Feelings Vs. Emotions

Feelings Vs. Emotions

BlueEQ™ Staff

We like to think that we don’t bring our emotions to work with us, but it turns out we can’t leave home without them. I am excited to work on that new project. I felt attacked when my co-worker criticized my analysis. I’m apprehensive about the management changes.

Everyone knows what an emotion is, until they are asked to give a definition. (Fehr and Russell 1984)   So what exactly is the definition of an emotion? How does it differ from a feeling? Psychiatrists and neuroscientist have been debating this for years. Current studies show that although related, emotions and feelings are different in basic physiological ways. A metaphor by Dr. Damasio, professor of neuroscience at The University of California, simplifies it to, “Emotions play out in the theater of the body. Feelings play out in the theater of the mind.”

Emotions are biochemical reactions that affect our physical state. Even when a basic emotion stimulus is not part of our conscious thought, it can activate the subcortical part of the brain and cause a physical reaction. For example, when I trim a bush and see a rope lying on the ground, before my neocortex can process the information that it is only a rope, my amygdala has recognized the potential threat of a snake and initiated a ‘fear’ alert. My muscles tense, my heart rate increases, and I leap backwards. These physiological reactions are triggered by emotions, happen instinctively, and can be objectively measured.

In contrast, feelings happen once the neocortal region of the brain has had a chance to weigh in and analyze the emotion through what is happening to the body. This area of the brain can incorporate cognitive learning. Feelings are our way of figuring out our emotions. Dr. Demasio also explains that in addition to mental interpretations of our own emotions, feelings can also result when we cognitively recognize emotions in others. We can feel sympathy or sadness for a person when we understand the pain they are going through without us having to feel the pain.

The correlation between emotions and feelings are not just one way. Just as emotions drive our feelings our feelings can also affect our emotions. Once we have learned to associate something with a particular emotion just thinking about it can provide the stimuli that then triggers the emotional response. We therefore, have the ability to influence our feelings as well as our emotions by consciously creating our associations and practicing them repeatedly to create the changed stimuli resulting in changed emotional response.

The good news is that through a very intentional and practice based approach we can positively affect the feelings and emotions we experience.  For example, when we are self-aware we can recognize that our fear response to criticism tends to exaggerate the likely consequences, our neocortex can help calm the instinctive reaction. We are then in a better position to give feedback to others in a way that is constructive. As we bring our emotions to work with us they can have a positive effect on our own actions, our relationships, and how we deal with the complicated environments in which we find ourselves each day.