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!
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.