Is it a Feeling or is it an Emotion?

Painting of an old west bar fightWe’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, The Language of Emotions, 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 key to 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.

Emotions give you crucial information about every aspect of your world — and 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.

Feelings vs. Emotions: What’s the difference?

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 clearly.

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. 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 us emotionally unaware and emotionally chaotic — because an unfelt emotion can carom around inside us 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 work with 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 my 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 actions.

In The Language of Emotions, you use your verbal intelligence 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 physiologic 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, 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 situations 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 situations.

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

But wait again! You may misperceive the situation!

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 situations that aren’t valid, you might do something misguided or unhealthy.

Situations 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 situation and (hopefully) figure out what’s really occurring.

Emotionally evocative situation → Emotion → Feeling → Naming → Engaging with the emotion → Acting on the information the emotion provides OR deciding not to act because the situation doesn’t require action

I know this seems like a long pathway, but you can complete 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 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 situation is often related to 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 do I value? What must be protected and 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 is resolved, congratulations

Did you notice that there was no need to go to rage in the second flowchart? When you understand that you’re experiencing an emotion, that you can identify that emotion, and that there are specific things you can do to examine the situation, 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 inside you or around you.

So an emotion does this: It gives you information about an emotionally relevant situation. It tells you what you’ve perceived and what you’re experiencing.

And 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 situation (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 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 (soft, medium, and intense).

For instance, anger doesn’t appear in this list all by itself; we’ve got words for soft anger, medium 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’re 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!

Thank you for bringing more emotional awareness to a world that needs it!

50 Responses

  1. Kaitlyn
    | Reply

    Fantastic! I really appreciate the clear way in which you explain these things. I also love how you give a few different viewpoints. It’s so helpful!

  2. Brenda (mamabegood)
    | Reply

    Hi, Karla,
    I loved your comment on my post. “Exactly, EXACTLY!” I kept thinking.

    And then I came here and was blown away. I love your topics and this information. This is so up my alley. I will be reading more!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Brenda, I love your posts; you are so right on. How lucky your son is to have you. I celebrate you, mamacita!

  3. Simon
    | Reply

    I’m definitely guilty of having strong emotional explosions and reactions while having arguments online. I don’t really see anything wrong with it, per se. I understand that we shouldn’t be victims of our emotions, but since I don’t consider the Internet “real” or “reality”…I don’t see anything wrong with it.

    I think the problem is taking the Internet and what goes on in there as reality. Having a strong emotional explosion online is much preferred than repressing it and sometimes that’s all we have, since our modern culture is so repressive of emotions. Sometimes the only thing to do is to go online and bitch about something. It really helps! I think taking that away from people can have dire consequences. In a way, the Internet made us safer, because we can emotionally explode online, so we don’t have to do it in “reality” or in person. I say, as long as emotional explosions remain online, and not cross over into reality, we are all good. ;-)

    I see the attachments to emotions and emotional reactions as the problem. I know you imply that too in your teachings. The problem isn’t the emotional explosions online but our attachments to it. There’s a seriousness that comes with strongly identifying with one’s emotions. As long as that’s not there, then emotions can be funny, even when they are explosive.

    As long as we can all maintain a strict distinction between fantasy (like internet, films, religion, etc) and reality, then I think we are all good, for the most part. It’s when we take fiction as reality that we bump into problems.

    Also, I think we all have such unique relationships to emotions that it’s hard to get an objective view of how we should handle them. I think emotions are as unique as our bodies. Ultimately, it’s up to each person to decide how to handle their emotions, as long as they don’t hurt anybody else, they should be allowed to develop a new and fresh relationship with their body/emotions.

    I hope I’m making some sense here. :-)

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Wow Simon, I couldn’t disagree more with what you say, because writing, reading, being online, and interacting with my online pals is absolutely central to the quality of my life. This is as real a place as any other, and I treat my online friends as real and worthy of respect. That respectful approach tells them who I am, and their behavior tells me who they are. There is no difference for me between online and offline; humans and their needs exist fully in both for me.

      Also, emotion research and health research — especially about heart health — would not support your assertion that blowing up is better than repression. In the case of anger and rage, if you’ve got a choice between exploding and repressing, I’d say that repression is the best choice in the lion’s share of situations. My father has a wonderful saying: “Your rights end at my nose.” If your anger goes to 11 every time it appears, you really don’t have the right to burden people with it. Repetitive bouts of explosive anger mean that there’s something going on that needs to be addressed. How Much Emotion is Too Much?

      But I’m concerned about stating our differences, because you seem to be telling me that when you’re online, you don’t have any brakes on your behavior. Just so you know, I have very sensitive people reading this site, and I moderate the comments with an iron hand. The interwebs can be an unnecessarily and pointlessly violent and cruel place, and I absolutely won’t have that here.

      But what you say also fascinates me and I’d like to know more. Where did you develop the idea that nothing is real online? Or that standards of behavior and emotional awareness and function have no meaning or purpose in an online context? Because it would explain a lot about the truly egregious online behaviors we see people display. If what you present above is an agreed-upon standard among a subset of online denizens, then the sickening behavior takes on a new meaning. It’s like some form of shadow theater where people display their worst behaviors and go on a nightmare romp of the id, as it were.

      I have seen some form of the “words can’t hurt people” trope pulled out when flame wars and comment explosions happen. Since that idea is so wildly wrong, I thought it was just a way for abusive people to blame their victims and shield themselves from the shame-moderated work they need to do to become worthwhile relationship-mates. But if the fiction that online behavior is unreal and therefore unimportant is alive in them, then online bullies and abusers may actually think that they’re not hurting anyone. It’s a strange choice, though, in a fictional context. If something is unreal, why would the fallback position be to behave in an emotionally abusive and mean-spirited way? If a world is fictional, why not ride a unicorn and become a singer who plays the hammered dulcimer? Why in a fictional context would you decide to become emotionally irresponsible and abusive?

      I remember a writing assignment I was given in high school, where the story was to be based upon the fact that I was the only real person in the world. I wrote a piece about a contest that was ongoing, where all of the unreal people had a chance at being real if they could make me feel and display an emotion, any emotion. If I did, then I would join the ranks of the unreal, and that person would have “won.” As I look back, I can see the work of a young woman fighting very hard to keep memories of childhood abuse at bay: I thought that keeping my emotions in check was a valiant thing. But clearly, I also saw it as a game.

      A fellow student wrote in her “real person” story about murdering people and watching them die, knowing that they weren’t real and weren’t actually feeling anything. The way she read it and the strange glee she displayed during the story told me a great deal about her. We never became close, though she was a good writer (which is usually a central feature of people I consider interesting). But in her story, I saw a lack of human regard, and a willingness to treat her characters cruelly just for the sake of the story. It’s one of my least favorite forms of writing behavior.

      When I witness people blowing up online, I make decision about them not only in the real world of whether I want to spend any time listening to them, but also in the fictional world of their writing skills and intellectual capacities. Sometimes it’s funny to read a ranter who’s good with language, but I get tired of ranting very quickly. The choices people make in any area of their lives helps me create a picture of the totality of their personae, and online behavior is absolutely germane to who a person is. Sociologically speaking, we are all a conglomeration of the personae we create in every different social context. Social reality is what we make of it.

  4. Simon
    | Reply

    okay, so i was misunderstood.

    i did not intend to imply that there shouldn’t be any ethics or respect online. that’s not at all what i was saying. my main point was that online reality is not equal to “real” reality and equating both as the same is dangerous, which we disagree on, and that’s fine. :-)

    to me, online behavior says nothing about the person at all. i’ve met people who talk/write a lot online yet are quite as a mouse in person, so how does that make sense since online “persona” is suppose to say something about the “real” person? someone could definitely pretend to be someone they are not online (because the platform allows for such things) so if i take their online persona as real, who’s the fool, me or them? lol

    i think taking online “personas” as real or even close to real is naive, at best. that’s like saying if i pretend to be a twelve year old girl online then that’s who i am. realizing that what goes on online is not real and should not be “trusted” as real is, actually, in the long run, a safer thing to say, because it prevents people from trusting and falling for scams online.

    judging a person based on their behavior online is like judging an actor’s persona based on the character that they play in a movie. it’s just not the same, maybe close, but it’s not the same, to me. i think it’s a good thing that people get to “practice” and “release” their “sub-personalities” online that they can’t do in real life. i just say we shouldn’t take it seriously.

    again, i’m not justifying abusive behavior online, because abusive behavior is NEVER okay, online or otherwise. but if a person has a blog where they bitch all day, then i don’t see anything wrong with it. if you don’t like it, then don’t go to their blog and read it. i just don’t believe in being an “ethics police” and applying our own high ethic standards on others, trying to limit their freedom. one of the practices of “boundaries” is to actually allow others to do what they want, again, as long as they don’t hurt anybody else.

    so your, personal, persona online might be very close to how you are in real person, but some other person’s might not be. thus, assuming that everything that happens online is an indication of how someone is in reality is kinda crazy, actually.

    when people go to a movie, they know it’s a movie, well, at least most of them, so they don’t take it seriously or real. all i’m saying is that when i go online, i know i’m online and it’s not reality. again, i’m NOT saying that should be an excuse to do abusive things online but to draw a line between reality and internet. i guess we have to agree to disagree on that point, because you say online is as real as reality. jeez, i hope not, because that’d be crazy.

    lastly, it’s not about making excuses to be abusive, because, as you say, people always find excuses to be abusive. it’s about setting a distinct line between reality and internet. in my humble opinion, not drawing a distinct line between internet and reality is what causes most of the abusive online, not the other way around.

    the good thing about the internet is that there’s distance and you can choose not to engage with a person, in most cases. it’s different in person if they are screaming in your face.

    also, i’m not dismissing your feelings of satisfaction from your interaction with your online pals. your feelings are real, but your online pals might not be. lol ;-)

    anyways, hope this clarified a few things. :-)

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Simon, when you say that you’ve had emotional explosions online, and that you don’t see anything wrong with that, what are you referring to?

      And do you go online to not be yourself? Do you have alternative personae online or pantomime identities? I’ve posted as Joshua Norton I, Emperor of these United States and Protector of Mexico, but really, who hasn’t?

  5. Deborah
    | Reply

    What a wonderful article Karla. A real winner again. I’m going to point people this way to continue in the dialogue. You’ve given me some things to think about.

    I remember noticing that the men in my family would seem to just disappear, sort of drift away if you ever confronted them with something. But later (and it might be a day, a week a month) they’d come back and want to talk about it.

    For me, it had long past. But after awhile I realized it was actually taking them that long to control and process the long process of what was coming up emotionally. My emotions were all on the surface, but there’s were somewhere deeper inside and it took them a longer time to integrate.

    After learning something about Nonviolent Communication I was able to approach the men in my family differently and give them more time for a discussion of something important to unwind. Sometimes it would play out over weeks. It wasn’t the way I processed, but it was in my best interest to give them their time so that we could find a working solution.

    What you’ve written here give me some new thoughts about what was going on, for them and for me.

    I always get some new way of looking at my emotional life when I read what you’ve written. Thank you!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thanks Deborah,

      I’ve recently been studying the work of Sharon Ellison, whose work is about Powerful Non-Defensive Communication. PNDC is somewhat similar to NVC, but unique. It’s really teaching me a tremendous amount about using anger properly, and engaging with the strength it brings so that I can display vulnerability and curiosity rather than brutality. It’s really a game changer!

      I like what you say about issues playing out over weeks instead of the right! now! way you’re able to do it. How awesome that you’re finding ways to do time travel that works!

  6. Deborah
    | Reply

    Oooh, Thank you Karla, for sharing this resource. I just went to Sharon’s site to check it out. I can see how her work might be a nice companion to yours.

    I’ve been studying NVC (though I don’t like the name…and Marshall Rosenberg, in his interviews says he doesn’t either, he just had to call it something. I usually say Compassionate Communication, but it is his techniques I study).

    I’m intrigued by Sharon’s work in working with defensiveness (a challenging topic if ever there was one, eh?). A game changer, indeed. I’d love to check back and see/hear more about how you are using it in tandem with the deep emotional processing/honoring of your work.

    Thank you again, really appreciated.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      I think you’ll really like it. She’s basically found a way to utilize anger without brutality, and she’s identified that when people get defensive, they’re essentially in a panic mode (and she identifies the six panic-based reactions people use). That was an amazing eye-opener for me — because if all we’ve seen in our relationships is anger in service to panic, we absolutely, positively won’t know what anger is or what it does in its own right.

      Sharon shows in a step-by-step way how to ask questions and set boundaries without breaking the boundaries of other people (so that they don’t fall into a panic). She teaches how to use your own standpoint and your own ground as a strong foundation from which you can display vulnerability — which is exactly what I suggest that people do with their anger. The book is so ground-breaking that I had to put it down and sign up for a workshop ASAP. I was all, “I need to see this in action right now.”

      A note, though: Sharon is doing her own theory and work, and she doesn’t see it in the emotive terms I’m using. I spoke to her about her genius way of teaching the proper use of anger, and she was puzzled. I think she might say that proper boundary setting does not have an anger component, but very few people are working with my “gifts” approach to emotions. But that’s okay. She’s doing her theory from her standpoint, and I’m doing mine. But man, her work knocked me out!

      In a good way.

  7. jackie
    | Reply

    Hi Karla,
    I live in a world of emotions and feelings and am very sensitive….called by some family as “too sensitive and aware” or “too self consumed.” I’m not sure, I try to always benefit others, but sometimes its true, I feel something and I can’t figure it out or understand it.
    I listened to your audio tape on being an empath. I seemed to relate, but am not certain whether I am one or not. But I do wonder and have been told. Still, I am not certain. Anyways, I’d like to read your book, as it would help me to better navigate the internal world I live in which is always changing throughout the day and upon my interactions/conversations. The thing is, and with all due respect, I have a hard time with reading your book. I start kind of feeling whatever is being talked about and then I feel heavy and need to close it. What does this mean? Can you offer any advice on this?
    Thank you,

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Jackie,

      Thanks for your comment. About being an empath: I left my new age career back in 2003 because I realized that framing empathy as a paranormal skill was wrong. Empaths are not psychics, and they’re not doing anything magical. Empathy is a fully human capacity, and now I get that. So if you’re very emotionally sensitive, you’re an empath. Done. Here’s a post about it:

      And as far as reading the book goes, it may be that the first part of the book is too intense. You may want to hop around to different chapters like the Love one, the Happiness ones, and so forth. Or just spend some time on this blog, and use the Tags in the sidebar to explore areas of interest. The most important thing for emotionally sensitive people is to develop an emotional vocabulary and skills to help them ground, focus, and calm themselves. Then things get easier.

      Hope that helps.

  8. Jackie
    | Reply

    Hi Karla,
    Thank you for your reply. I like that it is not a “special” ability too. I appreciate the fact that you too have seen through the new age. There is a lot, I have found, that mayb feel good at first, but it just ends up feeling ‘off ‘ and somehow not honest or fully human. At least that’s my experience.
    I see how grounding, calming and focusing can help, but what do you say about sudden aches and pains or weird body sensations that come up while being around other people? Is there a certain purpose for that? Does one need to ‘protect’ themselves?…..that’s what I’ve heard/been told, but I’m not sure the reason for it or what its saying or teaching me.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hi Jackie,

      We’re actually talking about this in a way in our online course Emotional Flow right now. This is something I said there:

      “I’m in a very philosophical, or perhaps “poetic” place about it. I too am a hearer of voices, a receiver of visions, and a knower of the strange and unbidden. As I’m studying neurology, sociology, and social psychology, I’m discovering that this world we think we know is in many cases a mirage. A social construction. A neurological chimera. It’s not that the world is unreal; it exists alright. But our capacity to experience it is in many cases a function of our social location and the thousands of decisions our brains and bodies make in any given moment.

      This conceptualization of energy, of the other world, of the unseen — I am honestly now considering it to be primarily empathic and imaginal awareness that we all have, but have been given no language for because emotions and empathy have traditionally been ignored, suppressed or actively removed from our lives. In every second of every day, we are empathically reading every possible aspect of our environments, but most of us have no consciousness that we are. Could it be that what we have learned to call energy and intuition are empathic skills in disguise?

      In every second of every day, our emotions are helping us navigate through the social world, but very few people are allowed to know this. For instance, consider how many meditative processes use the relaxation gifts of sadness continually, but often tell you that all emotions are toxic. Whoops!

      Or intuition training programs that use, specifically, the gifts of free-flowing intuitive fear in every moment, but often promote the idea that emotions — and especially fear — are verboten! I’m just continually astonished at the ways we trick ourselves into utilizing the gifts of the emotions by calling them anything and everything but emotional and empathic skills.”

      So when you refer to pains and sensations, I’m wondering if it is a way for the nonverbal and instinctual aspects of your intelligence to tell you something about what you’re sensing? Rather than characterizing it in a way that you are receiving the pains or picking them up from others, perhaps you are perceiving them at a subtle level, and your body is displaying them as a way to articulate the experience for you?

      That’s the sort of framing I’m looking at now, because I agree with you that the new age approach is not really workable any longer, at least not for me (but then, I had thirty years of trying it out, so I’ve got a lot of back-story with these ideas!).

  9. Mary Ann Ribble
    | Reply

    Karla, HELP! I am taking the Sounds True course with you and cannot get any of my posts posted! They keep showing up as Spam and going into a virtual space @ Sounds True, but NOT on the forum!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Mary Ann, dang!

      There is a post on the Forum that may give you some ideas, especially about your password, which may be the problem. It’s called “To anyone who received a “spam” message when you try to log in-”

      You can read it even if you can’t post. See if the answers are there.

      We’re also looking at creating another post about other workarounds. I’m sorry you’re having difficulties! The computer is our friend, unless it’s a big pain in our butts!


  10. Jackie
    | Reply

    Yes, exactly! In so many forums, we are being socially stripped of the language of our emotions and hence a large degree of our intelligence and knowing. We cannot curtail the fact that truth very often is being messaged in an unseen, logically ungraspable way and non-localized way. I agree that empathy and intuition are inseperable and perhaps two versions of interpreting the same thing; the ability to read and sense energy.
    The challenge I have is not in the sensing, but rather in the interpreting. While the fact that a message is being received is clear, but what is the message? I agree with you that I probably am very well preceiving subtle energy in a way where it manifests as physical bodily sensations, but my wondering is: how can I understand these sensations and what they are telling me, or pointing out to me? I think oftentimes it is very individual and one find’s there own, personal meanings for such sensations…..but how does one learn to decipher the wisdom and intelligence of this language with seemingly no reference for them? They are new, unknown and every changing…..

  11. Michael stumpf
    | Reply

    Thank You, Karla. I am participating in your online course, it’s good to see & hear you speak on the subject after reading & listening to the CDs.The sharing above is inspiring and revelant in so many ways, comes in handy as I too move through my day.

    I really like how you frame “It’s not that the world is unreal; it exist alright. But our capacity to experience …” plus your comments on meditative processes & intuition training is Spot on, it has brought balance to the I relate my Empathy & other aspects of being a Whole Human Being, living as a Earthling. Thanks again Karla & Others here!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Michael, I’m so glad you’re in the course! I’ll see you there!

  12. Jackie
    | Reply

    Hi Karla, I get what you are saying.
    That could certainly be true….I suppose its just a matter of languaging it…..and the how of it happening is not so important to me as the what of it…..i.e. what does it mean? and what is it revealing? So for these questions I wonder: How can I learn what they are telling me or revealing to me or is that not necessary for me to know…..if I already don’t?

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hi Jackie, the place I go with it is to the nonverbal (or in the case of poetry, the very deeply verbal) aspects of our intelligence, where we have the freedom to use movement, imaginal processes, emotive awareness, metaphor, art, music, ritual, and so forth.

      In my book, I talk about a form of intelligence called intrapersonal intelligence, which helps us become very aware of our inner selves, our bodies, our emotions, our thought processes, and our interior lives. In the flowchart above, a person with an unexercised intrapersonal intelligence would probably have trouble in the feeling step, such that an emotion would certainly be evoked, but they’d miss it because they weren’t paying attention.

      It sounds like you’ve already got a great deal of intrapersonal awareness, but perhaps not as much of a grasp on what these sensations mean. And with all the paranormal language that gets in the way, it’s not surprising. One of the ways I got away from all the “energy and magic” ideologies was to simply ask my body what was going on. The answers are very rarely verbal; instead, I get images, sensations, feelings, videos — there is a great deal of information in the intrapersonal realm. It’s just not verbal, for the most part!

      And of course, learning the language of the emotions really helps give that intrapersonal aspect of yourself a leg up in the vocabulary department!

      I hope that helps! We’re working against many centuries of magical thinking about these experiences, and it’s work to re-articulate and engage with them in a way that is neither paranormal nor pathologizing in its approach.

  13. Kaci
    | Reply

    I am currently reading the book language of emotions. But I am wondering about PTSD due to war. I am trying to find good education on how to deal with those emotions and deal with a soldier struggling with this trauma. They’re taught to repress their emotions, but they allow themselves to acknowledge anger and there is much, much anger, but even then the anger is not acknowledged in a healthy manner. I was reading in a random book I found on ptsd that they need to seperate their emotions from the memories of traumatic events in the war, such as seeing a friend die, etc. If we are to acknowledge our emotions, how can that be done in a healthy way to seperate those memories or to acknowledge them in a healthy way. It is such a complex situation and while there is alot of information out there about ptsd, I am hesitant where to look, the best information I can find on dealing when the rage comes on them is deep breathing techniques.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Kaci,

      Thanks for supporting the soldier who is struggling! I have some resources for you. The first is a very emotionally grounded form of PTSD therapy called Somatic Experiencing, which is a process taught by Dr. Peter Levine. Here is a list of practitioners who provide SE therapy. This guide for the military may also help, and Peter has a video of working through PTSD with an Iraqi Vet.

      Also the mythologist Michael Meade does some beautiful work with soldiers in reclaiming the sacredness of their lives. Here’s information on Michael’s Voices of Vets.

      Another helpful thing will be for him to be in a peer group of other vets if he can manage that. PTSD can be very isolating, and he may see it as his personal failing. If he can begin to understand that PTSD is very common in vets, and spend some time with people who are going through similar struggles, he may feel more able to weather the necessary ups and downs that occur as he makes his way back to health.

      I send you both blessings!

  14. Deborah
    | Reply

    Hi Kaci:

    Here’s another book that really helped me and I’m wondering Karla, if you’ve seen it and what you think too?

    Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma: The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences by Peter A. Levine and Ann Frederick

    It helped me understand, honor and move toward healing trauma in my family life.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hah Deborah, great minds! Thanks!

  15. Kaci
    | Reply

    Thank you Karla and Deborah, I will definitely look into all of these avenues of information, your help is very appreciated.

  16. leslie o'keeffe
    | Reply

    hi Karla, I just found this place and listened to an interview with you about emotions and feel I really must read your books. I am 53 years old with PTSD and for a long time seemed to be numb/frozen, I now am not but have a difficult time figuring out why I am reacting in certain ways. I find I have trouble even identifying emotions beyond simply sad, angry, fearful, content…I feel a lot of my emotions in my chest with chest pain and don’t really know what triggered the emotions or feelings. I feel like I need a really simplified explanation one would give a child, do you think your books are simplified enough for someone who really doesn’t get what I am responding to in my environment? I have trouble answering questions you pose on why or what….Any help would be appreciated…

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Leslie,

      Thanks for your questions. I don’t know of any other books that look at emotions in terms of what they do, what gifts they bring, and how to work with them directly (instead of trying to suppress them, change them, or magically transform them). However, there is a good book for kids written by Mary Lamia, and I think it’s a good entree into the subject. Here’s a page where I talk about it, and if you click on the book cover, you’ll link to the ordering page on Amazon. It will probably be in your local library as well.

      Oh, and for PTSD, somatic work, and especially the work of Dr. Peter Levine, can be just amazingly helpful. It’s what I used for my own PTSD, and I really wouldn’t use anything else, so it’s got a big thumbs up from me. Here’s his professional training site, which includes a directory of somatic-trained therapists throughout the world.

      I hope that helps!

  17. leslie o'keeffe
    | Reply

    thank you Karla,
    I look forward to reading your books, checking out the one for children as well :), and looking at Dr Levine’s work. Between all of these, perhaps I will better understand my emotions and what I am actually feeling. Maybe even know why I feel certain ways and what it is trying to tell me. I am finding your videos very interesting and hopeful in trying to understand more the language of emotions

  18. Bonnie
    | Reply

    Hi, Karla,
    I’ve always thought of feeling as the noun and emotion as the verb. E-motion is “motion away from.” As in external motion. Hope you can better understand why I sometimes find your text confusing until I sort it out.
    Thanks for the work you do.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hi Bonnie – you’re not alone in your confusion, and I think your reasoning is understandable. Emotions are often evoked by action, and they require an action — there’s a tremendous amount of movement around emotions. Emotions – emotere — also motivate us; they move us.

      And as Antonio Damasio says, they’re action-requiring neurological programs. They’re action figures!

  19. Aprilflower
    | Reply

    I have a question about feelings or emotions and trueness or rightness. Should your feelings be right most the time if you want to be considered emotionally healthy? Or if they’re not right most the time(cause like you said all feelings/emotions are true) wouldnt that mean something’s kind of wrong?

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello! There are so many situations where an emotion might be tracking to an invalid stimulus that I wouldn’t attach labels to it. Some people are more emotionally sensitive than others, and they tend to be stimulated emotionally more often. However, if the same emotion comes up a lot of the time, that can be an issue. This post may be helpful: How Much Emotion is Too Much?

  20. Aprilflower
    | Reply

    I’m new to these post, but so much of what you’re saying rings true with me fom my ears to my toes. :)

  21. Aprilflower
    | Reply

    Thanks. Your books and posts give a much needed extra perspective to other books I’ve been reading.

  22. Sue
    | Reply

    The Language of Emotions has been so helpful for me in learning how to face my anger and know what to deal with it.

    I had a breakthrough the other day. I wrote about it here (and thanked you too :) –

  23. Mr T
    | Reply

    This article makes me wonder how you work with people who display signs of cyclothymia.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hey Mr. T. I focus on supporting people as they learn how their emotional responses work, and in what situations. It’s a process of understanding themselves as unique emotional organisms, and also understanding the unique ways their emotions intermingle and interact. So it’s a process of becoming meta-cognitive (or meta-emotive). For those of us who are neurologically diverse, this acceptance frame seems to be the place we come to sooner or later (hopefully sooner).

  24. David
    | Reply

    Hi Karla!

    I would like to hear your thoughts on the phenomenon (in lack of a better word) of being serious-minded/grave or lighthearted. For me, I experience the seriousness (since I’m Swedish, i’m not sure this is the best word to use, I hope you understand anyways) nowadays mostly when I’m trying to protect my soul, which tells me it’s a gift of anger. I’m curious since seriousness is alot connected with being negative in the cultures i pertain to. For me, accessing the skill to be serious, which I kind of define as having the ability of looking someone in the eye or participating in a social situation without necessarily mirror everything/take part in all the laughter etc) has taken me all my life (I’m 25) while I before always reacted with laughter/nervousness/absent-mindedness/lack of focus etc, tendencies which still arise but not as much.

    Before taking part of your work, I guess that I saw these both tendencies to be more of a fixed personality type of thing, but I now believe they are more malleable (or as we say in Swedish: floating, I’m not sure it used in english in that way) in the realms of water – that is: seriousness and lightheartedness will find it’s healthy balance and flow with healthy emotions in general.

    Hope that this made any sense, I’m feeling kind of sketchy

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello David — good questions.

      Yes, I agree that seriousness is a gift of anger. Laughter can be, too, but I think that this excerpt of a poem by David Whyte speaks to exactly what you’re saying.

      Self Portrait (excerpt)

      … I want to know if you belong,
      or feel abandoned,
      if you know despair or
      can see it in others.
      I want to know if you are prepared to live in the world
      with its harsh need to change you,
      and if you can look back with firm eyes
      saying this is where I stand …

      David Whyte

      And yes to the malleability. Richard Davidson’s book The Emotional Life of Your Brain suggests that many personality traits that were once seen as fixed are actually malleable, and can have a floating balance throughout a person’s lifespan!

  25. Darla
    | Reply

    This morning I was listening to your audio chat with Tami Simons and I realized that I had yet to order your books — which I’ve now done. :-) I thoroughly enjoy how you approach emotions.

    One contrast I have to your emotional flows above, is that I was taught in Ayurveda that feelings are the base experience (physiological) that rises in our bodies and then emotions are when we think about them (with relation to belief or situation or intellect) and then they evolve from there. Do you think this is simply a translation conflict?

    You also talk to Tami about the elements as they align with emotions, from your perspective. Do you address this in your book(s)? Can’t wait to read them!

    Thank you for helping people get in touch with their emotions! :-)

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Darla, and welcome!

      Yes, I talk about the elements in The Language of Emotions, and I talk about the difference between feelings and emotions in The Art of Empathy.

      There are many different ideas about what emotions and feelings are — however, the emotions are primary to cognition. They arise more quickly — perhaps thousands of times more quickly, than thoughts can. Compared to the lightning-speed of the emotions, which are millions of years older than human beings, the intellect is like a horse drawn-cart plodding through the mud!

      What I do see is that people can react to their emotions, make up stories about them, and shun them — so when that emotion tries to arise, people will clog up their psyches with a lot of unhelpful ideas and behaviors. In that way, people’s thoughts can interfere with their basic emotional functioning.

      But neurologically speaking, emotions arise first, and feeling is our capacity to identify the emotions. Thinking comes later.

      • Darla
        | Reply

        Thank you so much, Karla! Can hardly wait to read your books. Blessings!

  26. Jane
    | Reply

    Hi Karla, I can see you’ve put a lot of thought into your resources here. What I’ve been looking for for a long time is a list that *onnects emotions to physical sensations. There are plenty of lists of emotions out there, from the simple to the nuanced. And there are plenty of lists of physical sensation words (warm, cold, tight, tingling, numb, etc.). But what I can’t find is a list that connects the two together. I want that list so that when I think I’m experiencing an emotion, I can have a list of potential sensations to look for in my body…or when I experience a sensation, I can have a list of candidate emotions to associate with it. Before I purchase yet another book in the hopes of finding this information, can you tell me whether yours has such a chart/table/list, or whether there are other sources you would recommend I check for this? Many thanks.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Jane and thanks for the question.

      Though some people focus on emotions in that way, I have found that the physiological responses to emotions are not reliably shared, and they look very different in different people, and in people who have been taught to suppress or overemphasize certain emotions. They also look different in people with differing neurological makeups or cultural backgrounds.

      For instance, in many hyper-empathic people, the experience of emotions is extremely subtle, and is not tied to overt physiological changes.

      So I don’t focus on the physiological experience of emotions, but instead focus on the purpose of each emotion and when and why it might arise.

      In this way, both the emotions and the physiological changes (such as a tightness in the chest or a heaviness in the hands, for instance) are something that a person can learn how to feel and identify.

      I did look for shared physiological responses early in my career, but I didn’t find too many. I even found that the area of the body where people sense emotions is different. I found that the focus on physiology ended up confusing people more than it led to clarity.

      Also, the sensation change — they’re not reliable for many people, so they sort of lead people down an unhelpful path. Of course, some people are very physical with their emotions, so their physiological responses are a valid way for them to learn about emotions. But I don’t know of books or resources that focus on physiology.

  27. Alan Rutherford
    | Reply

    I’m a therapist and I’ve been confused by the difference between emotions and feelings. This helped me understand, and you explained it in such a practical way. Thank you!

    I have a question: when we say “I feel sad” or “I feel exhausted” or “I feel confident” we are verbalizing our emotions, right?

    It makes sense to me. We feel our emotions, right? And linguistically, there’s no other way to say it — we don’t use the verb ’emote’ very much, and it’s intransitive anyway, so it would make no sense to say “I emote sad.”

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Yes! The feeling stage of emoting is something that many people haven’t been welcomed to do, since so much neurotypical emotion management involves repression or outright lying!

      This can be addressed, thankfully, at any stage of the life span by simply increasing our emotional vocabulary. If we have more words for our emotions, we become more able to feel and recognize them. Surprisingly, research by Lisa Feldman Barrett and others suggests that simply having more words for emotions confers better emotion regulation skills! That’s easy.

  28. Robert Lettau
    | Reply

    Karla, your explanation about the differences between emotions and feelings is very helpful.

    Many of the people I work with have been incarcerated. Often, a mental illness diagnosis and addictions accompany the justice-involved.

    As you pointed out, a component of Emotional Intelligence is self-awareness. You cannot be self-aware if you cannot name your emotions and feelings.

    Trauma can impact a person and disrupt their emotional intelligence. Just the thoughts of previous trauma can be that emotionally evocative “situation” you defined.

    Your important research can begin to lessen the impact of trauma on others, improve their emotional health, and elevate their emotional intelligence. Thank you.

    “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.”

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Thanks you Robert,

      Yes, much of this work originated because I was dealing with fierce emotions most of the time and didn’t know what to do. These emotions were a response to the extensive traumas I experienced as a child, and I thought that if they would just calm down or go away, my life would be fine.

      I learned that the emotions were not the problem. In fact, they brought me the exact information and intensity I needed to address and heal the problem! Learning how to feel and identify emotions is an essential first step.

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