Happy, Sad, Mad, Glad. We chuckle at the simplicity of these four emotions. We often consider such a basic list to be elementary in our human understanding of the many emotions. There are lists upon lists of vocabulary in most languages to describe the nuances of our emotional states.
As it turns out, it really IS so simple as the basic four. When psychologist and neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett studied emotion, what she found is that we over complicate them. Across cultures, the only emotional states that absolutely exist for everyone, is: Pleasantness (such as being happy), unpleasantness (such as being sad), Aroused (such as being Mad) and Calm (such as being “glad”). Each culture individual breaks these down in to multiple description words for each category. One culture may not necessarily have a word for an emotion that is considered universal by another culture. Not only may they not have a word for it, but it can be argued that they don’t recognize it as an emotion at all!
What’s more, our emotions aren’t a result of something happening outside of ourselves. Nope. Our emotions are actually a result of something happening internally. So when we say our boss “made us mad.” That isn’t the case. Our emotions are actually just giving us a readout from our brain of the experiences our body is having. So, if our boss puts us down in front of a coworker, our cognitive interpretation of that event may be that we won’t be respected by others or that our job is at risk. These thoughts may lead our heart to pound and our face get hot. We may feel our fists clenching or jaw tightening. Our brain does a quick survey of it’s sensory inputs and reports back: We are aroused, and it’s not pleasant.
Yet another person may interpret this experience completely differently. They may think, “my boss doesn’t have very good social skills” or “maybe he’s going through a rough time.” As a result of interpreting this experience differently there is not the physiological response leading to the same emotional readout. This person may experience some unpleasantness related to the situation, but overall a sense of calm.
If our interpretations can vary so widely depending on a variety of factors, we can’t possibly say our boss was the cause of anything direct.
When you do have a strong emotional response, what is your brain wanting you to do with this information? That, it doesn’t know. It has done its job to send us the report. It’s encased in that thick skull of ours. It doesn't’ know beyond anything beyond what the senses have told it and it certainly doesn’t know what the best response is to the discomfort.
What we do then, requires a higher level of thinking. So what are the choices?
It’s important to note that sitting with it does not mean fueling it. You are not adding thoughts such as, “my boss always does this to me!” Instead, you are just embracing the emotion, “This does not feel good.” It’s also critical you not judge it. “Why do I let my boss get to me like this?” Your brain did it’s job in giving you its full report. Just appreciate it did its job and let it be, knowing the intensity will pass.
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