The Wonderful World of Multiple Emotions!
There are four ideas about emotions that are widely shared and accepted — yet are absolutely problematic. These four commonly accepted ideas actually prevent you from being able to approach your emotions — or anyone else’s — intelligently. They are:
- The problem with valencing (imagining that there are positive or negative emotions, or pro-social or anti-social emotions)
- The problem with expression and repression (having only two options for working with your emotions, both of which can be unhelpful)
- The problem of nuance (not understanding that emotions arise in a multitude of intensities, and are present in your every waking moment)
- The problem of quantity (not realizing that it is completely normal for emotions to arise in pairs, groups, and clusters)
In this excerpt from my new book, The Art of Empathy, let’s look at the way multiple emotions act and interact in your everyday life.
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 affront to our sense of self; we needed fear so that we could be very awake and intuitive about possible hazards; and we needed healthy 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.
Emotions arise because they’re necessary, and in many situations, multiple emotions are required. Emotions are action-requiring neurological programs, and you can easily have more than one program running at any given time. Emotions are a collection of interrelated skills, abilities, and aptitudes – so it’s natural for them to sometimes arise in pairs or groups, and it’s natural for them to follow one another swiftly after you complete the distinct actions each one requires.
Vocabulary may be a 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 joy about the misfortune of another.
In schadenfreude, which I sometimes call “savage glee,” there’s anger, happiness, joy, a distinct lack of shame, envy, jealousy, and a sense of righteous exultation 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 gleaned empathically – and it’s a continual source of fascination for me that the English language doesn’t identify clustered emotions.
The only 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 about a past happiness.
One 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. Ambivalence means that you’re feeling a “negative” emotion and a “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 our language that tells us that two emotions is way too many – and that confusion is the correct response. Wow, English language, wow!
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.
The myth of second-hand emotions
One big problem that arises when you don’t know that emotions work together is one that happens regularly with anger – which many people misidentify as a “second-hand emotion.” Anger is sort of the whipping boy of the emotional realm (okay, all emotions except possibly happiness are the whipping boy at some point), and I notice that people have a lot of entrenched misconceptions about anger.
The second-hand mistake is a case in point, and it’s a very easy mistake to make if you don’t understand how emotions work together, and how anger in particular will arise to protect you and your other emotions (and especially sadness and fear).
Think about this in terms of the self-protective gifts anger brings you: In many cases, openly expressing your sadness or your fear is actually socially dangerous. Openly displaying sadness (and tears) can cause you to lose face, while openly displaying fear can make others think you’re a coward. Neither of these displays are good for your standpoint, or your self image – and in these instances, your anger will be activated, not because it’s a disordered, dishonest, or second-hand emotion, but because it’s necessary.
We’ve all had the experience of feeling sadness – of feeling as if we’re going to cry – and then suddenly getting angry and cranky at someone instead. Or with fear, we’ve all had someone jump out and scare the wits out of us, and right after we jump back, we snap angrily, “Cut it OUT!” In these situations, the “real” emotions are being protected by expressive outbursts of anger.
But that’s anger’s job; it’s a protective emotion! It’s not a second-hand emotion in instances where it jumps out in front of the “real” emotions you’re feeling. Anger is real, too. Anger is doing its job. It’s protecting your sense of self, your position, and your standpoint.
You can clearly observe the ignorance-producing effects of emotional valencing when you look at another second-hand emotion that might arise in these same situations.
In both of these situations, happiness can also jump out in front of your “real” emotions: If you’re about to cry but it’s not safe to do so, you might smile or laugh – or, if someone jumps out and scares the heck out of you, you might laugh after you jump back. In both instances, the smiling and laughing will cover your sadness and your fear – but no one calls happiness a second-hand emotion!
In fact, if you laugh when someone scares you, you’ll probably be seen as a really good sport. Yet it’s the exact same mechanism – where one emotion jumps out to protect you when displaying the “real” emotions might be socially unwise. However, when anger is involved, it’s suddenly a big problem.
Valencing emotions makes us ignorant about their actual functions, so thank goodness we don’t have to rely on valencing in our empathic work, whew!
Now, there can be problems when emotions step out in front of the “real” ones. Empathically speaking, when I see someone who uses anger (or happiness, or sadness, or anxiety, or any other emotion) in front of pretty much every other emotion they have, then yes, I want to ask about what’s going on.
You don’t want to see the same exact emotion arising in every possible situation – because that’s not how emotions work in an emotionally flexible person. But this is a pretty rare situation. For most of us, emotions arise in pairs, groups, and clusters – and your job as an empathically aware person is to understand which actions are required, and then to complete those actions to the best of your ability.
When you can successfully complete the actions your emotions require, new and different emotions will arise, at many different levels of nuance and intensity – some in the subtle form of gifts and skills, some as identifiable moods, and some as intensely activated calls to immediate action. And in many cases, there will be more than one emotion active at any given time. That’s natural; that’s how emotions work.
Understanding how emotions work will help you develop deep emotional awareness, and all six essential aspects of empathy.
Thank you for bringing your emotional awareness and agility to our waiting world.