Are You Sure You Know What You’re Feeling?

Imagine the following scenario: You arrive at a social event, excited to see friends you haven’t seen for a while but as you walk in you overhear two of these friends saying negative things about you. Take a moment to respond to the following question:

What would you feel in this situation?  

Anger   Shame   Sadness   Contempt   Worry   Guilt   Good humor   Fear

In a study of 3,000 adults in different countries, the most common response to a similar question was anger (42.8%), followed by Sadness (38.3%). People also indicated Contempt (23.8%), Good Humor (14.2%), Worry (5%), Shame (4%), Guilt (2.3%), and Fear (.7%). The authors of the study note that their responses were obtained by giving a predetermined and limited list of options (the ones above). There are certainly other possible responses to such a scenario such as Rejection, Resentment, Surprise, Disappointment, Dismay, Irritation, Loneliness, Embarrassment, and a slew of others are all good candidates as well.

Now let’s consider your own response: Did you answer the question by choosing a single emotion? Most people would. Some might choose two emotions and a few might choose several. Indeed, that is how most of us think of emotions—discrete responses we experience one at a time. However, that is rarely the case.

As a psychologist, the most common question I ask my patients is ‘How did that make you feel?’ which apparently (given the response I get) is also the most annoying question I ask my patients. What makes this question annoying is that identifying how we feel is a far trickier task than we tend to realize. Young children tend to answer using only two options, either ‘Good’ or ‘Bad’. As we get older we often broaden our response to include Angry, Sad, Happy, Surprised, Afraid, and Disgusted. These six emotions had been considered hard-wired (we all have them and we all respond reflexively to most situations with one of them). However, today we know that notion is significantly overstated as our emotions are much more complex and nuanced and they are generated by context as much as ‘hard wiring’.

Now consider the same thought experiment as above but with a twist (the set-up is the same): You arrive at a social event, excited to see friends you haven’t seen for a while but as you walk in you overhear two of these friends saying negative things about you. Take a moment to respond to the following question:

On a scale of 1 – 7 (1=none and 7=very much), what would you feel in this situation?  

Anger                          1  – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7

Shame                         1  – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7

Rejection                     1  – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7

Sadness                       1  – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7

Contempt                    1  – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7

Resentment                 1  – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7

Surprise                       1  – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7

Disappointment           1  – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7

Dismay                        1  – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7

Worry                          1  – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7

Guilt                            1  – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7

Irritation                      1  – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7

Good humor                1  – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7

Embarrassment            1  – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7

Loneliness                   1  – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7

Most people are likely to respond to this kind of question by indicating a mix of different emotions than run the scale from mild to intense. This makes sense because such an unfortunate social situation is likely to elicit all kinds of emotions, not just one. Yet, unless we are presented with a range of possible responses in a questionnaire (or a therapist asking an annoying question about them) we might think we feel only one thing and by doing so, fail to consider a substantial part of our own emotional landscape.

We also have to consider that we can feel both positive and negative emotions at the same time. For example, some people in the above situation might experience a measure of relief because they weren’t feeling great about one of those friends and now they realize why (and they have a reason to cede from that friendship should they choose to do so).

Becoming more emotionally literate and sophisticated is important for our emotional health (as well as for our relationships and the actions we take about them). For example, there are techniques we can employ to soothe the emotional pain elicited by rejection (read What to Do When You Feel Rejected) or address loneliness (read Why Loneliness is a Trap and How to Break Free) but to do so we have to first realize we’re feeling rejected.

The bottom line is, the next time you are in a situation that evokes a strong emotional response try to consider the range of emotions you might be feeling. Any actions you take or thoughts you have about the situation would be better informed by taking all aspects of your emotional experience into account.    

Copyright 2018 Guy Winch

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