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?
Do Nothing. That's right. It is an option not to do anything or change anything based on your emotional state alone. The thing about these four emotional states, is that the stronger they are, the shorter they tend to last. Our brain simply can’t maintain that level of output forever. It’s got better things to do. Sometimes, we can just sit with our emotions for about 90 seconds. Just 90 seconds of letting the emotion wash over you. Feel it! It’s part of your existence. It may dissipate if you give it the full attention it deserves.
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.
Do something to change the emotion. This is definitely possible. And if you can’t tolerate your emotional state it’s probably for the best. Changing your emotional state in the short term can be hard but certainly is not impossible. Take a walk, do some deep breathing, distract yourself by turning on some music or engaging yourself in another activity. I’ll caution you that when you are in a better place to handle the emotion (maybe after you’ve had a good nights sleep, for example) you should come back to the experience that caused the emotion and see if you can work through the emotion. Let yourself sit with it. Again, non-judgmentally, allowing yourself to let it come over you and then letting it go. Learn to tolerate emotions in short spurts to learn how to manage as a life skill. Pay attention to the physical sensations you have during the emotion to connect the mind to the body. This will help you more quickly recognize and process your emotion the next time you experience it.
Do something to change what led to the emotion. Reacting quickly, unless you’re in danger, is usually not necessary. When we react to a situation, let’s be honest: the situation has already occured. So any action we take is simply an attempt to get it not to happen again. Right? This will take careful consideration. Talk to trusted advisors, evaluate your options, orient yourself to the potential consequences of any action you take. The consequences always have the potential to increase the chances you’ll feel more unpleasant feelings, thus ruining your whole goal in the first place.
Now, it’s important to know what not to do with your emotions.
Don’t judge yourself. Your emotions aren’t telling you about who you are. It’s telling you what your body is experiencing in the moment. You are not bad for feeling mad, any more than you are good for feeling happy. Your emotions are inevitable and evolutionary.
Don’t interpret them as meaning something. Being mad as a result of your boss’s behavior does NOT mean you have to quit or that you are not meant to be working at that job. If you allow yourself to believe your brain’s emotional report is testifying to the “truthfulness” of something external, you are giving it more credit than it deserves. Your body, your past experiences, and your current situation is what is leading to your brain making an interpretation of a world it doesn’t even have access to without your senses. To make any life changing decisions based on emotion alone, is like choosing what car to buy based on the color and without ever seeing the price tag or checking out the safety ratings or checking the engine. It’s only a piece of the overall information to gather before making an informed decision.
Don’t ignore them. If you are experiencing painful emotions frequently, or attempting to avoid or ignore them using unhealthy coping mechanisms, it may be time to find someone who can help you find new ways to tolerate the human experiences of sometimes unpleasant emotions.
So go be the beautiful, flawed, emotion-filled human you are. Thank your amazing brain for its capacity to feel. It’s what makes you, you.