understanding emotions and feelings

Understanding Feelings and Emotions

The first time a dog tried attacking me, I didn’t run. I stayed calm, transfixed to a spot, watching it bark and snarl. When it saw I didn’t cower to its intimidation, it turned away. The truth is, I was scared of the dog. However, I knew that running away from a dog would make it chase you. So I had to decide whether to act in fear and run away, or calm myself and not feel threatened by the animal.

In this brief story, there’s the difference between emotions and feelings. Although used interchangeably most times, the two are not exactly the same.

What is an emotion?

An emotion is an involuntary response to external or internal stimulus. Through emotions, the body processes sensory information—sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch—received from our external environment. Thus, emotions are physically expressed. When I saw the dog, I became afraid. I trembled. My mouth was dry. My heart pulsated as if it would tear out of my chest. That was my body processing external information from my sense of sight.

Also, the body uses emotions to process information from our internal environment—the mind. This information, which could be a memory or a thought, has the ability to trigger an emotion. For example, the famous Nigerian writer and photographer, Teju Cole in his Eight Letters to a Young Writer, describes what happened to him when he read J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. Cole writes:

“Three days after reading the book, I was in the shower when I felt a sudden sob rise in my chest.”

Cole received an information from his mind—the memory of a melancholic story—and instantly became sad. This was an unplanned situation. He didn’t choose to be sad. His sadness was a product of physiological processes he had no control over. But with feelings, this is not so.

What is a feeling?

A feeling is an individual’s reaction after processing and understanding an emotion. It is a feedback to the stimulus received from the environment. Feelings are mentally expressed, and are capable of altering physical responses that had arisen as a result of an emotion. Just like in my case, I was afraid of the dog, but I chose not to feel threatened. It was a conscious effort on my part to choose what to feel. Unlike the emotion of fear which I couldn’t control, I had total control over my feelings, and was able to condition my body to act according to what I felt. So with time, I stopped trembling, wetness returned to my tongue, and my heart beat normally till the dog waggled away.

We often fail to tell the difference between emotions and feelings because there is a quick transition from one (emotion) to the other (feeling) which makes the control over the latter seem imperceptible. This transition is mainly due to the fact that we act on the first feeling that is birthed by an emotion. Sad; we cry. Afraid; we run. Happy; we laugh.

Why emotions and feelings?

As human beings, we have a constant interaction with our environment. It is like a communication between two individuals where information is passed, and feedback is required. It is through emotions and feelings we provide feedbacks to the stimuli dished by the environment. Without emotions and feelings, we are entirely robotic.

Why do we need to understand the difference between emotions and feelings?

An altercation ensued between a man and a woman in a market. The woman hurled cusses at the man and shoved him occasionally. The man threw jibes occasionally while doing his best possible to avoid any form of physical contact with the lady. Suddenly, the woman slapped him. There was silence as we all waited for the man’s reaction. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, clenched his fist, and walked away. The lady, as if returning to her senses, ran after him and began to apologize.

I didn’t speak with the man that day, but his actions told me that he was a man who wouldn’t allow himself be controlled by his emotions. It would have been totally understandable if he had retaliated. But as an individual with a level of emotional intelligence, he decided to choose what to feel. Thus, even though he was awash with anger and embarrassment, he chose not to feel insulted or offended by what the woman had done.

2009 A Dictionary of Psychology defines emotional intelligence (EI) or emotional quotient (EQ) as the ability to monitor one’s own and other people’s emotions, to discriminate between different emotions and label them appropriately and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behaviour.

With this definition, it suffices to say that understanding what emotions and feelings are is the first step towards possessing emotional intelligence. In this understanding lies our ability to control our actions and wade through the different forms of life’s challenges. It is important to note that we shouldn’t limit controlling emotions to only the bad ones. Sometimes, good emotions could (and should) be controlled as well. When Romeo Oriogun won the 2017 Brunel Poetry Prize, he told his Facebook friends that he didn’t want to feel too happy because being too happy triggered his manic-depression. For him, happiness is a good thing, but he knew that being too happy could plunge him into the dank well of depression.

So think of emotions like weather. We cannot control the weather elements, but we can decide if we’d be affected by the weather or not. When it is cold, we do not snuggle under the duvet, while there’s work to do. We know we have to put on a sweatshirt and get to work. The weather is cold, but we choose to stay warm. In the same way, when faced with a confrontation or you receive a good or bad news, monitor the emotion that follows, and then choose to interpret this emotion in a way that’s best. 

In the book, Scarcity to Abundance through “A Winning Mindset” you will learn the steps to rewire your brain, which in turn will upgrade your self-destructive mindset into a winning mindset, putting an end to the unconscious habits that led you to despair.

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2 thoughts on “Understanding Feelings and Emotions”

  1. Not sure if it will help, still stating it here.
    From an early childhood I have managed to catch the thoughts & stimuli that generate feelings and emotions of various kinds, mostly by being observant and comparing others reactions in same situations or my reactions in same situations at different times or with different underlying thoughts. Basically I developed process of holding thoughts to the extent that by mid twenties I was stating this about me openly that I am logical towards emotions and emotional towards logic. But by early thirties I started realising that over indulging logic has to be moderated and then I got rid of being emotional towards logic part to inprove my EQ, which was way down the shaft compared to others. Thus from processing information fast to get knowledge and eventually wisdom in some time, I have moved towards being a much more calm & blissful person at 40.

    1. Akhilesh Parashar

      Hello Susaant, thanks for sharing your experience and views, this definitely helps to understand more about the feelings and emotions. Regards Akhilesh

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