Welcome to Focus On Emotions, a series that will delve into our emotional depths, getting at one inalienable truth: emotions matter. Our culture generally teaches us that feelings are to be avoided, suppressed, and controlled; that feelings lead to irrationality. But I have learned, and affective neuroscience would suggest, that feelings are central to self-knowledge, self-management, and good decision-making. This series is designed to help us better understand our emotions, how to work with them, and when needed, how to heal them. This article was written by Dr. Sarah Thompson, Clinical Psychologist, originally published Feb. 9, 2017 on ryersonstudentaffairs.com.
Once you can read your own and others’ feelings, it’s time to focus on how to manage your own emotions and feelings more effectively—arguably an intermediate skill in developing one’s capacity for emotional intelligence. In an earlier article, we identified an emotion as “an automatic process in our brain whereby an incoming message from our environment, memory, or imagination creates an automatic biological change in our nervous system.” A feeling then is the awareness and labeling of those emotions. In this article, I will lean more towards the use of the word feeling for simplicity, even though some statements will be applicable to both feelings and emotions.
Managing your emotions has a lot to do with managing your overall susceptibility to experiencing strong arousal (i.e. feeling something strongly in your body), which then gets interpreted as a particular feeling given your individual context, lived experience, and cultural background. To manage emotional arousal generally, it’s wise to focus on the basics:
- Sleep enough (6–8 hours/night for most adults).
- Eat balanced meals, regularly (e.g. balancing protein and carbs to maintain steady blood sugar levels; limiting caffeine and alcohol intake).
- Drink plenty of water—even mild dehydration can impact your mood and concentration.
- Exercise regularly (preferably 20–30 minutes/day).
- Include activities in your schedule that recharge your emotional batteries; these may include activities such as social time with friends, curling up in a quiet place with a good book, taking in or participating in the arts, or anything else that replenishes your soul.
Beyond the basics, actively cultivating skills in mindfulness, meditation, and relaxation techniques are all positively associated with helping to manage arousal and stress. Studies have shown that regular practice of meditation can produce visible changes in your brain in just eight weeks.
Managing feelings gets us into more specific territory: feelings like anger, sadness, fear, and even joyful exuberance.
Emotions are not a singular entity; each one has a distinct form and function. For example, in anger the action tendency moves people to expand and thrust forward. The function of anger is to set boundaries, and anger itself varies: it may only last a few minutes, or it can smolder for days. Sadness, in contrast, leads to crying out for a lost object and, after some time, if no one comes, withdrawing to preserve resources… [A]t any one time anger may be an empowering adaptive response to being violated; at another time it may be a destructive overreaction to a current situation, based on a history of prior abuse. Anger may be a person’s first immediate reaction, or it may come only at the end of a chain of prior feelings and thought. – L. S. Greenberg, Emotion-Focused Therapy: Coaching Clients to Work Through Their Feelings
To manage feelings, it’s helpful to know a few things:
- What feeling you are experiencing, and what needs and action tendencies (see below) are associated with that feeling.
- Feelings can be grouped into different categories, and each category provides information of varying quality and utility—we’ll review four such categories.
- What are your specific triggers that activate challenging emotions in your body.
Sound complicated? It is—but it’s also helpful (and not as scary once you get used to the ideas). Give me a chance to walk you through the principles and you’ll be on your way to managing feelings in no time. Let’s start with a basic overview of feelings and their needs.
Step 1: Understanding Feelings—Embedded Information, Needs, and Action Tendencies
The view presented in this series is that emotions and feelings fundamentally operate as a signaling system. They direct our attention to important information about our environment, help us to become aware of what we need, and predispose us to act in certain ways (like fighting, fleeing, or seeking comfort) to increase the likelihood that our needs will be met. The table below lists several primary adaptive feelings and gives examples of the kind of information they provide, the needs they signal, and the action tendencies they direct us towards.
If you can identify what you are feeling, understand what you need, and know what you can to do to fulfill that need, you will be able to quickly settle your emotion signals. Let’s take a closer look at anger as an example:
The emotion underlying the feeling of anger typically produces physiological changes such as elevated blood pressure and heart rate, directs blood flow away from our internal organs to large muscle groups, and gives us a surge in energy. We may typically experience anger as a reaction when a boundary or principle that is important to us has been violated, like our personal space or a deeply held conviction. Perhaps someone has inattentively stepped on our foot in the subway causing sudden pain or has taken credit for a project we worked hard on. In such cases, feeling anger gives us information. It signals to us that a wrong has occurred that we wish to have righted. We may then use the energy and tendency towards assertive action prompted by anger to address the situation, helping us to feel better.
Of course, how we express our anger is subject to complex social learning throughout our lives. Beginning in early childhood others react to the way we express emotion. Through others’ reactions to us, we begin to learn and internalize rules for how we express our emotions (“Be nice!”, “Crying is for sissies”, “Toughen up!”). Such rules are often impacted by our gender, ethnocultural background, class, physical size and abilities—among other variables. In a Canadian middle-class-influenced context, we might show angry disapproval through our facial expression and assertively, but politely, ask for more space on the subway, assertively speak to a colleague to request acknowledgment for our work contributions, or vocally stand up for our beliefs.
Step 2: What Category of Feeling Am I Trying to Manage? (Theory Alert!)
This is where we are going to talk about four categories of feelings. Have you ever wondered why some people say it’s important to pay attention to what you feel, while others believe that your feelings will lead you astray, or should be set to one side? In fact, only one of the categories of feelings we are going to talk about gives us accurate, immediately useful information about what we need, along with a push in a specific direction to meet our needs. The other three categories of feelings need a bit more decoding or transforming before they can be helpful to us. For our purposes in this article, we will explore the following four categories of feelings: primary adaptive, primary maladaptive, secondary, and instrumental.
To get started, I recommend this great little 7-minute video created by Anne Hilde V. Hagen, the Norwegian Institute for Psychological Counseling, and the Norwegian Institute of Emotion Focused Therapy. I will be referencing it repeatedly throughout this article as I explain the different categories of feelings:
The video introduces Alfred, a sensitive, yet highly guarded owl who has learned to cut himself off from his (primary adaptive) feelings. In this video, we learn that Alfred has experienced some difficult times as an owlet. As a result, he has learned to hide (primary adaptive) feelings like sadness and vulnerability. As an owlet, when Alfred felt sad he was often shamed or scared by his caregivers. As a result, when he feels sad now, he quickly and automatically feels shame and fear—these (secondary) feelings cover up his sadness. If shame and fear were overwhelming and frequent as an owlet, Alfred may even have learned to feel shame or fear instead of sadness whenever something sad happened to him—shame and fear would then be called primary maladaptive feelings.
To make it a bit more complicated, when Alfred feels (secondary) shame and fear, he also feels and shows (secondary) anger to protect himself from being hurt again. (Note: if Alfred didn’t actually feel anger, but just pretended to push people away, then anger would be called instrumental, rather than secondary—don’t worry, we’re going to go through these categories together below). So, why is it a problem for Alfred to cover up his sadness and vulnerability? When Alfred pays attention to his (secondary) anger, and not his (primary adaptive) sadness, he may push people away rather than drawing them close leaving him feeling even more sad, lonely, and hurt. If Alfred could feel and attend to his (primary adaptive) sadness, it would inform him that he is indeed sad and lonely. Alfred could then take steps to get what he really needs: connection, comfort, and love. He could seek to be vulnerable with and deepen his trust in others to make close friends or find a loving partner. The sadness and loneliness would then recede—the emotion signal would have been received, acted upon, and turned off.
Let’s take a look at each category in turn.
Primary Adaptive Feelings
Tagline: Pay attention to these ones!
Primary feelings are, quite simply, the first thing we feel in response to a new stimulus (something we perceive, remember, or imagine). Within this framework (and there are many frameworks for thinking and theorizing about emotion), primary feelings can be described as adaptive or maladaptive.
It’s important to note that words like “adaptive” and “maladaptive” are not meant to cast judgment on the feelings themselves, rather, they are meant to refer to whether or not the information provided by the emotion will lead us towards what we need (adaptive), or away from what we need (maladaptive).
In Alfred’s case above, sadness is adaptive when it is:
- Fresh and new (not old, repetitive, and stuck),
- At an intensity that matches the situation,
- Signals that something important has been lost or is missing, and motivates us to seek comfort and support.
Returning to our earlier example of anger, anger is adaptive when it is:
- Fresh and new (not old, repetitive, and stuck),
- At an intensity that matches the situation,
- Signals and motivates us to right a wrong or defend a valued principle or boundary.
Primary adaptive anger can even help maintain safety and good relationships by letting people around us know where our boundaries lie. The essence of this is captured in one of my favourite Brené Brown quotes: “My question is big, B-I-G—what boundaries need to be in place for me to stay in my integrity and make the most generous assumptions about you?” An essential part of knowing one’s boundaries is having access to the emotion of anger (remember that this includes a wide range of feeling experiences like: anger, annoyance, irritation, frustration, hurt).
So, when we are able to be aware of our emotion signals and feelings in the moment, when an emergent feeling is fresh and new, and when the action that the emotion suggests is in alignment with what we really need, we are dealing with an adaptive primary feeling. This is feeling-based information we can trust and use—it serves a specific purpose, delivers a signal into our conscious awareness, and when we act upon the signal, the signal turns off. No further management needed. This type of awareness and use of feelings in the moment is what, for me, underpins excellent mental and emotional health.
Primary Maladaptive Feelings
Tagline: Don’t be led astray!
Staying with the example of anger, most of us have expressed anger more strongly than a situation warranted, or expressed anger when it clearly wasn’t helping move us in the direction of getting what we really needed. So what went wrong? Why do our feelings sometimes lead us astray? By now, you may be beginning to arrive at the answer—your anger wasn’t stemming from a primary adaptive feeling!
In the video, Alfred’s maladaptive feelings are represented by the shadow, which depicts reactions that have developed out of past hurts. Remember, Alfred was often frightened and shamed as an owlet. As a result of past learning, Alfred now lives with a sense of old, stuck fearfulness and persistent shame in his life. As therapists, we sometimes refer to these reactions as “here and now” responses to “then and there” problems: I am reacting right now as I did when I was hurt in another place, at another time, by a person who (probably) isn’t even in my presence right now.
In order to protect himself, Alfred has learned to feel frightened (primary maladaptive fear) instead of feeling his (primary adaptive) sadness and loneliness. His fear makes him withdraw from others. This makes sense if we see Alfred as trying to protect himself from being hurt by others again. The problem is, acting on feelings of fear does not help reduce Alfred’s loneliness or sadness. When Alfred immediately feels fear in a new interpersonal situation that doesn’t call for it—when this fear gives information that is misguiding—he is experiencing a primary maladaptive feeling. It does not help Alfred meet his needs for closeness.
Maladaptive feelings, in this case fear and/or shame, are like signals on a car’s dashboard that have become stuck in the “on” position, constantly blinking and flashing for our attention, even after the initial problem has been addressed. As the narrator puts it, sometimes “your real emotions are messed up and make a lot of trouble for you.”
Inner Critic: This is too long and complicated. You’ll lose your audience right about now, and you risk making a fool out of yourself the more you summarize!
Self: Hm. I haven’t seen you in a while. Listen critic, when you say these things to me, I feel insecure. Underneath that, I feel
a little scared (otherwise known as some primary maladaptive fear). Please stop scaring me. Be nice, or be quiet!
Inner Critic: Are you kidding me? Without me, you’re sure to be embarrassed. I’m the only thing that keeps you on the right track.
Self: This isn’t working critic. Why do you keep working so hard to scare me or put me down?
Primary adaptive feelings and primary maladaptive feelings; got all that? Good! Because now it gets a bit more complicated as we add in secondary feelings. In Alfred’s case, his primary maladaptive fear may promote beliefs such as “people will hurt me” or “the world is a dangerous place.” Primary maladaptive shame may promote beliefs such as “I’m unworthy of love” or “I deserve to be alone.” Expecting to be rejected, shamed, or hurt by others, Alfred may don his protective anger, pushing others away before they can get close to him. In this example, Alfred’s anger is a secondary feeling. It covers up his fear and shame, and comes in response to thoughts generated by these underlying primary maladaptive feelings. Anger is not the first thing he feels, and anger is not coming from a violation of healthy adaptive boundaries, but is a reaction to other feelings and thoughts.
Secondary feelings are commonly learned through emotion socialization processes; we are taught by our parents, friends, pop culture, and teachers how to feel about our own emotional reactions. For example, little girls may be told they are being “bossy” when they assert their limits or boundaries, like saying no to a friend who proposes a game and advocating for another. Little boys may be told to “suck it up” or “toughen up” when they feel sad or scared and cry. In each case, the child may learn that expressing what they are feeling is not acceptable to the adults around them. Girls may learn to feel ashamed of their assertiveness and desires while boys learn to feel ashamed of fear and vulnerability.
Let’s work through a quick example: On the first day of gym class with a new teacher, a boy is asked to climb a tall rope. If the boy is afraid of heights, he may feel fear, and then feel ashamed of himself for feeling scared. If he also expects his gym teacher to humiliate him in front of the class if he refuses, he may also begin to feel angry at his teacher. (Before reading on, take a moment and identify fear, shame, and anger as primary adaptive, primary maladaptive, or secondary feelings.)
In this case, fear is a primary feeling. However, you may not have had sufficient information to determine if it was adaptive or maladaptive. If the rope hangs over a concrete floor and the boy’s upper body strength is not sufficient to hold him up for long, this fear may be primary and adaptive—it helps him stay safe. If the rope hangs over a soft mat that will reasonably prevent any injuries, and the boy has fallen from a height and been hurt in the past, the fear may be primary and maladaptive (there is no real danger, and engaging in the activity to the best of his ability may actually help build strength and confidence). Feeling ashamed is a secondary feeling. Feeling angry in response to imagined scenarios is also secondary.
While secondary feelings do tell us a lot about how we have been raised and the social rules we have internalized, they do not typically give us useful information about what we need in the moment—although they may inform culturally appropriate ways to go about getting our needs met once they are identified. In the scenario above, anger and shame do not clearly direct the boy towards his needs: his core needs are not likely to be fulfilled if he fights in anger, or withdraws in shame.
As with primary maladaptive feelings, secondary feelings do not provide helpful information about what we need in the here-and-now. Secondary feelings need to be acknowledged and identified, they need to be regulated, and then we need to track back to find the primary emotion that gave rise to the secondary feeling in the first place. Sometimes, there may be one or more layers of thoughts between the primary feeling and the secondary feeling.
Bringing It All Together
As a reader at this point, if you’ve had prior exposure to emotion theory, you might be feeling a blend of primary adaptive joy and curiosity. These feelings would be providing you with information about your environment. Something along the lines of: ‘Hey, there is something interesting in front of me! I feel happy and excited that I understand this, and I’m curious about how I can apply this knowledge in new settings!” This might be associated with a need for further exploration to expand your horizons, and to continue with learning activities that bring you pleasure. Your action tendency, barring a more urgent need for a bio-break, might be to keep reading!
Without prior exposure to emotion theory, you might be experiencing a different blend of feelings. You might first be aware of feeling overwhelmed (a secondary feeling). You might sit with the feeling of being overwhelmed, attend closely to it, and notice that it’s associated with a tightness in your chest, a tension in your muscles—this would tell you that an emotion is indeed activated in your body, but which one? With increased reflection, you might notice a sense of growing insecurity, perhaps concerns that you’re not smart enough to “get this.” As you allow yourself to experience this feeling of insecurity, you might realize that it reminds you of how you felt during your least favourite class in 9th grade when you were scared that your teacher would call on you when you didn’t have the answer. In fact, you realize that you often tend to feel a little nervous or scared when first approaching a challenging topic outside of your comfort zone. In this scenario, learning material outside of your knowledge base would be a trigger for old feelings of primary maladaptive fear. You would then understand that this feeling of fear has become a persistent, stuck “here and now” feeling that is actually related to a “then and there” 9th grade problem. To continue to engage with this new learning opportunity, you will need to regulate your fear—to reduce its impact on you. However, to put an end to feeling afraid of new learning opportunities, you will need to go further, and return to those old memories of 9th grade to heal and transform them. (We’ll tackle processes of transformation in a later article when we seek to understand emotion focused perspectives on why psychotherapy works.)
Instrumental Feelings: Beware the Hidden Costs
Finally, let’s briefly review instrumental feelings. This is depicted in the video when Alfred “fakes” sadness to get an apple from a friend, when really, he’s not feeling sad at all. By definition, expression of a feeling is considered instrumental if we are expressing something we are not actually feeling in order to control or manage the environment around us. For example, “faking” tears to avoid punishment, intentionally appearing angry to control another’s behaviour, or pretending to feel warmly towards someone to avoid embarrassment are all examples of instrumental feelings.
Alright, whether you are feeling curious and excited, or just a little overwhelmed (or really just need a bio-break), this brings us to the end of today’s journey into identifying feelings: by name and by category.