note that I’m not describing a rage disorder in either of these flowcharts. In a rage disorder, the stimulus is often untreated depression, other neurochemical factors, or possibly PTSD).
Something threatens your sense of self, standpoint, or voice → Anger is evoked →You feel the anger → You name the anger and note its exact intensity, which gives you a moment to organize yourself → You ask yourself the questions for anger (What must be protected? What must be restored?) → You discover what the issue is, set clear boundaries without violence, and restore your sense of self without offending against the humanity of the other person → Anger program ends, congratulations
Did you notice that there was no need to go to rage in the second flowchart? When you understand that you are having an emotion, that you can identify that emotion, and that there are specific things you can do to examine the stimulus, then you don’t have to throw yourself into the raging rapids every time an emotion appears. When you have emotional skills, you have options — and freedom, and breathing room — no matter what is going on around you.
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 — not to mention vital for your mental health, the health of your relationships, and the health of your community.
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, name them, and take the necessary, cognitively-moderated pauses that will help you understand if the stimulus (or your reaction) is valid, then your big, intense, and potentially dangerous emotions will become less toxic, and so will you.
Support for your feeling and naming skills
Our Emotional Vocabulary List (you can download it here) was created by empathic crowd sourcing here on my website (and on Facebook). I and my empathic crowd have organized all of the emotions into categories (angers, fears, etc.) and intensities (lite, free-flowing, and intense).
For instance, anger doesn’t appear in this list all by itself; we’ve got words for lite anger, mood-state anger, and intense anger. We’ve done the same for sadness, fear, shame, happiness, and so forth.
This list is something readers of The Language of Emotions have asked for as they share their new emotional awareness with the people in their lives. What my empathic comrades have reported is that many people don’t have a functional vocabulary for their emotions because they are deficient in the areas of feeling and naming from the flowchart above; therefore, we created this list to help people become aware of different intensities of emotion, and to develop better emotional articulation and awareness.
As Matthew Lieberman at UCLA discovered, simply naming your emotions can help you work with and calm them. Our list will help you develop a precise emotional vocabulary – which is a key to emotional skill and empathic awareness. Feel free to share this list with your friends and family!