Feelings 101

Posted by: Center for Growth Therapists

Emotions can be hard for some to identify, express, listen to, or manage. Whichever your difficulty with emotions, sometimes it is helpful to have a refresher on feelings.  

This tip is an introductory tip on the benefit of emotions using the children’s movie, Inside Out. Over time, parents learn to observe the behavioral signs of their child’s emotions in order to better predict what they might need. As adults, many people ignore their feelings to appeal to the cultural script that being a rational person is better than being an emotional person. However, everyone’s emotions still function to tell you what your needs are. People vary greatly on their level of emotional intelligence (EQ), still everyone could benefit from relearning the primary emotions and Inside Out is a great way to start.

Even though people have access to a range of hundreds of more specific words for the variation of emotions, this movie breaks down the 5 core emotions into joy, sadness, fear, anger, and disgust. Other sources may add in surprise and contempt to complete the list of universal feelings. Experts across many disciplines may argue about how many emotions there are; however, the debate on comprehensive basic emotions in not a focus of this introduction on how emotions help us.

For those who have not seen the movie, these feelings are characters who live inside a little girl’s brain and influence her behavior as she grows up. This tip will only list out the lessons given from each emotion, not spoil the magic that unfolds with the movie Inside Out.

Defining the core emotions and their purpose

Joy

  • In the movie, when the main character is born, joy is the first basic emotion
  • The experience of having your needs met
  • Feeling loved, cared for, trust, security, attachment
  • Other interpretations: playfulness, sense of humor, optimism, excitement

Sadness

  • Inside Out’s description: “crying helps me slow down and feel the weight of the world’s problems”
  • Helps you connect
  • Empathy for challenging experiences
  • Other meanings: Vulnerability, nostalgia, grief

Fear

  • Feeling fear helps keep the actor safe
  • Signal to danger
  • Helpful for you to respond to actual threats
  • Fear could also be: Nerves of excitement or performance in order to help you function at your best

Anger

  • Anger is the feeling birthed after injustice
  • Message when boundaries are violated
  • Can be a motivating emotion to speak up/assert your needs
  • Anger can also look like: annoyance, frustration, a meta-emotion to cover up feeling hurt

Disgust

  • Disgust calls herself the emotion that is designed to not poison the individual
    • physically (while eating food)
    • socially (by learning social norms)
  • Cautions people to think before they make choices
  • May present in thinking in “should” statements, feeling grossed out, nauseous, fear of contaminated substances

Separating Emotions from Actions

The majority of people try to avoid feeling anything negative. People call themselves angry people or even say they need anger management classes due to the actions they have taken while angry. However, having the feeling itself is not the problem. While uncomfortable, these “negative” emotions highlight what is going wrong for you. They can be very helpful if you listen to them and actively respond to the feeling with actions that will help you resolve the original problem. When feelings are ignored all together, you teach yourself to not listen to your gut instinct*. When emotions are overemphasized, you may struggle to maintain a good quality of life, fit criteria for a mental health disorder, or have difficulty maintaining relationships. Even joy in excess is problematic. One could wonder if they have numbed out all negative feelings, internalized or externalized them, or are struggling in a manic episode.

The way the movie highlights the interaction between the emotions can help children and adults learn to listen to their feelings and appreciate the flexibility they can offer you. Beyond the core feelings, humans also have their feelings about feelings, or meta-emotions*, which help them utilize the flexibility of their emotions in ways that help them succeed.

In the movie, feelings of each day flow through the headquarters until some are stored as short or long-term memory. A few are saved as one of the core memories which defines a person’s personality. Throughout the character’s development, a viewer sees how different life events and developmental phases challenge the parts of what makes each person unique. People may gravitate towards paying more attention to particular emotions over the others. Some learned strategies for handling each different one based on how their primary caregivers reacted to them as a child.

For example, the parents respond to their child most positively when she shows joy. Sure, joy is contagious. However, they do give little space to her expressing healthy anger, sadness, and fear. This is a common dynamic in families and does not exactly represent the emotional intelligence desirable for raising emotionally healthy children. Disciplining a child for showing anger without seeking to validate the feeling can perpetuate this desire to avoid anger. There are moments of her parents giving hugs and reassurance when she shows sadness, but the direct emotion coaching is missing. When a caregiver responds emotionally different from their child, they may each walk away from the same situation with different memories that impact their relationship. A caregiver’s mismatched emotional response may exacerbate situations that could be coped with using emotional intelligence and active coping strategies.

This common experience is what leads many people to struggle with mental health symptoms, relationships, and inevitable disappointments throughout one’s life. After all the positive, healthy examples of how emotions help humans in this movie, there is still a strong message that being happy all of the time is best. However, both positive and negative emotions send messages to us to help us know what we need.  As with most movies, this movie is also problematic in its portrayal of stereotypical gendered emotions within white American families and is not the experience and message relevant to everyone’s backgrounds. Still using the visual representation, Inside Out can really help people reunite with their core emotions and start listening to themselves and what their needs are in healthier ways. If you find yourself struggling to identify your feelings, listen to what they are telling you, or find solutions for listening to your emotions; individual therapy could be beneficial for you.