You’re feeling extremely angry, sad, anxious, or excited. You know these are emotions, but do you know what causes them? To most people, emotions are a mystery, or at best, confusing. When I ask my clients what emotions are and where they come from, they usually give me a blank stare, and then say something like: “They’re feelings” “They come from our brain” “They’re caused by chemical imbalances” “I get them from my mom or dad.”
It’s understandable that most people don’t know what emotions are, because we’re not taught this in school. But, in order to achieve mental health and happiness, it’s vital to have at least a basic understanding of what emotions are and where they come from.
According to philosopher Leonard Peikoff, emotions are created in a four-step process: Perception, Identification, Evaluation, and Response. For example: You’re walking down a dark street at night and a man jumps out from an alley, points a gun at you, and demands you give him your wallet. You immediately feel fear and comply with his demand. 1) You perceive the man, the gun, and the demand to hand over your wallet; 2) You identify that a gun is a weapon that can kill or severely injure you; 3) You value your life and evaluate that if you don’t give the man your wallet, your life could be in danger; 4) Your emotional response is fear.
In this situation, most people would only be aware of steps one (perceiving the gun) and four (your emotional response of fear). Steps two (identification) and three (evaluation) are automatic, lightening fast, and subconscious. You will generally not be aware of them because the knowledge of what a gun is and that your life is a value to you was stored in your mind many years ago. Thus, the knowledge (and what it means) gets triggered automatically once you see the gun.
Every emotion we feel gets triggered in this same four-step process, and each emotion has a particular meaning to it in relation to our values. For example, we feel sadness when we lose an important value, joy when we gain or achieve a value, guilt when we think we have betrayed our moral values, and love when we value something or someone highly.
The most important thing to know about emotions is that they should not be used as facts or acted on blindly. Just because you feel an emotion does not mean it’s rational or a guide to action. Because emotions are the result of value judgments, their validity is based on the accuracy of the judgments. If your evaluation of a situation, person, yourself, or anything is inaccurate or irrational, the emotion(s) that result from the evaluation will be irrational or incorrect.
To be sure the emotion you feel is valid, you must identify the evaluations underlying the emotion, and see if they are supported by the facts. If so, then the emotions are valid; if not, they’re not. When we accept feelings as facts, and then act on them, it can lead to mental health problems like depression and anxiety, as well as destructive behaviors.
To avoid this and achieve mental health and happiness, you must learn the skill of decoding your emotions. This and other tools for understanding and managing your emotions will be discussed in upcoming posts.
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Dr. Steve Orma is a San Francisco-based licensed CBT clinical psychologist, recognized mental health expert, and specialist in the treatment of anxiety, stress, and insomnia.
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