The other day I came home from work and the kitchen was dirty. I felt utterly annoyed, that after a long day of work my partner had not managed the clean the kitchen that an argument ensued. Only later did I realize that I was the one that created part of the mess I was so upset about, and even more importantly, it was not such a big issue to get angry about in the first place.
What happens in those moments that our emotions take the best of us?
And why do we have certain emotional patterns that repeat over and over, even if they are not healthy for us?
Based on Les Greenberg's and Jaap Panksepp's research this blogpost will explain:
1. Why we and other animals have emotions.
2. The types of emotions we have.
3. How to change your emotions.
1. Why do we and other animals have emotions?
Emotions help us survive
Les Greenberg, one of the founders of Emotion Focused Therapy, explains that emotions are biological adaptive responses which help us survive. Emotions provide us with important information and often lead to a physiological reaction which can put a future action in motion. For example if we see a snake next to our feet it can activate our fight-flight or freeze mechanism, leading to us shouting and jumping. If we later realize that the snake was just a stick fallen from a tree we feel stupid, yet the actual instinctive reactions are vital if it is an actual snake on the ground.
Emotions help us thrive and add value to our lives
Emotions are pre-verbal, instinctive reactions (LeDoux describes this as the 'quick & dirty neural pathway of emotion' vs slower pathway involving the neocortex where we are more thoughtful about our emotions). Without them we would not survive, but our life may also not be worth living. Without emotions we would be rational robots that forget about the inherent value of what it means to be alive. Our emotions help define our personality and may be one our oldest evolutionary parts of it (Montag & Panksepp, 2017).
Since we are born we establish emotional bonds with people around us, also known as attachment. Establishing bonds with others may even be addictive and helpful for our survival. According to scientist and 'rat-tickler' Panksepp: "human relationships are the best antidepressant".
We hate and we love. But why? Jaap Panksepp on the science of emotions:
2. The types of emotions we have: primary and secondary emotions.
Researchers agree that there are basic universal emotions found in all humans. Paul Ekman distinguished anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise, and found that also remote tribes and cultures could identify these emotions in facial expression. Panksepp identifieds 7 basic emotional systems: play, panic/grief, fear, rage, seeking, lust and care. These are not just found not in humans, but many other animals, especially mammals.
Les Greenberg identifies two kind of emotions: primary and secondary emotions. Primary emotions are direct, imminent emotions, but can also leave soon again. They are often instinctive or near-instinctive after having learnt them over a long time (being conditioned).
Secondary emotions cover up a deeper primary emotion. They are a emotional response to another emotion. Because they tend to appear right after a primary emotion or replace them, this can complicate things. We can then not be sure how we feel, why we feel a certain way, or have mixed feelings (several emotions at once).
In my first example of being angry at my partner for a dirty kitchen it can be seen as a "secondary emotion" which covers up the hurt (feeling upset) that my expectation to come home to a tidy house had not been met. This does not mean that I was aware in that moment that beneath my anger I was actually upset. A secondary emotion feels just as real as a primary emotion, just that it hides what is actually behind it.
In the video below the owl Alfred (minute 3.31) covers up his primary emotion of sadness by showing that he is angry. Another example is in cases of abuse a traumatized person may feel shame or guilt, and feel fully responsible that the traumatic event happened. However, often below that the feel more primary emotions of sadness or anger.
Moreover, primary and secondary emotions can be either adaptive (useful and healthy) or maladaptive (unuseful). For example a primary maladaptive emotion is when we feeling very afraid of something that is harmless. In extreme cases this can lead to panic reactions when it actually is not necessary. See this blogpost on anxiety for more on that.
Alfred & the Shadow. Educational Video about Emotions:
3. How to change your emotions? Be aware, accept, then transform.
Being aware of your emotions
Maladaptive emotions can be changed. The first step is to become aware of what emotions you are actually having, and asking yourself if what you are feeling is the core emotion (primary emotion) or just an emotional reaction to an underlying emotion (secondary emotion).
Emotions are not best understood by directly rationally understanding them, but by fully feeling them and then get to the bottom of things.
What if I am feeling too little or too much?
Also our emotional arousal can make a person be overwhelmed by feelings or make them hardly feel anything. A person for example can be overwhelmed by feeling so much sadness, that they cannot speak or function anymore. Other times we are not in touch at all with our feelings. This is when a person notices that they don't feel anything though they think they should, or because they have an emotional blockage which impedes them to feel more. If we are so overwhelmed by our emotions that we cannot think or act clearly anymore it is okay to take some distance from them. On the other side, if we are not at all aware of our emotions, we can first get more in contact with our bodily sensations by noticing how we breathe, our body posture, muscle tension, etc. Often with happiness we may feel a certain warmth in our body and faces may light up and smile. With anxiety our bodies may feel tense, and with sadness our bodies can feel heavy or without energy. If we learn to regulate how strength/arousal of our feelings, they become less scary.
Accept what you are feeling
Greenberg says you first have to be aware of your emotions and then learn to accept your emotions, you have to arrive to your emotion before you can leave that emotional state. As painful as it may be, it helps to look at what is really there. That way we are able to then change our feeling, if that is still necessary. With acceptance we also start feeling more compassionate towards ourselves, which can be healing in itself. Once we accept our emotions, we can start to ascribe meaning to them.
With simple impulsive reactions sometimes just taking a step back can help. When dealing with a situation we tend to:
Stop/observe -> feel -> think -> respond/act.
However, often when we mix up these steps (e.g first acting and thinking about it afterwards) we get into trouble. Mindfulness exercises can help us experience what actually is going on within ourselves.
Of course our thoughts and how we see the world also play an important role and re-framing those can be very helpful. However, deep-rooted emotional issues tend to be better changed on the emotional level.
As shown in the video below, unhelpful emotions are not best changed through your thinking, but by substituting it with a healthier/more adaptive emotion.
For example a person that may regularly feel depressed, could learn to focus and feel more things they are grateful for in their life.
Going back to initial story of me getting angry for a dirty kitchen, by taking a step back and taking her perspective I would have noticed that my partner just came back from work herself, and that it was me who left the dishes in the sink. So whilst doing the dishes I thought to myself: maybe I should first clean up my own mind, expectations and emotions, before lashing out to others.
Thus more practice in emotional awareness, acceptance and transformation.
Ekman P., Friesen W. V. (1971). Constants across cultures in the face and emotion.J. Pers. Soc. Psychol, 17, 124–129. DOI: 10.1037/h0030377
LeDoux, J.E. (1994). Emotion, memory and the brain. Scientific American, 270, 50-57.
LeDoux, J. E. (2000). Emotion circuits in the brain. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 23 (1), 155–184.
Greenberg, L. (2002). Emotion-focused therapy: Coaching clients to work through feelings. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Greenberg, L.S. (2004). Emotion–focused therapy. Clinical Psychol. Psychotherapy, 11: 3–16. doi:10.1002/cpp.388
Greenberg, L. (2010). Emotion-focused therapy: A clinical synthesis. Focus, 8, 32–42
Montag, C., & Panksepp, J. (2017). Primary Emotional Systems and Personality: An Evolutionary Perspective. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 464. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00464
Panksepp, J. (2000). The neuro-evolutionary cusp between emotions and cognitions: Implications for understanding consciousness and the emergence of a unified mind science Consciousness & Emotion, 1 (1), 15-54 doi: 10.1075/ce.1.1.04pan
Attachment Theory (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved February 28, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attachment_theory.
Emotion-focused therapy (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved February 28, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emotionally_focused_therapy
Lövheim cube of emotion (n.d.) In Wikipedia. Retrieved February 28, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L%C3%B6vheim_cube_of_emotion.
About Patric Esters
Patric Esters, MSc is an expat psychologist who provides psychological counseling and diagnostics to expat teenagers and young adults living in The Hague. Patric speaks and treats clients in English, German, and Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan and Dutch. Patric Esters has been working for several years as a child and adult psychologist in a renowned international clinic for expatriates. He has a vast background in psychology and psychotherapy and first- hand expat experience, being born in Germany and raised in Spain at an international school.