The Key to Emotional Mastery
Changing the way we understand emotions changes the way they feel
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 brain and body possessed neural circuits that would activate in experiences of fear, which were different circuits from those for other basic emotions like sadness, anger or joy.
When we call something a feeling, we distinguish it from other facets of experience, things like thought, action or sensory input. If you look out your window right now, you’ll have an experience of seeing whatever is out there, say, your backyard (or the brick wall next door if you live in New York). A physiological process occurs in your body that takes the light rays reflecting off the objects outside and turns them into an internal experience of sight. Based on what you know of trees or grass or brick walls, your brain is able to make meaning of its experience of sight and label what it is you see. Those red rectangles are bricks. Those blobs of green above a grey-brown braid indicate that you are looking at a tree.