Just about anyone we talk to interchanges the meaning of feelings and emotions. However, if we ask directly, most people will equate feeling more with being in the moment and emotions as if they’re talking about feelings but somehow a little more distant or removed connecting to other people and events. In asking, most people would assert that there is little or no difference. The only exception might be someone who is very tangibly oriented and relates the senses as being feeling and emotions as being something else. My take on them is a bit different than most.
If I were to describe a feeling (not related to the physical senses), I would define it as a movement of energy within us that arises involuntarily and elicits or imparts a “flavor” to the experience or person to which we’ve connected. An emotion is something much more that includes a “pairing” of the same rising feeling, having the experience but with an applied mental judgment that we commit to our memory so we may be prepared with a response or course of action the next time we repeat the same experience or one that is similar. This may sound somewhat convoluted but you must understand that we’ve experienced feeling as an infant long before our mind came into play enabling us to create words to describe it. From that perspective we can easily see how feeling can be involuntary. Emotions contain more of a voluntary component in that if we change our thoughts and judgment about the feeling it will trigger a different response from us with the same or a similar experience. Notice that the feeling remains the same but we apply a different meaning to its “flavor.” All emotions or “composite” feelings are derivatives of the six Elementary Feelings.
The work of Dr. Paul Ekman has been dedicated toward expanding the work of Charles Darwin who postulated that animals have six elementary expressions based on what they feel. Remember, we are still part animal. However, we’ve learned to hide that fact from ourselves through social training and programming. Dr. Ekman has refined the feelings in humans to include happiness, surprise, sadness, disgust, anger and fear. These six on their onset do not include any mental or mind generated component. They can be viewed on our face almost instantaneously in what he calls micro-expressions occurring in one tenth of a second. Then, in humans, our mind quickly recovers its control and replaces them with the socially expected and appropriately trained expressions. Micro-expressions are a key tool in determining whether someone is lying or not. Many of us have this ability innately, don’t recognize it and simply attribute it to being instinctive (an animal characteristic).
Each of the six Elementary Feelings rest on a scale which extends from feeling the most comfortable and in control to feeling the least comfortable and out of control. When I speak of feeling in control or not, I refer to a psychological term called locus of control. An internal locus of control is when we feel we are in control of our life circumstances and an external locus of control is when we feel that our life circumstances are controlled by outside influences. The six Elementary Feelings embody qualities of both in different degrees. On the furthest of the internal side of feeling the most in control we have happiness. On the furthest of the external side where we feel others have control is fear. The other four range between the two extremes at varied points. The following are my perceptions of each of the Elementary Feelings and how they relate to our feeling in control or not.
Happiness – For most people happiness is a feeling of being free to be able to be and do what we want with little or no interference from the outside world. And if there is any interference, it is something that is so unimportant or irrelevant that we barely perceive it. It is the feeling in which we feel the most in control.
Surprise – It is very similar to happiness on the scale but with an element of outside play or influence making us feel that we’re not quite as free or in control as we might have thought or liked. Usually, its occurrence is not of our own doing. However, it usually has a minimal dampening effect on our feeling in control.
Sadness – In sadness we acknowledge that there are also some circumstances in the world which are beyond our control. But, we do mind them being so, however we do not need to resist or challenge the experience knowing that we cannot change it. We also do not feel trapped in the experience and we know that we have other options to feel free and mobile if we choose not to react.
Disgust – Disgust is similar to sadness but with more of an active component. The repulsion of disgust resonates with our Shadow which we refuse or deny and consequently project on others. The rise of disgust feels less in control of our environment and circumstances than with sadness but with enough of a feeling of control to still push it away as our Shadow. Here we refocus on other options that present more of an opportunity for self-determination. Unfortunately, in this case the balance between feeling in control (internal) and feeling out of control (external) leans a little more toward the out than the in.
Anger – Anger holds much of the same impetus as disgust, does but there is much more of an urge to pursue the object of our anger with the intention of either eliminating the cause or changing the perspective of the person who, besides us, creates the tension. Anger is where we feel the flow of our energy blocked and counter the blockage with our own resistance. This resistance gains its power from our perceived immobility resulting in our failure to refocus on an easier path by virtue of our continued belief or assumption that external circumstances have more power and influence over our chosen path or direction than we do.
There are varying degrees of anger that we can feel which depend on how free or blocked we may feel. The more blocked we feel, the more intense the anger. The anger itself is powered by the hope or belief that an impasse can be moved beyond with force, the right intensity or the right external manipulation.
Fear – Fear is a lot like anger except that its intensity is consequently turned inward as a result of the belief or assumption that the external environment is totally in control and that we have no option or ability to refocus other than to simply withdraw from, avoid or escape the situational consequences. It is the feeling in which we feel the least in control. It is also the feeling of fear is often tightly paired and interwoven with depression and helplessness in that its most common effect is immobility, either out of fear of losing the self (physically, emotionally or egotistically) or of losing or having lost an important person in our lives. Again, we feel totally out of control. Helplessness is a primary contributor to the manifestation of fear and depression. It is the most dominant factor in perceiving that our life operates totally from an external locus of control.
Apathy – This is the last feeling which is not included in Ekman’s pantheon of Elementary Feelings. I hesitated in assigning it a position in the range between feeling in control or out because its flexibility allows the dynamic to be activated anywhere along the internal/external continuum depending on our resiliency and fortitude in processing the other six feelings. Let me explain.
When we think of apathy most of us perceive someone who doesn’t care or appears to have no feelings about a situation. To this day we idolize characters like Dirty Harry who appear to be immune to circumstances that would have ordinarily triggered fear, anger or any other feelings or emotions in the average person. But we know that this type of projected persona is simply a ruse. We know that they are actually experiencing the feeling, but being “brave” or “tough” to cover the evidence of it.
But, when the dynamic that occurs with a person who has received a traumatic physical or emotional injury happens as a result of that trauma, we go into shock. The body shuts down. Our awareness of pain is turned off. It is my belief than anyone who has had a trauma eliciting the intensity of one of the Elementary Feelings beyond their tolerance and personal limit can also shut down to the point where their feelings couldn’t even be perceived through micro-expressions. When the feelings are involuntarily blocked in this way, any feelings below that level are also masked or muted. So, if we shut down at anger, fear, helplessness and depression would also no longer be perceived, yet, we would still feel their effects. I believe that this is why so many of us are depressed and don’t even realize it; not necessarily because we have all been through a trauma but that any pressure or influence over a long period of time has the effect of desensitizing us to where we no longer feel those same stresses and pressures. We become automatons going through our daily routines unaware of the stresses we have let imprison us. The sad part is that as we desensitize ourselves to the hurtful influences, the empathic, compassionate and loving influences fall into the same chasm.
It has been said that the depth of our love can be measured by the depth of the pain we have experienced. If this is so, where does this leave us in allowing that empathy, compassion and love muted or diminished through desensitizing ourselves to our pain? This is truly a sad and paradoxical conundrum.
I have given you this list of Elementary Feelings and their correspondences to feeling in control because I want you to look at your close relationships and determine which of the six Elementary Feelings you feel most frequently when you interact with them. In this way you can see how much you feel in control of your life or not through keeping them in your circle while, at the same time, expecting emotional support from them. When you realize that their influence on you rests on the bottom or close to the bottom of the emotional scale it will let you know which of them you would like to begin to minimize your contact with. In maximizing your contact with those on the top or near the top of the emotional scale you will begin to increase your feeling of being in control which will, in turn, start to reverse what you have desensitized yourself to. This will have an overall effect of lightening any depression or helpless feelings you may have been “plagued” with. Recognizing that we may be depressed is the first step toward lifting it.
So, the next time someone asks you what you’re feeling, perhaps, you may think a bit more deeply as to the “flavor” and whether it has arisen in you involuntarily or if it is the product of a past experience to which you have attached a changeable judgment or a preference. Either way, I don’t think you’ll look at feelings and emotions the same way ever again.
Please note: There is a companion workbook available for the self-work presented in the book ENERGIZING SELF TRUST: 7 Steps for Reclaiming You Power. Its cost is $10 plus postage. Contact me if you wish to receive a copy. Also, a two day seminar is being planned for Sarasota, Florida for mid-November.