What is the Purpose of Emotions? Feelings Decoded.

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In my early days as a psychologist, I used to get somewhat annoyed when people would half-jokingly ask “So, how does that make you feel?” I guess it felt like all we do as therapist is talk about feelings when I believe we do so much more than that (e.g., provide emotional support, identify problematic thinking, provide psychological insights, educate on various topics, etc.). Now that I am a more seasoned psychologist, I believe that emotions matter more than I ever imagined! It really does matter how you feel! But why? It is because emotions are connected to a deeper part of who we are and what really matters. When is the last time you got really upset over something you didn’t even care about? Probably never. We only feel things because those things matter to us; so feelings can give us an important clue about the inner things we care about which can sometimes be beyond our conscious mind! Feelings also gives us a much richer and fuller life experience!

Of course, talking about emotions is only the beginning. We need to identify how we feel and why we feel this way. But what do my emotions mean? I want to further break down some of our primary emotions, what they mean, what they signal, and a good question to ask: 

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Anger – anger is an emotion that tends to flare up when there is a sense that something is unfair or wrong. It provides us with the strength to fight injustice. Along the same lines, anger can also present itself to protect us from feeling vulnerability. Of course, just because something FEELS wrong does not necessarily mean something IS wrong.Anger is an emotion that signals to us that something feels off but it is wise to talk and think things through before acting. A good question to ask yourself or someone who is angry is “What feels unfair or wrong?”

Sadness – sadness seeps into our heart when we have loss something of importance. On a deeper level, we feel sad when we experience failure because our desired expectation of something, someone, or even ourselves fell short. Often times, sadness signals for some sort of comfort and care to soothe our heartache. A good question to ask yourself or someone is “What has been lost or feel is missing?”

Joy – this is the emotion that most people want or strive for because joy is an indicator of satisfaction and well-being.The difference between happiness and joy is that happiness tends to be a feeling resulting from getting the desired outcome while joy is a more stable feeling of contentment from a deeper part of us. Joy signals that things are good! A good question to ask yourself or someone else is “What are you grateful for or what do you want to celebrate?”

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Fear/Anxiety – I grouped fear and anxiety together because both feelings have a protective function but are slightly different. Fear is conjured up when we sense danger whether physically, emotionally, or socially. Anxiety is a nervousness and/or worry of potential harm. These feelings often signal a survival, fight-or-flight reaction to help you avoid harm or overpower threat. A good question to ask yourself or someone else is “What is making me feel unsafe or worry about future harm?”

Surprise – this emotion is an interesting mixture of delight and fear! Surprise has a similar initial feeling of fear until the brain interprets the stimulus to be something positive or unharmful. Surprise often signals us into a fight-or-flight mode to attend to the unexamined situation. It creates a startle response to stop us from whatever we are doing to direct our attention to the new situation. We may feel somewhat embarrassed and/or happiness that something wonderful has been hidden all this time or terrible when it happens to be a “surprise attack” in which the disappointment or devastation feeling may occur from not finding out sooner. A common question may be “What information did I miss to be caught off guard?”

Disgust – disgust may feel like a hybrid before anger and anxiety but it is a distinct emotion! The feeling of disgust comes up when we are presented with something that may make you sick and therefore need to reject. This is most commonly felt when there is poisonous or bad food that could make us sick but we could also feel this way when someone does something that is morally wrong. A good question to ask is “What is making me feel sick that needs to be removed?”

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Hopefully this gives you a clue into the purpose behind your emotions and the emotions of others. As you very well know, emotions can be really complicated! Why? Because people can be complicated! Parrots’ Classification of Emotionshas a really cool chart that breaks down the primary emotions with subcategories of more nuanced secondary and tertiary emotions under their respective categories! Often times we have multiple emotions happening at the same time. It is very rare to have someone only feel one emotion in its purest form; only sadness and nothing else for example. Often times there is a mixture of simultaneous emotions like 35% sadness, 25% anger, and 40% disappointment. Of course, the percentages are not as important as identifying the different emotions and figuring out what the emotions are trying to tell you. My advice is to be patient with yourself and others, have some emotional space to sort it out (therapy can be one of those spaces!), and communicate both honestly and respectfully. For more entries like this, please visit me on my blog

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