Emotions and Feelings 101

What are emotions? What are feelings?

Despite the fact we experience a cocktail of emotions and feelings throughout every day, most of us struggle to explain what’s happening. Experts - neuroscientists and mental health professionals - confirm our common inability to distinguish between emotions and our feelings. We get ourselves tied up in knots. We grapple to articulate what's going on. Sometimes we can't even explain it to ourselves!

 Say hello to Mimi! What feelings and emotions arise when you see her?

Say hello to Mimi! What feelings and emotions arise when you see her?

Experts, too, confess confusing emotions and feelings. According to a Washington Post article,  “Research confirms skills of emotional intelligence—an ability to reason with and about emotions to achieve goals—correlate with positive outcomes beginning in preschool through adulthood. Emotions affect learning, decision-making, creativity, relationships, and health. People with better-developed emotional skills enjoy more satisfying lives.”

How to distinguish emotions vs. feelings? Neuroscientist Dr. Sarah Mckay, clarifies: "Emotions play out in the theater of the body. Feelings play out in the theater of the mind."

The ability to express ourselves is critical in all environments and during every moment of our lives. If we better understood the difference between emotions and feelings, could we live our daily lives as thrivers vs. survivors? For sure! Awareness allows us to identify how to talk to our body and mind to create harmony within ourselves and with others. 

The following description is inspired by a blog written by coach and author Debbie Hampton:

Emotions and the Theater of the Body: One-act performance

When we’re engrossed in a show, emotions take over. Emotions provide instant mental and physical responses to interpret an unfolding story. These split-second, instinctual shifts alter biochemistry and act as primal survival mechanisms. Emotions react readily to threat, reward, and everything in between. Emotions, however, are temporary. They are genetically coded, circumstantial and vary only slightly from person to person. A combination of brain power and biochemistry plays key roles in memory storage. This makes emotional memories more intense and deep-seated. Emotions are measured by body language, blood flow, facial expressions and brain activity. Highly skilled emotional interpretation is what separates the greatest stage and screen actors from street performers.

Feelings and the Theater of the Mind: Full-stage production

On center stage our brain plays the leading role for feelings. The brain is where the opening number occurs! The main actors - mental associations and emotional reactions - enter the scene and establish the production's tone. As each character portrays their designated role, they are shaped by personal experience, beliefs and memories. Act One is Emotion and Act Two is Feeling. Feelings are mental representations of all that happens in our body in the presence of emotion. They both are natural outcomes of how the brain perceives and assigns meaning. Due to the elusive nature of feelings, professionals have not yet discovered an accurate way to measure them. 

A phenomenal resource to better understand feelings is The Emotional Atlas. Inspired by the Dali Lama, this atlas is an interactive compass which helps navigate an understanding of emotions by describing feelings.

Sorting it out

On a gorgeous sunny day I took my beloved little dog Mimi for a walk. We were mindlessly heading for the lake at a relaxed pace. While passing a rather unkept house, a large barking German Shepherd charged out of the gate and chased my Mimi in rapid circles. The Shepherd was big, fast and on pure adrenaline. He definitely startled me. My first reaction - emotion - was to yell at him to stop while I raised up my hand towards him. Despite attempts to fend him off Mimi, the big dog was persistent. Fear started to take over me over. I felt out of control and felt threatened by the dog's swift movements.

As I feverishly untangled the leash which encircled my body, another mid-size dog decided to join the party and started to bite Mimi. Frantic, I searched for a way out of this terrifying predicament. At some point a woman showed up and rushed over to grab the dogs, but without much success. Eventually the chasing slowed down enough for me to grab Mimi with both hands and walk away. My brain was on overload. My body shook and my breathing was fast and furious. I was able to calm down by comforting Mimi in my arms, and letting her know she was okay. Weeks later, it remains a challenge to pass that house without my feelings taking over. However, each time I pass the house I deliberately initiate self-talk. I remind myself the incident is over and we are safe. A mantra helps me choose peace, love and joy in order to heal and feel safe.

Tips on emotions and feelings

Listen and look for clues:    

  1.  If your body knee-jerks to someone or something - You are in an Emotional State. If your mind replays a scene and assigns meaning to emotions - You are in a Feeling State.
  2. Re-image/re-imagine the scene. In my case, I needed to re-imagine the dog attack. I now can pass by the house without fear taking over because mantra grounds me. 
  3. Choose a value that disrupts the story. I value peace, love and joy over terror. Thriving not just surviving is my goal and how I live my life.