The fourth key to emotional genius

It is normal for emotions to arise in pairs and groups!

Learning how to work with your emotions empathically means learning how they work and how to work with them directly.

Many of the emotional confusions we have arise because we weren’t taught that emotions work together to help us make sense of our world.

Emotions are aspects of our awareness and our intelligence, and when they arise in pairs or groups, it’s because we need more support than one emotion can provide by itself!

The fourth key: Identifying and understanding multiple emotions

Emotions don’t arise one at a time in a kind of military precision – they usually arise in pairs, groups, or clusters. In many cases, such as the conflict we observed in this post, we saw that fear and shame arose alongside anger when our mouthy friend insulted our clothing. These three emotions arose together because we needed all three of them.

We needed anger to address the direct challenge to our sense of self; we needed fear so that we could be very awake and intuitive about possible hazards; and we needed our shame to help us moderate our behavior so that the situation wouldn’t spiral out of control.

All three of these emotions were required in the situation.

Multiple emotions are often required

Emotions arise because they’re necessary, and in many situations, multiple emotions are required.

Emotions are a collection of interrelated skills, abilities, and aptitudes – so it’s natural for them to arise in pairs or groups, and it’s natural for them to follow one another swiftly after we complete the distinct actions each one requires.

But we have only four English words to describe the natural way emotions work!

Cover of The Language of Emotions bookVocabulary is a huge problem here: In the English language, we have almost no words that meld emotions together in the way they actually work in real life.

Some friends and I were talking recently about finding a word for the kind of happiness that makes you cry, because something is so beautiful and also so touching that you become overtaken by joy and sadness and happiness (and sometimes grief) all at once.

The closest we could come was bittersweet, but that’s not an emotion – it’s a flavor!

To find an emotion-melding word, we actually had to go outside the English language.

In the German language, there’s a wonderful melded-emotion word: schadenfreude, which means feeling savage joy about the misfortune of another.

In schadenfreude, there’s anger, happiness, joy, a distinct lack of shame, envy, jealousy, and a sense of righteous glee when you see someone receive a much-deserved comeuppance, hah!

Usually, there‘s a lot of history behind those combined emotions: the person who is suddenly brought so low may have been lording over you for quite some time, or may have received many undeserved accolades while your own work went unacknowledged.

When that many emotions arise in a cluster, there’s a tremendous amount of social information that can be understood empathically – and it’s a continual source of fascination for me that the English language doesn’t usually identify clustered emotions.

I found a couple of good mixed-emotion words

One other melded-emotion word I could think of is gloating, which is a little bit like schadenfreude, except when you gloat, you win or prevail over someone (in schadenfreude, the other person has lost, but you haven’t necessarily won), and you gloatingly express your savage glee, apply shame to your opponent, and kick her when she’s down. Ouch.

Someone at a workshop I gave also mentioned nostalgia, which includes a temporal dimension; it’s a current sadness or grief that you feel about a past happiness or joy.

Another English word, ambivalence, describes the state of feeling more than one emotion – and if you’re a wordsmith, you’ll notice the word valence right inside that word. Unvalencing emotions if the first key to emotional genius!

Ambivalence means that you’re feeling an allegedly “negative” emotion and an allegedly “positive” emotion together, and that you’re confused because you can’t possibly decide which of the two emotions is true (hint: they’re both true!).

We’ve actually got a word in the English language that tells us that two emotions is way too many – and that confusion is the correct response.

Wow, English language, wow! You’re not helping.

You’re so emotional!

I’m also interested in our very limited emotional vocabulary in another way, because I notice that people will use the word emotional to mean just about anything.

“You’re so emotional” can mean that you’re angry, anxious, sad, fearful, or that your emotions change a lot (as they should!).

“Let’s not get emotional” can mean almost anything, but it’s usually a way to shame you out of a behavior or a position that doesn’t work for the other person.

“Emotions ran high,” can mean that people fought in anger, that they cried, or that they responded in many different ways, such as laughing, shouting, booing, or walking out in disgust.

The word emotional can mean everything and nothing, because many people just don’t have very strong emotional vocabularies.

Sadly, this also means that they don’t have strong emotional awareness – which also means that their empathic skills will likely be very limited (here’s a free Emotional Vocabulary List to help you develop stronger emotional awareness).

Understanding emotions individually is a great first step in increasing your empathic skills. But out in the real world, emotions don’t always arise individually. If you don’t know that, you can fundamentally misunderstand the purpose of emotions.

Emotions require their emotion-friends in order to work well

Emotions naturally work in pairs, groups, and clusters – and your job is to understand how your emotions work so that you can support them.

Understanding how emotions work will help you develop deep emotional awareness and a healthy emotional life.

Thank you for bringing your emotional awareness and agility to our waiting world.


19 Responses

  1. Bill
    | Reply

    Thanks for the post, Karla! Question – is Vulnerability an emotion? My friend and I were talking about this the other day. My belief is that it is not. To me, vulnerability is the state of feeling fear about what others might do or say to us. So when someone says: “I feel vulnerable,” I think they are really saying: “I feel fear about how you might judge me or hurt me.” To me, it’s another squishy term to avoid saying “I feel fear.”
    What do you think?

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hi Bill — you may have discovered another mixed-emotion word. I agree with you that vulnerability is fear, but is it also shame and maybe some sadness or grief? Emotion detectives want to know!

  2. Bill
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    Yes, thank you! That lands as true for me. When people say “I feel vulnerable” I have found myself wanting them to be more honest with themselves and me by acknowledging their fear/shame/sadness/grief. Though perhaps my expectation is not likely to be met by most!

    I have another question – though it may not be under this particular blog topic. I didn’t know where to put it. I signed up for your emotions online course, and I noticed you haven’t responded to the forum since May 2012, so I will post here. What about SOUND boundaries?? I have excellent hearing, and find myself listening to many things around me. I grew up in a home in which my mom taught piano lessons, so I often would find myself listening to the lesson.

    Nowadays, I have found myself many many many times feeling anger about the noises around me. For example, barking dog at home, neighbors playing music, my bosses at work, loud construction trucks. I’d love any help with A) What is going operating here internally and B) Where to put my attention and navigate my emotions here.

    Thanks so much!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hi Bill, huh, the forum at Emotional Flow is no longer sending me updates. It may be that after the live course ends, I sort of disappear as an entity. I’m like a ghost!

      About sensory sensitivity: It seems to me that it’s actually quite functional to feel anger about sounds that are an assault to your organism. If you think about other sensory inputs — if someone shined bright lights in your eyes, or rubbed your skin with sandpaper, or filled your house with terrible smells, you’d be very uncomfortable, and possibly angry. You’d certainly feel disgust in the situation with the terrible smells.

      So my question is whether your anger is trying to tell you something? Do you need some auditory protection? Personally, I wear earplugs a lot of the time — certainly in airplanes and at movie theaters — because the decibel levels in the everyday world are getting higher, or my hearing is getting more acute. In either case, it’s uncomfortable, but most people don’t even seem to notice it.

      Restaurants? Oh, forget it.

      So my question would be about setting boundaries in the midst of insensitive people. Certainly there are noise ordinances in cities, and we can always speak to neighbors about sound hygiene, but self protection and self-boundary setting is often necessary as well.

      I hope that helps?

  3. Bill
    | Reply

    Thanks, Karla. By self boundary setting, do you mean your boundary practices?

    Over the weekend, I went to the town of Ojai, and I was at a ranch far away from noises. I was in heaven, I could hear the birds chirping, water flowing, and wind chimes tinkling. I was amazed how relaxed and calm I became. And I’ve since wondered, is that what I require to feel consistently at peace? Being away from the hum of air conditioners, refrigerators, beeping trucks, freeways, etc. I imagine being caffeinated may make me more sensitive and alert, so I can’t blame it all on the noises. But there clearly is a connection for me between noise/sound and my peace. Perhaps finding a way to channel this anger energy would be helpful as well.

    Thanks much.

    • Karla
      | Reply


      I mean setting aural boundaries around your home — heavy curtains, asking your neighbors to have a noise curfew, moving into different areas of the house to protect your hearing. Things like that.

      Also, your environment plays a huge role in your mood, and you may simply be more environmentally awake than many people. There have been studies about city dwellers, and the news isn’t good in terms of mood disorders. Anxiety and depression are big in city dwellers, and I’m not sure if they looked at the constant light and noise, but wow, that would make me very uncomfortable.

      The anger you feel may be a protective response that’s stopping you from dropping into depression or ramping up into anxiety. Anger is a very self-protective emotion, and sometimes it protects your other emotions.

      The things you’ve discovered in nature are very important. They’re telling you specific things about the unique needs of your organism.

  4. Bill
    | Reply

    Hi Karla
    Thank you for your response! This weekend in ceremony I had a realization about my own sensitivity. We say people are hypersensitive – to noise, sound, energy – yet, I now believe that the opposite is more true. That most of the population has been de-sensitized. Think about it. If we took indigenous living people out of their habitat and stuck them on Hollywood Boulevard, for example, they would probably have a panic attack. With all the car noises, and people’s energy. Out in the wild, that much noise and stimulation would be a sign of danger.

    And those that were highly sensitive were likely the best hunters and trackers. And could predict and avoid danger more than less sensitive people could. So there was an advantage to being sensitive. Whereas now, in some ways, there is a disadvantage to being sensitive. So our culture, in order to deal with all the mechanical noises, and energy and toxins become desensitized for our own protection. So that we can survive. But ultimately, I believe we were designed to be sensitive.

    I also am beginning to understand your work on boundaries. Imagining a boundary around me when I go out into a crowded place – the importance of that – especially in certain settings like busy city streets with lots of unhappy people. The other day, I was walking through a busy part of Los Angeles with an energy of fire around me – to protect my sensitive inner self. It was totally required – since I could pick up around me a lot of anger and rage energy.

    Thanks for the link to the article. Strikes me as true…. I worked from home today, away from the office which is typically filled with anxious energy, and I found it much easier to work and far more peaceful.
    Best wishes

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Awesome! Yes when I work with sensitive and especially with anxious people, I remind them that their ancestors probably helped their entire tribes survive — and that their abilities were once highly prized. Nowadays, being highly sensitive can be a stone drag, but I think you’re right that we were designed to be sensitive organisms.

      I’m searching through all my back issues of Scientific American Mind, and of course I can’t find it, dang! But I read a piece about the new understanding of how many senses we actually have beyond the common 5 — including a sense of time, a sense of proprioceptive and interoceptive awareness, a sense of direction, etc. I wish I could find it, because it was so cool to think about the many ways that each of us can be sensitive or insensitive.

      I’m glad you’re finding your way in the world as your unique self. But man, LA — that is an intense place!

      Okay, here’s an article that talks about the senses. cool!

  5. Bill
    | Reply

    That is interesting about having more than 5 senses. Why not, right? After all the idea of 5 senses is, like everything else, a human concept. So no reason to say there aren’t more. Cool article – thanks. I like the magnetic sense.

    Yes, of course there are some oases in LA here and there, but the whole driving aspect of it and massive amounts of people can be intense. And to think, if we used to be parts of tribes of 150 people. No wonder it can be so intense to walk through cities, encountering thousands of people we don’t know if we can trust them or not. So it makes sense why we de-sensitize and put up boundaries for most people we meet.

    Regardless, I’m questioning my living situation, for sure. I do love Ojai – a small town in Ventura county. Quiet and peaceful. Much quieter than LA – or even Santa Monica – where I live.

  6. Bill
    | Reply

    Hi Karla
    Just wanted to check in. Thanks for your feedback. I’ve been sleeping with earplugs more frequently. Which has helped. And I purchased some noise cancelling headphones, which I frequently wear at work. So your suggestions to protect my hearing and create quiet for myself has been very helpful. Also, I’ve been sharing many of the ideas you wrote about in your book – with my friends. And I’m enjoying sharing it with them – as I think it’s helped them shift their consciousness (and mine of course) – in terms of listening to our emotions – not judging them as good or bad, and using them as valuable messengers. So thank you!

    PS – I hope your upcoming book will be available as an audiobook. I would love that. 🙂

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Bill — oh, I’m glad that ear protection is helping. I’ve been studying what I’m calling “the tyranny of normalcy” in anthropology and the social sciences, and it’s really fascinating to me how much time we all spend doing things that really aren’t authentic, worthwhile, or even healthy — just to be a part of that strange thing called “normal life.” I’m glad you’ve found a way to support your actual self, huzzah!

      Yes, The Art of Empathy will be an audio book (and a paper book, and an e-book). I recorded it in March, and it will be released in October!

  7. Bill
    | Reply

    Oooo, I would love to read a blog of yours about the “tyranny of normalcy”. If you choose to write it. 🙂

    I look forward to The Art of Empathy!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Yes, next semester, I’ll be doing independent research in the social sciences on all of the ways we’re taught how to be normal. I’m calling my research Interrogating Normal. I think it will be a complete blast, and I think I will share things here. Good idea!

  8. Lily
    | Reply

    Love your pioneering work, Karla!

    The conversation about vulnerability caught my eye and reminded me of listening to Brene´ Brown on Tedx.

    Brene´ shines clarity on vulnerability as being a demonstration of courage, and we do feel that as a composite emotion. For when we make ourselves vulnerable, we are summoning courage (which to me is an emotion as well as action). Brene´points to vulnerability as also moving towards greater intimacy.

    I feel courageous actions may stir a host of other, older perhaps, emotions and tendencies that may have been historically holding us back, (which may be seen/described as energetic “imprints” in vibrational medicine).

    So in the sense at least that we are taking a positive growth step and we are “healing” ourselves it is courageous soul growth – which in my experience definitely stirs composite emotions! At least that’s our quick thoughts in the moment. Would love to hear more of yours on this!?

    Emotional intelligence is such a valuable skill. Wouldn’t it be great to have a curriculum for grammar school children? Or maybe you already do?

    Thanks, Karla, for all you are sharing and supporting!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Lily! I’ve been thinking about the artificial separation between emotions and other aspects of cognition, and I was just talking to a friend of mine about the term “rationality,” which I very rarely use, because it’s kind of a separatist term. You often hear it used when people want to split cognition into the emotional and the logical, even though cognition simply can’t be split up in this way. When people think they’re being unemotional and “rational,” their emotions are there all along, helping them make decisions, identify valid information, organize their perceptions, and so forth.

      What I notice is that most people focus on emotions only when they’re at the level of a mood, and know very little about the very subtle presentation of emotions — we have other names for emotions when they’re subtle. So fear at it’s subtle level is misidentified as intuition, instincts, focus, awareness, curiosity, and so forth, while anger in its subtle form is misidentified as courage, forthrightness, self-assurance, clarity, and shame in its subtle form is misidentified as conscientiousness, concern for others, behavioral maturity, and so on. Our emotional vocabulary tend to be so poor, and so unhelpful, that many of us misidentify emotions regularly. So I like this conversation about vulnerability, which is certainly an emotionally moderated state that involves sadness, healthy shame, fear, and some grief.

      I think if we really looked at behavioral descriptors, or words that refer to states of being, like mature, conscientious, intuitive, and self-assured, we would discover a treasure trove of emotional vocabulary words and words for paired and clustered emotions!

  9. Bill
    | Reply

    Perhaps Emotional Intelligence might be better called called Emotional Awareness or Emotional Mastery. I can be “intelligent” about emotions, but it’s not my intelligence about emotions, but my skill at working with them, shifting them, noticing them where the real value/trick is.

    My current belief is my first stage of growth is awareness of my emotions. Next stage will be awareness plus intention – the ability to love my emotions then shift them.

    Which for me is a real practice!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Yes Bill, I like Emotional Awareness — and your idea that noticing and working with them is key. Sometimes I just like to sit and listen to them!

  10. Bill
    | Reply

    Ah, Karla – good point. Maybe I haven’t been fully listening to them and giving them my attention. My experience has been when I’m NOT giving them my full attention, they like to hang around for a while until I do. So maybe it’s time to sit with them *fully*.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Emotions, those rascals!

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