Emotions — who needs them? Turns out, we all do! As it also turns out, each of them serves a specific purpose. Embracing your emotions presents countless opportunities for you to learn and grow. Why? Because all emotions carry valuable information. With increased awareness, you’ll discover that emotions can illuminate paths that are growing increasingly dim.
In this article, we’ll be taking a deep dive into what you can learn from your emotions and how understanding your emotions can lead to improved emotional literacy, a broader understanding of emotional intelligence, and stronger emotional wellbeing.
What are emotions?
Renowned psychiatrist, Robert Plutchik wrote that over the course of the twentieth century, over 90 definitions of emotions existed. This puts into perspective the complexity of defining emotions. Plutchik writes, “An emotion is not simply a feeling state. Emotion is a complex chain of loosely connected events that begins with a stimulus and includes feelings, psychological changes, impulses to action and specific, goal-directed behavior”. In short, emotions are triggered by external events and we experience them through our feelings.
So why do we need emotions?
We need emotions for a myriad of reasons, and while we may categorize them as good or bad, emotions are neutral, ephemeral, and last about 6 seconds in our bodies. Despite this, emotions keep us out of danger and help us take action on what’s important; communicating messages to others.
While human beings are capable of experiencing an almost countless number of nuanced emotions, we’ll only be focusing on 8 basic emotions as outlined by Robert Plutchik.
Consider taking out your journal or a piece of paper to reflect on these 8 emotions below; this seemingly simple activity can help you become more aware of the messages these emotions are sending you.
Anger functions in many ways, and although this particular emotion has a poor reputation, if used mindfully, it can provide you with useful information and experiences that trigger anger in your life can serve as occasions for personal growth. Anger can show up in your life when you need it; for example, if your friend has violated your trust, anger can help you. Anger motivates us to stand up for ourselves and set a boundary that we wouldn’t have set had we not experienced anger.
As author Jim Butcher says: “Anger is just anger. It isn’t bad. It just is. What you do with it is what matters. It’s like anything else. You can use it to build or destroy. You just have to make the choice.” The key takeaway here is that anger can be a healthy emotion that can help you, it all depends on how you use it.
What was the last thing that made you angry, and what did it tell you about yourself?
Fear, like anger, has many functions and is an emotion we would rather avoid. Fear, simply said, keeps us safe from danger. Fear demands your attention so you can stay focused on a potential threat. Fear also comes in many forms; a classic one being a fear of failure. Perhaps you feel too inadequate to make a career shift because you’ve never done it before and feel uncertain as a result. Fear is the friend that helps you prepare for eventualities by driving you to take the necessary actions. If we stay with the previous example, one of these actions could be to take a course and develop yourself professionally so you feel more confident about this career shift. Fear doesn’t have to paralyze us; it can be tamed and befriended.
When our bodies are under stress, the amygdala (responsible for emotional processing) signals our hippocampus (our brain’s command center) to communicate messages to the rest of our bodies through the autonomic nervous system. Our sympathetic nervous system gives the body an explosion of energy known as our fight-or-flight response to keep us out of potential danger. Ultimately, fear is a trustworthy instinct that tries to protect us.
When has fear driven you to take necessary action in your life?
Sadness is an emotion many of us run away from, for obvious reasons. Akin to anger and fear, its purpose is as vital as that of any other emotion. And, as is also true of any emotion, it comes and goes. However, as a society, our knee-jerk reaction towards sadness is to treat it as an unwanted guest, rather than a wise counsellor. But what if you learned how to sit with your sadness instead of running for the hills? Sadness is a natural response to loss; for example, being laid off from work, experiencing a breakup, or the passing of a loved one. Sadness has a way of helping us slow down to reflect on ourselves in ways that happiness doesn’t. Better health comes from acknowledging and understanding our sadness and is a sign of better wellbeing. If you allow yourself to embrace sadness, you’ll learn to accept that it’s merely part of the human experience. Changing our perspective on how we view sadness is a good start. Imagine sadness as an invitation to practice self-care and self-compassion.
How can you take better care of yourself when you experience sadness?
Joy or happiness is the emotion that we tend to fully embrace. And why wouldn’t you? Joy gives you the energy to connect with others, a reason to wake up in the morning, and an appreciation for life. It evokes feelings of ecstasy, euphoria and so much more, not to mention its many physical health benefits, including increased longevity. (Yes, joy has the potential to help you live longer!) In short, joy gives you a signal that life is good and that you’re satisfied with life. If you pay attention to the message joy sends you, you’ll discover what brings you a sense of fulfilment, what brings you meaning, and what gives you purpose. This creates an openness for you to seek more of the things in your life that have already given you joy. Joy also opens a window for gratitude, and when we show appreciation for what we have in our lives, our joy expands and makes room for more, leading to improved health, relationships and a greater sense of fulfilment. Joy gives you a picture of what satisfies you in life, whether that’s your job, a hobby you enjoy, or meaningful relationships.
What brings you joy and meaning?
Disgust is said to have evolved in our ancestors to prevent them from eating poisonous food. Disgust also refers to when we find a particular object repulsive. It can range from an image you strongly dislike to the food you hate, or a smell you find appalling. However, disgust can also be triggered in relationships, such as during a disagreement or betrayal of trust. Writer for Six Seconds Michael Miller says that “disgust is a signal of violation. It means rules are broken, agreements at risk, the systems and structures of relationship are in peril.” Disgust is also associated with morality. When you find someone else’s behavior immoral, it triggers disgust, among other emotions. Usually, we reject what we find to be disgusting, whether that’s someone else’s behavior or the smelly rotten food in your fridge. When disgust shows itself in our relationships, it reveals what we perceive to be immoral. Reflecting on what you perceive as morally disgusting will be valuable information to understand yourself better. Contemplate and look inward to understand the roots of the disgust and evaluate its merits.
What do you find to be morally disgusting, and why?
Trust is an emotional response linked to our social nature and desire to connect with others. When we trust someone, it makes us feel safe. Pause and think about who you trust and how they make you feel for a moment. Who can you share your most vulnerable thoughts and emotions with? If a couple of people spring to mind, you’ve built a connection of trust! The purpose of this emotion is to increase your connection to others and to build stronger emotional ties with someone, whether that’s with your friend, partner, or co-worker. Trust is the necessary glue for healthy relationships. Trust also builds our confidence in people individually and collectively. When we feel we can depend on people, it increases our trust in society as a whole. The more you form healthy bonds with others through trust, the more trust you have in humanity.
Do you find it easy to trust people? Why do you feel that way?
We experience emotional surprise when something unexpected occurs. Surprise activates the part of our brain that stores and processes memories. It sends us a message that something is important and demands our attention. And when we’re surprised, our bodies freeze as we try to make sense of what is happening. There are, of course, pleasant surprises and unpleasant surprises, and both trigger us to focus on what’s currently happening and change our physiological state. Tania Luna, who conducts research on the feeling of surprise, says, “[w]hen we’re surprised, for better or for worse, our emotions intensify up to 400 percent.” This means that if you experience a pleasant surprise your feelings of happiness increase; in the same way when we experience an unpleasant surprise, your feelings of unhappiness increase. What’s interesting about surprise is that it improves our memory by enabling us to vividly recall instances of surprise for a long time.
Write down the memory of a surprise that you can recall in vivid detail. What emotions came up for you?
Anticipation helps you plan for the future and can benefit you in a plethora of ways, whether that’s working towards your long-term goal, or planning your next holiday trip. The anticipation of a particular outcome can evoke positive feelings of happiness and excitement, or negative feelings of fear and anxiety. It’s possible that you could feel a mixture of all these emotions depending on the future event. Like all the emotions mentioned so far, anticipation has some important functions. Anticipation helps you plan, giving you the tools for dealing with a future event. Think about how you would plan a holiday vacation. Would you feel stress, elation, or excitement? Most likely you’ll feel a mix of emotions whilst you organize and visualize your holiday getaway. What’s valuable about anticipation is that you can experience an immense amount of satisfaction before you’ve even reached your desired outcome.
How has anticipation helped you achieve your desired outcome?
All of these basic emotions come in many forms and differ in intensity. This only scratches the surface on the functions of your basic emotions. For a more in-depth understanding of the many variations of these emotions, check out Robert Plutchik’s model.
How do we embrace all of our emotions and use them to our advantage?
Writing out what you feel can help you make sense of what you’re feeling and help you understand your emotional triggers.
When we are in the grips of experiencing difficult emotions, our breathing changes. Deep belly breathing helps us to observe our breath, pause and reflect before we react.
Finding stillness by diving inward can help you silence your mind and regulate your emotions.
Practicing mindfulness helps us to observe our thoughts and emotions without judgement.
Speaking to a close friend or a professional can help support you, especially when you’re experiencing emotions that are difficult to deal with.
Managing your emotions is no easy feat, it takes courage, determination, and a lot of support. But when you establish a harmonious relationship with your emotions, it creates positive ripples into your social, mental, physical, and spiritual health.
I’ll leave you with this thought to chew on:
“What if our emotions could be a resource to us, instead of an enemy, or something irrelevant, or something overwhelming? What if they could be a resource to us that could connect us with ourselves and each other?” — Joshua Freedman