*The concept of mismanaged emotions and poor health was originally written as a section in my book, Heavy Brain. It became such a large body of writing that I removed it from the book and decided it would need to be an entirely separate writing in the future. This a very high-level breakdown of what could (and likely will be) a book.*
Human beings are products of the decisions we make. But most of us don’t think deeply about what drives our daily choices. Many people see choice-making as a matter of will. ‘I wake up, I face certain situations, and I rationally decide how to act within each situation.’ What if I were to propose that your daily reactions, both positive and negative, are a result of a set of predetermined emotional sensitivities?
When you eat a tub of ice cream on the couch even though you are trying to lose weight, or when you can’t seem to get off the sofa even though you know you should be exercising, emotions are at play. The majority of our problematic decisions and reactions stem from what is happening below the surface. In the following post, I hope to advance your insight into our core negative emotions, how we experience them, how we express them, and what purpose they serve (when felt ‘appropriately’).
Below is the purpose description for each section of the four core negative emotions.
The Core Emotion: Anger, Sadness, Fear, and Disgust. These are the core emotions I will be covering in this post. We often attribute these emotions to other ‘feelings’ that have an element of perception to them. For example, when feeling anger, we might say something like ‘I feel wronged.’ But feeling ‘wronged’ is making assumptions about the person’s intentions and actions on the other end of the emotional equation. Perhaps the person did something that ‘wronged’ you, maybe s/he didn’t. What is undoubtedly true is that you are experiencing anger. Thus, anger is the core feeling and emotion.
Physical Feelings: When we experience an emotion, it is almost always accompanied by a set of distinct physical feelings. When we get angry, we get hot and tense. When we feel fear, we get shaky and knots in our stomachs. Making the physical connection to our emotions allows us to more easily recognize what we are experiencing and where our particular sensitivity to the feeling may have begun.
Experienced As… When we are struggling with an emotion, we have specific cognitive experiences that come along with it. When angry, we may feel annoyed. When afraid, we may feel anxiety. These are the central experiences of deep core emotions. For example, you are waiting for your husband to pick you up, and as the minutes pass, you become increasingly annoyed. Deep down, you are angry, and that anger is showing itself in the form of annoyance.
Associated with Feelings of… Associations are surface-level feelings of the core emotion that usually have some perception element attached to them. For instance, feelings of disgust may be accompanied by feelings of embarrassment, judgment, and disapproval. These feelings are closely related to the core emotion and how you experience it, but without your narrative at play, you would be unlikely to settle on these associations. For example, you get out of a presentation to realize you have ketchup on your shirt. Deep down, you are disgusted with yourself, but on the surface, you feel embarrassed as you assume other people in the room are disgusted by you as well.
Acted out By… When we are suffering emotional distress, we eventually act. When we are angry, we may yell at someone. When we are sad, we may emotionally withdraw from the situation. When feeling disgusted, we may get physically ill and even vomit. Our actions are an attempt to regulate and respond to the emotion in front of us.
Purpose: Why do these ‘negative’ emotions exist? In the process of evolution, we developed these emotions as a way to serve our survival and reproduction. Without them, we would not be here. This is why negative emotions are so prevalent and difficult to manage. We can’t turn them off. For example, without a fear mechanism, we would not anticipate danger in the wild. However, we don’t live with dangerous animals lurking around every corner, yet we have a brain that operates as if we still do. Now we use our warning system for non-life-threatening dangers like to prevent embarrassment in public speaking. The mismatch of our old brain and modern environment is what drives inappropriate emotional responses.
Cost: What is the result of the inappropriate acting out of these emotions? At the deepest level: arrested development, broken relationships, and the inability to connect with the self and others. On the surface, overeating, laziness, technological distraction, alcohol consumption, and more dangerous and problematic addictions and isms.
Now that you understand the purpose of each piece of the emotion ‘breakdown’, we can move to the full scope of the core negative emotions.
Core Emotion: Sadness
Physical Feelings: Where/How does sadness show up?
- Pit in the stomach
- Slouching posture
- Low energy
Experienced As: What happens inside?
Associated with feelings of: How do you make sense of the sadness?
- Hurt Feelings
Acted out by: What is your attempt to solve the sadness?
- Comfort Seeking
Purpose: Sadness motivates human beings to maintain critical emotional connections and investments with their children, mates, and tribes
Cost: Inappropriate feelings of sadness prevent us from making deep, meaningful connections with ourselves and others
Core Emotion: Fear
Physical Feelings: Where/How does the fear show up?
- Increased heart rate
- Shrinking (into oneself)
Experienced as: What happens inside?
Associated with feelings of: How do you make sense of the fear?
- Being scared
- Being exposed
Acted out by: What is your attempt to extinguish the fear?
Purpose: Fear is the mechanism of anticipation that prevents us from making critical, life threatening errors.
Cost: Inappropriate feelings of fear prevent us from being productive and living lives which we are otherwise capable of acting out.
Core Emotion: Anger
Physical Feelings: Where/How does the anger show up?
- Getting hot
- Increased heart rate
Experienced as: What happens inside?
Associated with feelings of: How do you make sense of the anger?
Acted Out By: How do you attempt to extinguish the anger?
- Passive aggressiveness
Purpose: Anger protects humans from the wrongdoing of those who wish to do us physical or psychological harm
Cost: Inappropriate feelings of anger damage the connection between us and those we love.
Core Emotion: Disgust
Physical feelings: Where/How does the disgust show up?
- Loss of appetite
- Physical revulsion
- Physical rejection
Experienced as: What happens inside?
Associated with feelings of: How do you make sense of the disgust?
Acted Out By: How do you attempt to extinguish the disgust?
- Proving the disgust (i.e. binge eating when in self-disgust)
Purpose: Disgust is the mechanism that protects people from the unclean. Disease, rot, decay, and other sources of life-threatening pathogens.
Cost: Inappropriate feelings of disgust cause dehumanization and ability to hate ourselves and others for superficial reasons.
How our attempts to extinguish strong emotions become self-destructive
Many of these reactions accompany common destructive behaviours. Suppose you think about the typical responses to overwhelming emotions like withdrawal, comfort-seeking, distraction, numbing, and stimulation seeking. Binge eating, alcohol consumption, technological distraction, and sloth-like behaviours (temporarily) solve our emotional distresses. When you’re eating, you’re not thinking. Destructive behaviours (from overeating to drug addiction) are attempts to solve the pain. They are not themselves, the problem. For instance, if you eat yourself sick every night, you don’t have an eating problem. The underlying emotional distress that drives you to self-medicate with destructive eating is the problem. Consumption is your current ‘solution’ for acute pain, and in the long run, it may prove to be an insufficient intervention.
So what is one to do about the complex and ‘sticky’ issue of emotional distress and the destructive actions and compensations that follow? In my experience, it begins with the acceptance of disequilibrium in our emotional centers. Life has become so comfortable in superficial ways that human beings are becoming afraid of interaction with the slightest distress. Whenever we feel sadness, anger, fear, or disgust coming on, we have one hundred different pathways to shut down the emotion. Just look at the lineup at your local supermarket. We don’t even stand in line with our thoughts anymore. Most people whip out their smartphones the second they get put in a position to have an idle mind. So step one is to stop running from your emotions. Step two is to be curious about where these emotions come from instead of judging them harshly and making them personal. We often make sadness, anger, and other powerful emotions about our character. Instead, we should be asking, ‘what is it that I am feeling right now? What is driving this feeling? Have I felt this way before? If so, what happened last time?’ Remind yourself that (for most of us) emotions come and go like clouds in the sky. If we leave them be, they will recede without intervention. Lastly, it is always helpful to remind yourself of your typical route to self-medication and the ultimate cost of that behaviour. ‘When I feel like this, I usually turn to food. Once I start eating, I can’t stop. It feels good now, but for the next few days, I hate myself for my actions, and the short-term reward is never worth the long-term cost. I always regret it.’
Typically when we take part in destructive behaviours, we do so mindlessly. The mindlessness and disconnection allow us to follow through with something we could otherwise talk ourselves out of.
Emotions are complex, and overcoming long-term reactions and behaviours of self-medication is not a small task, but it is work that is worth doing. It begins with being aware of how emotions lead to actions and your unique path from A-Z. I hope that this article will help you start to make those connections to begin to improve your life from the ‘top-down’.
Acknowledgement must go to Dr.Paul Ekman and his framework on emotions