Characteristics of Emotions

Today I'm learning and reading about the Atlas of Emotions. I also watched a video which you can purchase here , in which  Eve Eckman talks about how understanding and naming our emotions is important to reducing reactivity and increasing mindfulness. 

Paul Eckman, Eve's dad, is famous for his work in studying emotions, and developing a theory of emotions. He created the Atlas of Emotions with the Dalai Llama to help people learn how to get to a calm mind state He is  most known in popular culture for the psychology behind the television series  Lie to Me. He  knows more about the characteristics of emotions than any other person, and has created a theory of emotions.

 I often say in my therapy session to my clients when teaching them about their emotions that most of us never formally  learn about them. This is a shame because we are taught a lot of unimporant things.  It's no wonder people wind up in therapy. 

What we do learn about emotions informally, comes from observing our family and parents,  and from instinct. Naturally we are wired to avoid pain and move towards pleasure. This isn't a particulary effective strategy when dealing with emotions. 

Yet mastering our emotions, and dealing with them skillfully is the key to having a happy life. Understanding the charactersitics of emotions is the  starting place for that.  Having an understanding ourselves and teaching this to our children is important so they can also have a happy life. 

The Characteristics of Emotions: Part of the Sequence

In our day to day lives, emotions always begin with a trigger or an event. This happens 100's of times a day. The seqeunce looks like this 

Event >>>>>Experience( physical, thoughts,emotion)   >>>>>Response ( behavior)

Eve Eckman says " Emotions were designed to act outside of our conscious awareness to save us". I agree. This is why so often when we have emotional reactions, we don't know what they are, or where they came from, really.

This is kind of crazy if you think about it. And why would this be? Initially we needed our emotions to move us into fight or flight, or to bond us to other humans to save us so we could be in a group, or to help us find another human to mate. Our society is different now. 

There are many problems with this. If we let our unhelpful emotions such as anger and fear determine how we react and respond without real awareness, all kinds of unintended consequences can happen. Not only are we unhappy, but the world is unhappy. This is why the Dalai Llama is so interested in the  Atlas of Emotions project. 

The Characteristics of Emotions: Learning to Name Them 

So where do we start making these changes? As parents we may ask our children what they are feeling, but they rarely know, and we rarely know. Mostly we just know the end response of our emotions. That is, our reactions. So we know our responses, but not what our actually feelings are. Not in a very clear way. 

Learning about the characteristics of emotions begins with learning about naming our emotions. Beginning to learn a language for emotions is the first step to learning the characteristics of emotions. The Atlas of emotions can help with that. 

Paul Eckman helped us with narrowing down emotions to five key ones. 

  • Anger 
  • Fear
  • Disgust
  • Sadness
  • Enjoyment

The Atlas of Emotion goes even further to break down our emotions into shades and nuances, and to rank them in order of intensity. For example, Enjoyment is broken down into 

  1. sensory pleasure- Enjoyment derived through one of the five physical senses: sight, sound, touch, taste and smell
  2. rejoicing-A warm, uplifting feeling that people experience when they see acts of human goodness, kindness and compassion. Also called elevation.
  3. compassion/joy- Enjoyment of helping to relieve another person's suffering.
  4. amusement-Light, playful feelings of enjoyment and good humor.
  5. shaden fraude -Enjoyment of the misfortunes of another person, usually a rival.
  6. relief-When something expected to be unpleasant, especially the threat of harm, is avoided or comes to an end.
  7. peace-An experience of ease and contentment.
  8. pride-Deep pleasure and satisfaction derived from one's own achievements or the achievements of an associate
  9. feiro- Enjoyment of meeting a difficult challenge (an Italian word).
  10. nachesJoyful pride in the accomplishments of one's children or mentees (a Yiddish word).
  11. wonder-An experience of something that is very surprising, beautiful, amazing or hard to believe.
  12. excitement- a feeling of great enthusiasm and eagerness.
  13. ecstasy-.An overwhelming feeling of great happiness or joyful excitement.

***These definations are taken directly from the website

Learning how to name your feelings specifically is one way to begin to take charge of understanding your emotions and mastering the response to your emotions. 


Characteristics of emotions : Happening in our Body

 Often without a language for our emotions, we move to the end of the emotional cycle and react.

Event >>>>>Experience( physical, thoughts,emotion) etc.  >>>>>Response ( behavior)

Having an intention to notice where you are feeling things in your body can help you to begin to notice the characteristics of specific emotions in your body.  Here we are focusing on the experience before the response. 

Eckman says Two practices you can do to refine your ability to do this  are:

1. Set a timer that goes off five times a day. Ask yourself what you are feeling, and then notice where you are feeling it in your body.

2. Study what things that invoke  certain emotions in you. For example a horror movie may make you scared, or a certain book or idea may make you said. You can then expose yourself to those things and study your body and how it reacts. Then you will be clued in to what you are feeling earlier on in the process. 

In the future when you notice those signs in your body, you will know that that is the emotions the event is generating. 

To summarize a new philophy of emotions that helps us to deal with life more skillfully includes the following ideas:

We need specific names for our emotions. The Atlas of emotions, a project between the Dalai Llama and Paul Eckman helps with that.

We need to think about our emotions and our responses in a non judgemental way. We share diffiuclt emotions with all of humanity and having a self compassionate attitude towards them make them easierr to have. 

We need to learn to recognize the different emotions and what they feel like in our bodies so we can be less reactive and chose more skillful responses. 

Leave characteristics of emotions for mindfulness meditation

Leave characteristics of emotions for more information on self compassion


Chracteristics of emotions: How we think about them

Part of developing a philosphy of emotions is to begin to think about them in a certain way. One way I teach my clients to think about them is to think about emotions like the weather. When certain conditions  arise, it rains out. It rains because the condtions in the environment exists to produce that weather . Our emotions are the same way. If you havent had enough sleep, and there is traffic, and you are late to work, and you are sensitive to people interrupting you, and your coworker interrupts you before you can get to your cubicle, anger will arise. However, you can pause and choose your response. This is if you have awareness of what is happening in your body, you are able to name your emotion, have a philopsophy of emotion, and are motivated to make a constructive choice. 

Another way  to help yourself with processing your emotions is to  look at them as difficult emotions, unpleasant emotions, or hard emotions rather than bad emotions, and to look at your responses as destructive or constructive. In the example above, anger is not bad, it is a normal response to the circumstances. However, there are several destructive or unskillful choices. Yelling at your coworker or shaming yourself would be two such examples. 

Our goal to live happier lives is to have more constructive responses. Even learning this language can help us to feel more in control. When we are able to stop and be less reactive that can happen. 

Characteristics of Emotions:Common Humanity

Self compassion

All of us feel separted when we have diffiucult  emotions but everyone has them. Remembering in these moments that everyone feels anger, stress, anxiety and sadness, can help us feel connected and not so alone. Practicing self compassion and help us pause and prevent us from being reactive towards ourselves and others. 

Without a philosophy about how to handle our emotions skillfully, we may respond to emotions without a plan.  That often includes  reacting,  shaming, blaming or  trying to control them by supressing them. New ways of reacting include accepting, awareness, naming and choosing our responses. We need to have an attitude of self compassion to be able to use these new skills. Learn more about self compassion here. 

Thanks for visiting! Feel free to email me at kristenlynnmcclure@gmail.com
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