Emotions and what we know of them…

Emotions. We have heard of them, felt them, and seen them. Yet at times it’s confusing, hard, complex, difficult to make sense, control. Today let’s just take a peek at what’s the great deal about them. 

Emotions are subjective – as personally experienced by a person – state of mind. In other words, what one is feeling at a given moment. Emotions are reactions to our environment (external) or a thought or a previous experience (internal). 

Emotions, as experienced by a person, have got basic components to it. Breaking down emotion, it has got – the psychophysiological changes (linking body arousal and impact of mental states), subjective experience (personal and unique), cognition process (to understand), and expressive behavior (outward expression). 

Emotions are not under our conscious control. It’s mediated by the limbic system in our human brains. There are different structures in our brain – neural structures, the limbic system, neurotransmitters – that are involved in an emotional experience. Some of the emotions that we feel are genetically inherited from our ancestors – it is already programmed into our DNAs, whereas others are learned through our experiences, social cues, from our environment (parents, peers). Some we learn as part of our culture, community, some emotions we elaborate and process it cognitively and consciously and give meaning to them. Though some of the emotions and its expression are universal, there are distinct culturally different emotions and expressions of it as well. 

Basically emotions help us survive. It also act as adaptive responses to our environment. Emotions are also influenced by a person’s values and principles. Not all people are moved by, affected by the same things, nor do they experience it as similarly to other person. One thing that cause joy to a person, can cause anger or sadness to other person. Thus we all feel and express our emotions uniquely and amazingly in subjective manner. 

There are basically six emotions as experienced by human beings. They are anger, disgust, fear, happiness, surprise and sadness. All the other emotions we experience are one or more combinations of these basic emotions. 

Emotions – how does it play out? 

Like I said, emotion has got many components to it. One of it being how it is expressed. In more technical sense, there are two ways of expressing it – instrumental and expressive behavior of emotions. Instrumental behavior is any action performed to reach a goal. Expressive behavior is any action, conscious or unconscious that convey a person’s wants, desires, emotions. 

Talking about instrumental behavior of emotions or instrumental emotions – “people subconsciously ready themselves to feel emotions they believe will be most useful to them in an anticipated situation.” Such emotions are called “instrumental emotions.”

Whereas expressive emotions just as the name suggest is the outward expressions of an emotion that plays out on an individual’s face/body, which can be verbal/nonverbal and happens with or without awareness. 

In simpler terms one is the immediate emotion (expressive) that one feels to a certain event, interaction or thought and that which is not thought through. The other is the instrumental emotion which is responsive and is not immediate, it is thoroughly thought out expression of an emotion, especially to achieve a goal. The latter one sometimes involves suppressing of certain emotions. The instrumental emotions involve the concept of emotional regulation and often involve social situations, negotiations, where the expressions of emotions can have impact on interactions. 

Positive/negative – good/bad emotions – what’s the deal?

So growing up in our culture, I guess most of us have heard this labelling of emotions. We are taught from an early age about the good emotions, bad emotions or positive or negative emotions. Emotions such as happy, joy, pride, interest, gratitude, hope, excitement etc. are commonly deemed as the good emotions or positive. The bad or negative emotions are commonly sad, jealousy, anger, frustrations, helplessness, loneliness, fear, disgust etc. 

As an adult, what I have observed/experienced from my childhood days is that the adults/caregivers around us emphasizing how important it is to stay happy or feel all the positive good feelings. And if there is something that upsets us, we should pay it no mind. If you are feeling anger/sad/fear/helplessness/jealousy – “you shouldn’t feel it, why are you feeling it, you are bad to feel it, weak/ugly” – “suppress it, distract yourself, ignore it” etc. are the approaches. 

And if there is something to celebrate or be happy about – “enjoy but not that much”, “psstt something bad might happen”.

What exactly makes them bad? What is bad about feeling sad or anger or fear? Why is happiness a positive or good emotion?

So much assumptions, limitations, labels, conclusions to feelings our emotions. Thus effectively forgetting the importance and purpose of each emotions. 

Once again we are forgetting the important point – emotions are subjective. They are personal and unique. Especially how one feels it, how one expresses it. There is difference to the intensity with which it is felt. There are highs and lows to each of the emotions, and it varies with individuals and situations. And moreover emotions are linked also to memories and our experiences. As children we learn from the reactions of our parents/adults in our environment what emotions are acceptable not acceptable, ok to express, not ok to express and so much more. One’s upbringing, culture, environment also matters in one’s own emotional awareness as well as expressing or communication of the felt emotions. These later can impact our adult ways of feeling and communication of these emotions. 

We come a full circle here. As children we are not given much opportunity to experience and feel our own emotions uniquely to its full extent. We are taught how to feel it, to what extent, what not to feel, how to express it – as children again we correct ourselves in our own ways according to social cues, body languages, expectations of  adults in our lives. This correction can take the form of either very accommodating (feeling wise), or rebellious or something in between. And again and again it goes on, passed on from one generation to the other. 

So what happens when we are told not to be too happy, not to feel anger or sadness or don’t cry? We grow into adults who don’t know what to feel, who have no awareness of the emotions we feel, who grow to fear one’s own emotions, their intensity, adults with no clue as to what to do with the anger in us, with the sadness in us. We grow to live in the shadow of our own emotions, either always accommodating others emotions, disregarding, running from one’s own feelings or feeling too much and not knowing how to manage, regulate it, or at times not knowing what one is feeling at all. 

Want to know more about understanding and managing one’s own feelings? Click the link to our article …..