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Why do we have emotions?

two masks with named emotions

We all have emotions and we all need them - they are crucial to our survival as humans. And yet, when we don't have great strategies for managing them, they can get us into a world of pain.

Many of us did not get taught much about emotions, let alone how to manage them and use them for sources of information rather than fuel for a reaction. Some of us even got very unhelpful messages about our emotions...that they were wrong... or we were wrong for having them.

Maybe there are times when your emotions seem to be in the driver’s seat and you feel like your body is on a high speed are just holding on to the seat and hoping for the best.

Maybe you were told to just "get over" your feelings without getting any support and tips on how to really manage them.

Maybe you were taught it was safer to hide your feelings or make them smaller.

Maybe the only way anyone paid attention to your needs was when you displayed a lot of emotion and now it's hard to stop.

But why do we have emotions?

As humans, we are born with the capacity to feel emotions for a reason.

Three very important reasons, actually. We are alive as a species because of emotions. Fear led us to run from predators chasing us, anger led us to fight against those who threatened our loved ones or our way of life, and we drew closer to those we felt love for and we procreated. Emotions are vital to our species being here today.

And also…emotions can get us into a heap of trouble.

But back to the 3 important reasons we have emotions:

  1. Emotions are physical sensations that indicate our needs.

  2. Emotions jolt us into taking some sort of action.

  3. Emotions help us communicate with other humans

Let’s look at each of these.

#1 Emotions are physical sensations that indicate our needs.

Many of us are lucky enough to have a vehicle, or are at least familiar with how cars work, and understand that dashboard lights are indicators of things that need attention. The gas light comes on - better get some more gas. The oil light comes on - time for a trip to JiffyLube. The engine-on-fire light comes on...well, best pull over, and quick. Emotions do this for us. When we feel an emotion, it’s an indicator light saying, “Hey you out there, look at me. I need something. We need something. Can we talk?”

Let’s imagine that you have been looking for a job and it’s been rough. You have been lowering your standards and will take pretty much anything that pays. So you do. And guess what, you start to realize it’s not a great place to be employed.

You start to notice some unethical stuff happening, some shady money stuff happening, and some squabbling-gossiping-interpersonal-politicky-yuck happening. You start to feel angry and depressed about your life situation and the job. Your dashboard lights are blinking away at you. "Get out of here. Find something better. Don’t settle for this. You are worth more than this experience."

Your angry and depressive emotions are communicating to you: "You need more. Take action."

#2 Emotions jolt us into taking some sort of action.

Our emotions are hardwired to connect to specific action urges. Fear leads to fight/flight/freeze actions, guilt leads us to withdraw or make amends, jealousy leads us to assert control of situations. These are all protective actions tied to our survival in the tribe.

During the last election season, there were a lot of strong emotions in the United States. Emotions like fear and anger and disgust and hope and sadness, and a whole lot of passion. Some people were motivated to act on these emotions. For some, the emotions led to actions like: watching more news, writing emails, making phone calls, donating money to political causes, rallying or protesting, withdrawing from people, being sure to vote early. Emotions, little biological impulses inside our bodies actually motivated people to take very specific actions to protect what mattered to them.

Emotions also kick us into action very quickly in situations that threaten our survival. We smell smoke...we feel fear...we run. We hear gunshots...we feel fear...we duck and hide. We get cut off in traffic...we feel anger...we might try to side swipe the car who cut us off. Clearly the behavioral urges that emotions can bring are not always helpful ones to act on!

#3 Emotions help us communicate with other humans.

TV commercials showing impoverished and malnourished children use guilt and sadness to try and get us to donate money to stop child hunger. Apple uses the emotions of potential happiness and envy to get us to buy their latest product. Governments use the fear of punishment to prompt people to obey laws. Your parents may have used anger to keep you from jumping on the bed.

We have and express our emotions as a way of sending messages to others. Emotions are a universal way to communicate which may not even require words. We can express emotions very effectively with our faces and body language, across cultures. A sneer sends an emotion of disgust or anger and will typically lead to someone withdrawing or getting aggressive in defense. Tears and a somber face communicate sadness and can draw people closer to offer comfort. All without words.

The primary emotions and their purpose

Let’s look at the common emotions. There are many conflicting & overlapping theories about the specific number of primary human emotions. These vary by the field of science and the culture. American psychologist Paul Ekman has spent his 60-year career researching the biology of emotions and identified these 6 as primary: anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, surprise.

Some primary emotion lists are more lengthy and some are shorter, and if you rely on Pixar’s acclaimed animation Inside Out, there are only 5 main emotions. But as a result of her 50-year career, Dr. Marsha Linehan, the psychology researcher, educator and founder of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, identified 10 primary emotions and we'll explore each of these ten.

Each emotion is listed along with the reason we feel it and the actions & impulses the emotion is intended to lead us to.

Anger is felt in response to...

  • important goals or activities you care about being interrupted or prevented

  • the perception of an imminent attack on you or people you care about

  • a threat to your integrity or social status

Anger prompts us to…

  • focus our attention on attacking, on self-defense, on mastering the situation, and on taking control.

Disgust is felt in response to…

  • items that are offensive or could poison/contaminate you

  • people that you deeply dislike who are touching, being close, or talking to you or people you care about

  • a person or group whose behavior or thinking could create serious damage or harm to you or the community you are part of

Disgust prompts us to…

  • take actions to reject and distance ourselves from people, objects, beliefs or situations

Fear is felt in response to…

  • perceived threats to our life or the life of those we care about

  • threats to our physical health, well-being or comfort or that of people we care about

  • threats to our success or status or acceptance by others

Fear prompts us to…

  • make an effort to escape from or entirely avoid dangerous situations and people to keep ourselves safe

Sadness is felt in response to…

  • the loss of someone or something important

  • things not being the way you want/hope/expect them to be

  • unattained goals or things we want but can not have

Sadness prompts us to…

  • go inward and pay attention to who/what matters to us

  • identify unmet needs or goals

  • communicate to others that we need support or compassion or help

The next two, Guilt and Shame, are similar emotions and can be easily confused. Note the differences:

Guilt is felt in response to…

  • specific actions we took or didn’t take that led to a violation of our values or moral code

  • something we did/said that negatively impacted someone we care about

  • a lack of action that negatively impacted ourselves or others

Guilt prompts us to…

  • go inward and reflect on our behavior

  • take action to repair the violation

  • make an effort to avoid repeating the behavior

Guilt is when you have done something wrong/bad in your own eyes.

Shame is felt in response to…

  • something about us that could lead to a rejection from our community

  • personal characteristics or behaviors that are "dishonoring" or "prohibited" in our family or social group

Shame prompts us to…

  • hide ourselves and our behaviors

  • engage in appeasement-related actions if “unacceptable” traits and behaviors are already public

Shame is when you feel like you are a bad person in the eyes of others.

The next two, Jealousy and Envy, are similar emotions and can be easily confused. Note the differences:

Jealousy is felt in response to…

  • perceiving someone as a threat to our relationships or to things that are very important to us

  • feeling uncertain about the quality or security of the bond in a relationship

  • an important status situation (like a job) seems in danger of being damaged or lost

Jealousy prompts us to…

  • focus on protecting what we have

  • seek out evidence or reassurance that our relationships/things are not at risk of being taken from us

Jealousy is felt when you have something you are afraid to lose. Envy is felt in response to…

  • other people getting or having things we do not have but we want or need

  • the perception that others are happier, more comfortable, more loved, or better off in some way than we are.

Envy prompts us to…

  • reflect on what we want for ourselves

  • focus on putting in effort to obtain what other people have

Envy is felt when you want something others have. Love is felt in response to…

  • being with someone or something that significantly enhances our quality of life

  • being with someone or something that increases our chance of attaining personal goals and overall wellness

  • being with others who increase our chances of survival

  • the biological drive for the survival of our lineage through reproduction

Love prompts us to…

  • focus on creating union with and attachment to others

  • draw physically closer to others

  • overlook the fear of rejection

Happiness is felt in response to…

  • people, experiences, or things that help us feel comfortable and a lack of distress

  • people, experiences and things that lead to our optimal functioning

  • situations that we predict will lead to successful outcomes for ourselves and others we care about

Happiness prompts us to…

  • focus on continuing or increasing activities that enhance pleasure

  • engage with people and things that increase our personal and social value.

Now that you have a deeper understanding of the purpose for your emotions, the next step is to work on raising your awareness of that reason in the moment of feeling the emotion.

Emotions can feel paralyzing, uncontrollable and unwanted. Especially if those emotions are anxiety, anger, fear, depression, jealousy, and shame. When intense, they lead most of us to a negative outlook on ourselves or others, and often lead to unwanted behaviors. At worst, they lead us to a miserable daily life.

The more skilled you get at noticing your emotions and pausing to reflect on what they are trying to tell you, the more in control you will feel over your feelings and what to do next. The practice of mindful awareness helps to grow this skill of noticing. Start now! Take a pause and reflect on what you learned here and what emotions might be rumbling inside. What are they telling you?

If you experience intense emotions and want to better understand yourself and learn new ways to manage emotions, check out my 8-week online course to see if it's a fit for your needs.


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