The Key to Emotional Mastery

Changing the way we understand emotions changes the way they feel

Anna Mercury
6 min readSep 20, 2023
Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash

Emotions are feelings. Everyone knows that.

We tend to draw a distinction between emotional feelings like happiness, sadness, anger or shame, and other, more purely-physical feelings, like overheating, nausea or itching. By distinguishing emotional feelings from other kinds of feelings, we recognize that there is some internal process occurring when emotions are felt. Some series of reactions is being activated within us that causes an emotional experience occur, that lets us know that the heat in our face is not a sunburn, but embarrassment, that the cold in our stomach is not merely a chill from the wind, but fear.

In the early 2000s, psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett became fascinated by the question of how people interpret their emotional feelings. Why do some people describe rich emotional experiences of nostalgia, grief or sublime peace, while others might simply say they feel “good” or “bad”? Perhaps more curiously, why do some people experience the same internal sensations and label them “anger,” while others might label the same sensations as “fear”?

The reigning assumption in the psychology field had long been that there were distinct physiological pathways for what were dubbed “basic emotions.” The…