As a therapist, I talk about feelings a lot. Building a good relationship with one’s emotions can be incredibly helpful for increasing self-confidence and peace of mind. This can be daunting to many people — some feelings seem so big and overwhelming that it can be scary to acknowledge and spend time with them. The idea of being on friendly terms with painful emotions is a completely foreign concept to many people. Feeling an emotion deeply in order to fully understand, accept, and transform it takes courage, confidence, and trust that the process will not result in disaster.
The first thing I do when exploring emotions with clients is to reassure them that feelings are, in fact, manageable. One way I do this is by explaining that most feelings can be categorized within a framework of five basic emotions. This is a new way to think about feelings for most people since our culture uses an abundance of words to describe the experiences commonly associated with emotions. The truth is, we have millions of thoughts, hundreds of body sensations, and an extensive emotive vocabulary, but only a very specific range of pure emotion.
The Five Feelings
All the words we use to describe our state of mind and mood can be boiled down to five emotional foundations. I use a mnemonic device to help remember them (although I’ve had to cheat a bit): the five feelings start with the letter A.
All right — All pleasant feelings fall into this category, including happiness, joy, excitement, and contentment. If the emotion is uplifting, we know we feel all right.
Ashamed — Shame is an emotional reaction to the belief that we are not good enough. This is one of the heaviest and most profoundly affecting emotions. Shame is typically indicated when people say they feel “bad” (unless they are referring to health status). Other feeling words associated with shame include embarrassed, jealous, shy, humiliated, and worthless.
sAd (there’s my cheat) — Because humans experience sadness on a range of intensity, this can also be experienced as depression, mourning, hurt, gloom, or feeling blue.
Angry — Anger is a special kind of emotion because it covers up other feelings that are less comfortable to express. It can be more socially acceptable (especially for males) to lash out when upset rather than to express emotion through crying or verbalizing the pain. Looking closely underneath anger will reveal fear, sadness, or shame. Anger is commonly referred to as frustration, irritation, and annoyance.
Knowing the names and qualities of the five feelings prepares us to recognize and welcome them when they appear in our lives. We can get distracted from the true nature of our feelings when we use excessive or overly descriptive language to explain to ourselves and others the sensations we experience. The following are ways that emotion recognition and expression gets muddled.
Thoughts about Feelings
Many words used to express emotion are actually thoughts, perceptions, and judgments. The statement “I feel ignored” is not actually an expression of emotion. It is a statement indicating that the person thinks he or she is being ignored, which he or she likely feels sad about. “I believe I am being ignored and I feel sad” is an accurate expression of emotion, acknowledging the perception involved. This concept is true of all statements made using words that co-opt another person’s thoughts or actions to replace one’s own emotional expression. Common words used for this are “annoyed,” “disrespected,” and “unappreciated,” among many others. It is necessary to distinguish between thoughts and emotions in order to clearly understand the workings of a person’s heart and mind.
Body Sensations are Physical, not Emotional
When schoolchildren are asked to complete the sentence “I feel ___________,” they often respond with words such as “cold,” “tired,” or “hungry.” These physical sensations are clearly real and honest, but they need not be confused with emotion. As we grow and mature, we learn the importance of identifying our emotions so that we can understand ourselves better and communicate our personal truth in an authentic fashion. To do this, we need to learn to distinguish the way our body “feels” from the way the emotional centers of our heart, mind, and soul “feel.”
So Many Words, so Few Emotions
Our increasingly interconnected society tends to encourage the sharing of personal information in public forums through blogs and social networking. This combination of words and technology has made us adept at describing our human experience in loquacious detail. However, when it comes to searching the soul and seeking emotional clarity, all this vocabulary tends to obfuscate the truth. We can certainly use our rich vocabularies to convey the particular flavor of the emotion we are experiencing, but overly descriptive language can camouflage true emotions and keep us from honestly confronting and fully experiencing that which our heart, mind, and soul need to process.
The purpose of fine-tuning our emotional vocabulary is to spend less time wandering through thoughts, body sensations, and semantics in order to focus our attention on addressing the situation at hand. We achieve faster relief from emotional pain when we accurately identify our feelings, allowing us to begin understanding and accepting them. This is the way we become friends with our feelings and increase our emotional and psychological strength. When we are emotionally wise and capable, we gain solid control over our choices and actions as we navigate the path set before us by Life.
© Copyright 2011 by Karen Kochenburg. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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