Emotion and how we can gain more mastery over the way we feel
Emotions are necessary for humans to thrive. Back in caveman times their primary role was to help us survive, serving to focus our attention and motivate us into action. Seeing a predator would trigger a feeling of fear which would activate the fight or flight response, helping us escape danger. Feelings of trust would foster greater collaboration and sharing of resources within groups, and the threat of shame would prevent us from breaking any group norms that might jeopardise our social standing.
In modern times emotions still serve an adaptive function. Crucially, they act as a feedback system, giving us data about ourselves and others, helping us drive our behaviour and decision-making. Almost every therapeutic approach, from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to psychoanalysis to person-centred counselling, works to help people connect to and understand their own feelings.
So how can we make sense of emotions?
One well-known model is Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions which proposes that there are eight primary emotions: anger, anticipation, joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness and disgust. Each of these is mapped out as one spoke on the wheel with an intense version of the emotion at the centre, and a milder version at the outer part. Joy can range from serenity to ecstasy; and anger can range from annoyance to rage.
These primary emotions can also combine in pairs or in threes, forming more nuanced feelings; for instance trust and joy combine to form love, while disgust and sadness combine as remorse. Each emotion also has a polar opposite, for instance joy is the opposite of sadness and anticipation is the opposite of surprise.
More recent research has argued that our emotions are much more nuanced than this, with 27 distinct types, including triumph, nostalgia and confusion, all of which are interconnected.
Irrespective of how we classify emotions, if they can help us thrive, then how can we maximise their benefits?
- The theory of CBT tells us that feelings tend to ride on the back of thoughts, although we’re often wholly unaware of the thought because it’s the feeling that grabs our attention. We’ll attribute the shift in emotion to something that happened, for instance, “he was late and I felt rejected”. But by slowing it down, we can see that the feeling arises from our interpretation of the event: “he was late and that made me think that he didn’t value my time, and I felt rejected”.
- So when you notice a change in your feelings, try to pause and do two things. First, name that feeling: putting it into words will help build what’s known as emotional literacy (understanding how feelings relate to each other and change over time). Next, reflect on what led to that shift - not the event per se, but what happened in your mind. This increased self-awareness will empower you with the knowledge to help regulate your mood.
- It’s also helpful to bear in mind that the primary emotion we connect with might be masking something a little more painful, and this is particularly the case with anger. Anger often protects us from raw, more vulnerable feelings, like shame, fear or humiliation. So if you’re feeling angry, try to connect with any more fragile feelings that might be underneath; and if someone else is angry, try not to react to that surface-level emotion, but consider what else might be going on for them.
- When it comes to others’ feelings, it can be hard to see someone in distress: our default approach is often to try to alleviate their pain. But sitting with someone’s distress can be hugely powerful (this is one thing that therapists learn very quickly). So if someone is upset, try to resist the urge to placate them, but focus on connecting with their feelings.
- Linked to this, try not to invalidate someone’s feelings. For instance, if someone is upset because they feel like they’ve been mistreated by a colleague, don’t focus on whether or not they have been mistreated, but try to tune into what it feels like to think you’ve been mistreated. It’s a subtle difference but can have a huge impact.
- Sharing feelings can make us feel vulnerable - something that can be amplified tenfold in a workplace setting. But sharing feelings with others is an excellent way to build trust in any relationship. So consider experimenting with sharing your feelings slowly and gently, watch others slowly reciprocate, and see whether this can foster a greater connection with those around you.
The Unmind platform has a built-in Check-In feature which allows users to capture shifts in emotion, name them, and then reflect on what led to that change. This can help increase emotional literacy, gain insight into any mood variations and create a sense of ownership.