How to Understand Your Emotions
Table of Contents
What Are Emotions and What Do They Do for Us?
Experiencing an emotion is kind of like going through high school: when you’re in it, nothing feels more important. But when it’s over, you’re left wondering what the fuck that was all about.
Over the years, I’ve made a regular habit of criticizing our overreliance on our emotions. I’ve written articles with titles like “Fuck Your Feelings” and “Happiness Is Not Enough” and compared my readers’ temper tantrums to a dog shitting on a carpet.
(Sorry about that, by the way.)
But the truth is, emotions do matter. They are incredibly important. They are just not important in the ways that we think they are.
Emotions serve a purpose: they are your brain’s way of telling you something good or bad is happening in your life. They are feedback. Aaaaaand that’s about it.
No cosmic significance of the universe telling you to go back to school. No fate trying to teach you a lesson. No wings of destiny carrying you away from your relationship. That’s all shit made up in your head.
Your brain’s way of telling you something good or bad is happening in your life.
Aaaaand that’s about it.
Your emotions are simply feedback mechanisms designed to let you know whether things are going well or not. That’s it. What you then do with that information is an entirely different matter (and far more important, as we’ll see).1
Emotions are a means to an end. They are here to help us achieve our goals and find a sense of purpose. They are not the purpose themselves. And that’s where people get messed up. Most people mistake their emotions as the goals themselves. That is, a lot of people think that their emotions are all that is important.
Emotions are just these things that… happen. And then they’re gone. And then another emotion comes along. And then it’s gone, too.
If you base your life around your emotions, then you will constantly be up and down, running around in circles, contradicting yourself, changing your mind, forgetting what you’ve said and done, all in an effort to find and maintain the next high. And that’s no way to live.
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Where Emotions Come From
Your brain has two basic mechanisms that work together to produce emotions. Let’s call them the Emotional Accountant and the Emotional Taxman.
One mechanism calculates the gains and losses you experience in your life. Imagine a big cerebral spreadsheet in your brain that tracks everything—basketball team wins (gain), then fight with your partner over something stupid (loss), then a nice cold beer to help ease the tension before bed (gain). This internal spreadsheet maintains a running tally of how much you’re winning/losing at life. This is the Emotional Accountant.
When you gain something in your life, your Emotional Accountant delivers the good news and you get excited. When you lose something in your life, he saunters in, pushes his glasses up on his nose, and delivers the bad news: you lost something, and now you feel like shit.
The Emotional Accountant is a tireless motherfucker—he’s working 24/7. He’s working while you sleep (yeah, remember that dream where your house burned down and your mother died? That.) He’s working while you’re on vacation. He’s even there when you’re having sex, tabulating all of the potential gains and losses of a grazed nipple here, some chafage there, and an, ooh yeah, do that again.
The Emotional Accountant’s role is pretty simple. Gains create excitement. Losses create fear. At a fundamental, reptilian brain level, that’s where everything begins: excitement and fear.
Where things get more human is with the next emotional mechanism.
The other part of your brain’s emotion-generating mechanism is like an appraisal system. It basically looks at your gains and losses and decides whether you deserve those gains and losses or not. Think of it as a kind of tax collector: it gets to levy emotional taxes on you based on whether or not you deserve whatever you gained or lost. We’ll call this the “Emotional Taxman.”
If the Emotional Taxman decides you deserve a gain in your life, he lets you keep the excitement and you can turn it into happiness.
But if the taxman decides you don’t deserve something you gained, he punishes you with an emotional tax called guilt.
The Emotional Taxman is even more of a dick when it comes to losses in your life. If he decides you deserved to lose whatever you lost, you get slapped with the sadness tax.
And if he decides you don’t deserve losing something you lost, he’ll say that you’re due compensation, and that desire for compensation will come in the form of anger.
Confused yet? Here’s a fancy chart:
Of course, these aren’t the only emotions we feel, and we don’t just feel emotions that relate to ourselves.
Your Emotional Accountant and Emotional Taxman are also keeping tabs on everyone else (of course they are!).
And guess what? We have plenty of opinions on what they have gained and lost and what they deserve/don’t deserve. So for example:
- Love is the unconditional feeling that someone (including yourself) deserves to gain something in their lives.
- Hatred is the unconditional feeling that someone (including yourself) deserves to lose something in their lives.
Getting Better at Managing Your Emotions
Believe it or not, psychologists spend a lot of time coming up with lists of emotions and arguing which one is better.2 If you’ve ever wondered what psychologists do with their time, you probably wouldn’t have guessed “publishing thousands of pages arguing about whether ‘regret’ is an emotion or not.”3 But, there ya go.
Despite experiencing them every minute of every day, psychologists still haven’t even settled what qualifies as an “emotion” and what doesn’t.4
So, for our purposes, I’ve taken the simplest and most important emotions—the emotions that pretty much everybody agrees are emotions—and covered them below… so you can stop being such an emotional idiot.
We will cover: Happiness, Sadness, Anger, Fear, Shame, and Love.
One way to think about these emotions is that we all have different talent levels for each one. The same way some people are naturally better swimmers than they are runners, or better basketball players than they are tennis players, some people are naturally good at managing their anger and terrible at dealing with sadness. While others are great at fostering happiness but terrible at dealing with their shame.
Below, I go through each emotion and give some basic pointers on how to manage that emotion when it arises.
One key point before we begin: we are not trying to get rid of bad emotions and create good emotions. Not only is that impossible, but it often backfires.
Every emotion exists for a reason. Every emotion benefits us in some way. Our job—and the road to emotional maturity—is to simply learn how to manage each emotion, so that we can benefit from it.
This is important with negative emotions because negative emotions aren’t fun. So, you better be getting something out of them.
But, surprisingly, getting the benefits of positive emotion is often complicated as well. So, let’s start with the most popular emotion, that of happiness.
Happiness has little to do with what path we choose in life and everything to do with how much control we take of our lives in getting there.
Ah, the holy grail of human experience, the obsession and desire of every living person: happiness. I’ve written a lot about happiness over the years. And yes, even though I’m including it in this list of emotions, I believe you could argue that happiness itself is not an emotion.
Rather, happiness is a lack of other emotions. Happiness is kind of our default state—it’s a lack of desire for change or disruption.
Pretty much every other emotion—especially every negative emotion—is predicated on something either changing in the past or something we’d like to change in the future. Anger desires to right the perceived wrong. Sadness desires to go back to a time before a loss. Guilt is a desire for self-punishment. Love is the desire for someone to flourish. Shame is a desire to escape the self.
Happiness is just… being.
People get so caught up in chasing the emotion they call “happiness” that they don’t take the time to, you know, just be happy. I mean, think about it, if you are chasing something, then you are desiring to change something… and if you’re desiring to change something, then you are, by definition, not happy!
So, instead of trying to define what happiness is, I’ve found it more useful to define happiness in terms of what it is not.
For instance, happiness is not pleasure. Pleasure is what we chase and fixate on to try to numb ourselves from the pain, boredom, and disappointment that are all just a part of life. If you want to feel pleasure, there are plenty of drugs you can go shoot up. Then come back and tell me if you’re really happy.
Similarly, happiness isn’t positivity. It’s not some divine, perpetual state of awesomeness you magically achieve once you’ve figured out all “43 Secrets of Being Happy” or whatever.
There might be some general principles you can use to have more happiness in your life, but there’s no tried and true formula. You won’t finally be happy if only you can get that promotion, meet that special someone, travel the world and the seven seas, have children, retire to the Hamptons, etc. Sure, each of these may make happiness more likely in your case, but they themselves are not happiness.
Everyone assumes their happiness is determined by where they’re going and can only be achieved once they get there. But research shows, time and time again, that happiness has little to do with what path we choose in life and everything to do with how much control we take of our lives in getting there.5
Sadness is a sense that we have lost out on something. In this way, sadness—and especially inexplicable sadness—is an opportunity to clarify our values. And that’s a good thing.
Most people think sadness is the emotional equivalent of failure. That is, they think something is terribly wrong with them if they get down on themselves for any reason.
Sadness, however, is simply our mind’s way of telling us we lost something or someone important to us. We get sad after a break up, after someone dies, after we lose a job, after someone rejects us, after we don’t get invited to the St. Patty’s Day parade. Whatever.
Sadness is a sense that we have lost out on something. In this way, sadness—and especially inexplicable sadness—is an opportunity to clarify our values. And that’s a good thing.
I like to think of sadness as an invitation to self-inquiry. Try to dig into what you felt you lost. What was it about the relationship that felt so important to you? What was it about what your friend said that bummed you out so much? What did it rub up against in your self-perception that made you sensitive?
Developing this habit is incredibly important because we all tend to become sad for no apparent reason from time to time. The truth is that there actually is something in our life that is getting us down but we simply aren’t aware of what it is.
Your sadness is an indicator for lack. Therefore it is a call to action to understand that lack and replace it in some way.
People who struggle with anger tend to feel a lack of control in other, more important areas of their lives. But rather than address those areas, they get angry at small stupid things that they do have power over.
When something threatens us (that is, when there’s a possibility for loss), our instinct is what’s called the “fight or flight response.” Anger is the “fight” and fear is the “flight”6 (we’ll cover fear below).
Anger generally occurs when we feel threatened and we feel empowered to react to that threat.
A simple example: imagine if an obnoxious eight-year-old slaps you up the side of the head and says he is going to kill you. Yeah, seriously… what a little shithead.
If you’re like me and this happens, you get pissed off. Why? Because it’s an eight-year-old! How dare he?! Time to put him in his place. You react with anger and retaliate by punishing him.
Now, imagine if Hulk Hogan smacks you upside the head and says he’s going to break you in two. That’s right, you piss yourself. Then you run. You run, far away.
In the case of the eight-year-old, you feel empowered to effect change. Therefore, you get angry. Anger motivates us to right perceived wrongs in the world. In the case of Hulk Hogan, you’re just kinda fucked, so you become afraid.
Anger isn’t necessarily a “bad” emotion. In fact, anger does a lot of good for us and the world.7
If someone is physically threatening you, anger can be used to deter them from violence. If someone is emotionally threatening you, anger can be used to set a strong boundary around how you’ll tolerate being treated. If someone is breaking the rules or hurting others, anger can motivate us to stand up and correct that injustice.
But like all emotions, anger can easily be misplaced, too. If we respond with anger to a perceived threat in our lives that’s not an actual threat, well, things can get ugly.
Maybe you lose your shit at the pimply-faced kid behind the counter at Wendy’s for giving you six spicy nuggets when you obviously ordered the 10-piece—DON’T THEY TEACH YOU KIDS ANYTHING IN SCHOOL???
When really, your anger is just the deeper subtext for the lack of control you feel for the rest of your life. People who struggle with anger tend to feel a lack of control in other, more important areas of their lives. But rather than address those areas, they get angry at small stupid things that they do have power over. So, basically, you don’t know how to handle your ex-husband not speaking to you anymore, so you take it out on some poor kid making minimum wage on his weekends.
The key to anger is to leverage it in productive ways. You can scream at the kid at Wendy’s. Or you can get pissed off and clean the garage.
Maybe that sounds weird, but it’s not much of a leap. I remember one of the first times I got dumped. At first, I was hurt and sad.
Then I got angry.
But because I was afraid to confront my ex with my anger, I decided that I’d channel that anger in another way: I’d make myself so amazing that she would look back at dumping me as the dumbest thing she had ever done in her life.
That’s right, my sudden burst of self-improvement was largely motivated by revenge. Next thing you know, I was in the gym at 6 AM, studying and acing all my tests, buying new clothes, and taking care of myself.
The moral of the story is that anger can be incredibly useful. It’s all in how you interpret that anger.
As a rule, I’ve learned that the more afraid I am of something, the more I should probably act on it.
Fear falls into the “flight” part of our fight-or-flight response. Fear is a healthy emotion when it alerts us to a genuine threat or protects us from potential dangers. Fear also keeps us vigilant when we’re around people who are acting erratically or who are just “off” in some way. It’s best to avoid these people and move on.
But fear often gets misdirected as well. Sometimes we’re afraid of things that aren’t real threats. Sometimes we have fears that are left over from our childhood that linger with us as adults and mess us up. Sometimes our fears are so abstract we hardly notice they’re there.
We stay in bad relationships because we fear being alone. We don’t quit our job because we fear the embarrassment of doing something different. We don’t tell a family member or good friend a hard truth they need to hear because we fear they might get upset with us.
A lot of people want to know how to “get over” these types of fears.
But if you’re paying attention, you should be seeing a pattern here: addressing emotional issues is not about figuring out how to avoid experiencing those emotions. Rather, it’s about adapting to each emotion so that you can benefit from them.
In the case of fear, it’s a bellwether of when important moments in your life are arising. Generally speaking, we fear uncertainty and change in our lives. Coincidentally, the most important things we ever do generate a lot of uncertainty and change in life. Therefore, fear correlates pretty well with importance.
Therefore, as a rule, I’ve learned that the more afraid I am of something, the more I should probably act on it.
Whether that’s taking a risk in business, broaching a difficult conversation, or challenging myself to do something that terrifies me (like go on TV or speak in front of thousands of people), the fear is always proportional to the payoff. The bigger the fear, the bigger the potential payoff.
Learning to do things you are afraid of doing is, of course, a skill that is practiced. Our natural inclination is to run away and avoid our fear. But the truth is that the fear doesn’t go away. You don’t ever stop being afraid. It just gets buried beneath distraction and compulsion.
At some point, we must all confront our fears. There are strategies to help you manage your fear as you practice doing the actions instead. But ultimately, fear is a fundamental part of our life and always will be.
Shame has a tendency to make us self-obsessed. So the best way to counteract shame is to focus on helping others. And the best place to start is to help others in the area where you feel ashamed.
Shame is like the police officer of the emotional world. In its best moments, it enforces social norms, prevents us from doing horribly embarrassing or humiliating things, from hurting ourselves or others, and it generally keeps the peace.
In its worst moments, it abuses us, beats us down, and extorts our peace of mind and dignity from us.
Shame is the social fuck-up deterrent. You don’t poop your pants because you would be mortified by shame. You don’t steal money from your grandmother because you’d die of the shame and guilt if she ever found out. Shame keeps us from doing a lot of stupid, awful shit.8
But much like fear, the vast majority of the shame we experience is created between our own two ears. And like fear, we pick up a lot of our irrational feelings of shame from our childhood.9
But whereas fear is generated from our personal sense of safety, shame is more social. If we were rejected and bullied when we were young, then we will likely retain high levels of shame around certain social behaviors when we get older.
Ultimately, shame is the rejection of yourself. It’s you deciding that you are a terrible or awful person for various reasons.10 And sometimes, those reasons hold weight (like pooping your pants). But when we are ashamed of completely normal experiences and behaviors (like, say, asking someone on a date and being rejected), then we turn into neurotic headcases.
The odd thing with shame is that even though it causes us to chastise ourselves, it also makes us strangely narcissistic.11 People who harbor great amounts of shame have a distorted view of themselves, believing that what they’ve suffered and been through is so great and unique that no one else would understand. They develop irrational beliefs, like believing that no one else has ever been rejected on a date before. It’s a subtle but pernicious form of narcissism.
Shame tends to make us self-obsessed. The best way to counteract shame is to focus on helping others, and the best place to start is to help others in the area where you feel ashamed. If you have a deep sense of shame around sex or intimacy, then sharing your story with others will not only normalize your experiences, but it will normalize theirs.
As the saying goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant. Sharing what we feel ashamed about through vulnerability, we turn our shame into strength, and our fears into power.
More Articles on Dealing With Shame
- The Best Way to Resolve Your Shame
- The Theory of Meta-Awesomeness
- Do You Need Therapy?
- The Guide to Strong Relationship Boundaries
- You’re Okay
- You Already Have Everything You Need
- How We Judge Others Is How We Judge Ourselves
- The Only Way to Be Truly Confident in Yourself
- 9 Steps to Hating Yourself a Little Less
- The Feedback Loop From Hell
- The Responsibility/Fault Fallacy
- How to Let Go of Your Regrets
Real, unconditional love is messy. It’s appreciating someone not despite their flaws and shortcomings, but because of them.
I started with an emotion that’s not really an emotion (happiness) and I’ll end on an emotion that’s not really an emotion too: love.
I know, I know—love “conquers all.” Love is the “cure” for all of society’s ill. And all we really need is “love.”
Well, please excuse me while I ruin whatever fantasy you’ve held about love up to this point and be the first to tell you this: love is great, but love doesn’t really solve anything.
People “fall in love” all the time and think that’s all they have to do to make a relationship work. Then, when the love runs out, they figure there just wasn’t enough there to begin with, so they have to find it—more of it, actually—somewhere else.
This isn’t love, this is romance. And romance is quite different from genuine, unconditional love.
Love is when we experience an unequivocal joy for the gains of someone else. Love is when we look at someone (including ourselves) and genuinely wish only good things for them and experience joy when good things happen for them.
Now, that sounds great. What most people don’t get is that love—real, unconditional love—is messy. It’s appreciating someone not despite their flaws and shortcomings, but because of them. It’s respecting and supporting each other without the expectation of some sort of payoff or benefit to yourself. It’s understanding that to love someone, you may not always like them, or even want to be around them.
Love, it turns out, is quite a complicated emotion. But love is what adds meaning to our lives. It’s what gives us a sense of purpose. It’s what makes life worth living. And therefore, despite its complications, it is king of the emotional mountain.
More Articles on Love
- Love Is Not Enough
- The Three Loves Theory
- A Brief History of Romantic Love and Why It Kind of Sucks
- Maybe You Don’t Know What Love Is
- Romance Is Like Alcohol
- Compatibility and Chemistry in Relationships
- How to Survive a Long Distance Relationship
- 1,500 People Give All the Relationship Advice You’ll Ever Need
- 5 Relationship Books Everyone Should Read
- Sex and Our Psychological Needs
- It’s Complicated: Why Relationships and Dating Can Be So Hard
A Few Closing Thoughts on Emotions
You’ll notice that the list above skews heavily towards negative emotions. Actually, all of them, even love and happiness, charge a hefty toll of slogging through emotional mud and shit.
Psychologists debate much when it comes to emotions. But one thing they do not debate: we have more negative emotions than we do positive. We also experience negative emotions more intensely and put more importance on them.12
So, it’s not me who is a downer. We’re all kind of downers. And nature made us this way.
We feel negative emotions more acutely because our species didn’t evolve to be happy, we evolved to survive. Our ancestors paid more attention to scary, dangerous things and therefore didn’t get eaten or killed by scary, dangerous things. Thus, evolutionarily speaking, negative emotions are more valuable to us as a species than emotions that make us sing and dance and vomit rainbows all day long.13
You might conclude that this paints a fairly bleak picture of life. But once we accept that suffering is just part of life—or even, that suffering is life—we can then begin to choose better forms of suffering. We can start to look at negative experiences as the building blocks for a better life with better forms of suffering. We can grow through pain and even find the pain that we kind of enjoy.
Because happiness and joy and even love are not about getting rid of your pain, they are about coming to appreciate your pain, of finding the best in your pain. It’s only through that marriage between pleasure and pain, gain and loss, happiness, and heartbreak, that we find true emotional mastery.
If you’d like a little helping hand from yours truly, check out my Emotional Mastery Course, which is part of my Premium Subscription. It’s packed full of exercises to help you—you guessed it—master your emotions. The subscription also includes five other courses plus bonus courses and book commentaries and ebooks and more, and I offer a 60-day money back guarantee? What are you waiting for? Go check it out.
- For more on how emotions act as feedback shaping our behavior, see: Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., Nathan DeWall, C., & Liqing Zhang. (2007). How Emotion Shapes Behavior: Feedback, Anticipation, and Reflection, Rather Than Direct Causation. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 11(2), 167–203.↵
- See for example: Cabanac, M. (2002). What is emotion? Behavioural Processes, 60(2), 69–83.↵
- Here’s a measly 26 pages to whet your appetite: Landman, J. (1987). Regret: A theoretical and conceptual analysis. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 17(2), 135–160.↵
- To give just a few examples, some define emotions by their brain-based components, while others conceptualize them as behavioral responses to stimuli.↵
- This study finds, for example, that an individual’s happiness when going into retirement depends on whether they perceive the transition as chosen or forced.↵
- The two emotions are also physiologically distinct. See: Ax, A. (1953). The Physiological Differentiation between Fear and Anger in Humans. Psychosomatic Medicine, 15(5), 433–442.↵
- See for example: Lebel, R. D. (2016). Moving Beyond Fight and Flight: A Contingent Model of How the Emotional Regulation of Anger and Fear Sparks Proactivity. Academy of Management Review, 42(2), 190–206.↵
- What you’re shamed for is shaped by the values of your society. Sadly, if your society has fucked up values, then shame’s not going to do much good. As a particularly nefarious example, in cultures where male honor is constructed around the control of female sexuality, you can have a situation where violent behaviors (from wife beating to wife killing) don’t actually induce feelings of shame, which I hopefully don’t need to tell you is pretty fucked up. See: Lindisfarne, N. (1998). Gender, shame, and culture: An anthropological perspective. In P. Gilbert & B. Andrews (Eds.), Shame: Interpersonal behavior, psychopathology and culture (pp. 246–260). New York: Oxford University Press.↵
- Lagattuta K. H. & Thompson R. A. (2007). The Development of Self-Conscious Emotions: Cognitive Processes and Social Influences. In Tracy, J. L., Robins, R. W., & Tangney, J. P. (Eds.). The self-conscious emotions: Theory and research (pp. 91–113). Guilford Press.↵
- Lewis, M. (1992). Shame: The exposed self. New York: Free Press.↵
- Harder, D. W. (1995). Shame and guilt assessment, and relationships of shame- and guilt-proneness to psychopathology. In J. P. Tangney & K. W. Fischer (Eds.), Self-conscious emotions: The psychology of shame, guilt, embarrassment, and pride (pp. 368–392). New York: Guilford.↵
- This falls under the umbrella of what is known as the “negativity bias” that characterizes us as humans. See: Vaish, A., Grossmann, T., & Woodward, A. (2008). Not all emotions are created equal: The negativity bias in social-emotional development. Psychological Bulletin, 134(3), 383–403.↵
- To better understand the evolutionary role of emotions, see: Evans, D., & Cruse, P. (2004). Emotion, Evolution and Rationality. Oxford University Press.↵