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Identifying Emotions

emotion wheel showing variations of surprised, bad, fearful, angry, disgusted, sad, and happy
Sydtomcat, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What exactly are emotions? Well, there’s no easy answer to that; it depends on who you ask and what their theoretical perspective is. But regardless of how we define them, how do we describe them? That can be easier said than done. There’s even a psychiatric term, alexithymia, for difficulty identifying and articulating emotions.

Several researchers have suggested that there are basic universal human emotions that remain consistent across cultures. Psychologist Paul Ekman identified anger, disgust, fear, sadness, happiness, and surprise. I like the emotion wheel diagram above because it takes these basic emotions and further subdivides them into more detailed descriptors.

Labelling emotions and mood tracking

When I’m feeling quite low, I tend to have a number of emotions going on at the same time.  When that happens, I can usually identify the basic emotions I’m experiencing, but to really get into detail it’s helpful to have a list. I’ve never found rating my mood from 1-10 to be all that useful. Unlike individual matters, mood is like a local weather pattern of emotions, rather than in-the-moment experiences. It makes no sense to me to give that a number rather than describing it in words.

What I do like to keep track of is the mix of emotions that I’m experiencing most prominently. I came up with this colour-coded list in my bullet journal, so each day I record a mood rating plus the coloured letters to represent each emotion that I’m feeling.

bullet journal page with list of emotions

I think that by glancing through the list each time I’m doing an entry, I’m identifying the more subtle emotions as well as the ones that most obviously stand out. Sometimes I’m able to identify where these emotions are coming from, and other times it’s harder. I may think I’m feeling a certain emotion in relation to a certain event, but with more reflection, I may realize that I’m actually reacting to something entirely different. Journalling has helped a lot with identifying that kind of thing.

One thing that stands out to me with my emotion list is the lack of positive emotions. I guess it’s just been so long that there hasn’t been an occasion that prompted me to add positive emotions to the list.

Emotions and bodily sensations

I typically don’t feel a strong connection between emotions and bodily sensations. I’m not sure if this is me not being in touch with my body, or if it’s just how I tend to experience emotion. The most notable exception to this is anxiety, which I’m more likely to feel in a physical sense (e.g. chest tightness, heart pounding) than in an emotional one.

Stress can manifest itself in tension in the shoulders, back, and jaw, but I get regular massages so that’s kept from getting out of control. I do have physical symptoms with my depression sometimes, like psychomotor retardation (slowing of movements) and GI disturbance, but it seems to be more connected with the illness in general rather than reflecting any specific emotion.

Trauma memories are highly emotion-based, and trauma is held deeply in the body (Bessel van der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps the Score goes into this in depth). Trauma therapy often works on understanding these connections and listening to what the body is telling you about what’s happening in the mind.

Facial expressions

Then there’s the matter of facial expression of emotions.  Mental illness can sometimes have a significant effect on this. My expression (or “affect” to use the psychiatric term) gets very flat when my depression is causing a lot of physical/mental slowing. I remember times when I’ve stared at myself in the mirror, trying to contort my face into a smile, and simply couldn’t do it. Aside from the ultra-slow movement, this is a pretty obvious sign to those who know me that I’m not well. By contrast, when I am well, I smile a lot.

Resting bitch face is a very unscientific term for neutral facial expressions that have a hint of emotions, particularly contempt, that our minds tend to pick up on and blow out of proportion. These aren’t expressions of actual emotions; they’re just small variations like downturned or tightened lips.

All emotions are OK

Some emotions are more difficult than others. Feelings like anger, jealousy, and shame aren’t pleasant to experience, but they serve a purpose. If one of your pets died, would you rather feel grief or happiness? Grief seems far more appropriate for the situation.

Toxic positivity messaging says that being positive is the only way that’s acceptable. But why should only certain emotions be valid? A whole array of emotions is a natural part of the human experience; you don’t need to be positive. Trying to suppress emotions that feel uncomfortable is likely trying to deny a real part of your experience. Emotions are naturally transient, and if you stop fighting it, it will go away on its own much faster than if you focus on trying to make it go away.

Another element of toxic positivity is the idea that happiness is a choice. Except emotions aren’t choices—even less so when mental illness is involved. Emotions come from our mind and body reacting to what’s present for us in the moment. Perhaps we’re better served by developing greater awareness of our emotions rather than trying to exert control over them.

Do you try to pay close attention to the emotions you’re experiencing? Does it come easily to you, or are there certain strategies you use to help you?

Emotion lists

Emotion lists are available from:

Plutchik's wheel of emotions
CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons (you can find more emotional colour wheel variations here)

28 thoughts on “Identifying Emotions”

  1. Identifying emotions usually isn’t a problem for me, unless they’re very complicated or I get overloaded by various emotions at the same time which happens to me pretty regularly, probably because I’ve been suppressing them a lot, and it’s extremely hard to unlearn it. Another thing that’s hard for me with identifying emotions is often identifying their cause, if it’s not very obvious. And articulating emotions is getting easier for me, but is still a huge difficulty, after years of muffling everything. Mood tracking is something I’ve been deliberating on since a while, but I never actually got to doing it. As for bodily reactions for me it is also mainly anxiety, I can also feel my body reacting differently to various kinds of anxiety, but I don’t notice it so clearly with other emotions.

  2. Carla’s Personal Blog

    I’m actually going to be blogging about this on my page because a lot of people don’t really know what emotions are or what they mean. Also, some have never really experienced “real” emotions. Check it out when I post. Thanks.

  3. Hi Ashley,

    Really enjoyed this post on emotions. It’s great not just for my clients but for me as well. I was wondering where I could get a copy of the very first picture of the emotion wheel in this post.

  4. Buddhist have no word for emotions

    They believe being present, focused without thought is our goal,

    Emotions are ephemeral, transparent and fleeting.

    Lasting as little as three seconds without attention or energy.

    We experience a rollercoater of one emotion showing up, staying while, then exiting for another

    Happiness is far more than an emotion

    Happiness can last for hours, days, weeks or longer with the superstar meditators, the monks

      1. Here is Matthew Ricard on emotions

        Despite their rich terminology for describing a wide range of mental events, the traditional languages of Buddhism have no word for emotion as such.
        That may be because according to Buddhism all types of mental activity, including rational thought, are associated with some kind of feeling, be it one of pleasure, pain, or indifference.
        And most affective states, such as love and hatred, arise together with discursive thought.
        Rather than distinguishing between emotions and thoughts, Buddhism is more concerned with understanding which types of mental activity are conducive to one’s own and others’ well-being, and which are harmful, especially in the long run.
        This is actually quite consistent with what cognitive science tells us about the brain and emotion.
        Every region in the brain that has been identified with some aspect of emotion has also been identified with aspects of cognition.
        There are no “emotion centers” in the brain.
        The neuronal circuits that support emotions are completely intertwined with those that support cognition.
        This anatomical arrangement is consistent with the Buddhist view that these processes cannot be separated: emotions appear in a context of action and thought, and almost never in isolation from the other aspects of our experience.
        It should be noted that this runs counter to Freudian theory, which holds that powerful feelings of anger or jealousy, for instance, can arise without any particular cognitive or conceptual content.”

  5. Emotions are important.

    From neuroscience we know there is no place in the brain that emotion exists without thought

    Negative emotions connected to negative thought can proliferate.

    Anger, jealousy, resentment, despair, worry and doubt can ruin our lives.

    A negative thought can seem powerful coupled with a strong emotion

    The emotion does not give that thought power , but we absolutely believe it does

    Emotions are part of life and need to be experienced fully then released

    We all have the same number of emotions,

    Happiness rather than emotion is our goal

    Try playing with or experimenting with your emotions

    See how fast an emotion will fade when you focus on your breath

    Observe how an emotion can arrive, stay a while then exit.

    Try to hold anger with joy simultaneously

    When an emotion arrives see if there is a body sensation attached to it

  6. I have very strong emotions…but I have to hold them in..because everyone is tired of hearing them. It’s the same thing over and over. It’s just so hard for me. No one wants to see the real me. They don’t want to help me. They want to look away… and I am left alone and scared. It’s not helping. I’m going to try to learn to feel better. I want to cry every day. And I do have physical symptoms…not sure if the emotions cause the physical symptoms or vice versa.

      1. I know. And…I’m sorry. I am so sorry for being like this. People pull away and I have no one. I hate feeling like this. I am so mad at myself that I can’t cope right. I’m sorry… This is when I want to end it all. Really. But I won’t. But…I get so afraid that it’s not going to get any better..and want to end it. I will get some work done..try to get my mind on something else.

  7. when I was younger I used to think my emotions owned me that happy or sad high or low it was out of my control like the nose on my face. Which used to plung me into internal dialogue that confirmed my emotions usually racking over the past or future. I discovered emotions are like the wind and the secret is not to think, put a name or resaon to it.
    all emtion come and go and without a story behind them they dont own you any more.

  8. It’s very refreshing to meet someone who hasn’t fallen for the always stay positive fever’, which is so prevalent in our society today.
    It really doesn’t change the outcome and at times sounds like nonsense.
    Don’t get me wrong I don’t want to be the perpetual party pooper, but some things are just shit and staying positive changes absolutely nothing.
    Our emotions are so powerful, it is hard to control them at times.
    I tend to get IBS when I am upset or very anxious and I suffer acutely from anxiety.
    Thank you for your honesty about your depression it helps to meet a fellow sufferer.

    1. That’s so true – sometimes things are just shit, and facing those emotions is going to be a lot more useful than trying to sweep them under the rug that they won’t fit under anyway.

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