Dealing with Emotions

Dealing with Emotions


It’s unfortunate that we’re never really taught how to show emotion in ways that help our relationships. Instead, we are usually told what we should not do. However, too little emotion can make our lives seem empty and boring, while too much emotion, poorly expressed, fi lls our interpersonal lives with confl ict and grief. Within reason, some kind of balance in the expression of emotion seems to be called for.

Gerald Egan You and Me

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156 Chapter 4 Dealing with Emotions

Would your feelings and emotions be similar to the feelings and emotions that other people have when they are having the same experiences? How do you feel when you are in love? Can you easily verbalize the words: “I love you?” Do you verbally express your anger, or do you save your “bad” feelings and explode at a later date? Could you talk about your feelings if your best friend or someone very close to you died? How would you deal with your feelings if your spouse walked out?

We know that our emotions play an important part in making our relations with other people pleasant and joyful, or sad and painful. We also know that what we respond to emotionally is learned. For example, we learn what situa- tions or people stimulate our feelings of anger; we learn what situations produce stress or anxiety for us; we learn what kinds of situations leave us with a sense of guilt; and we learn which experiences help us to feel joyful and pleasant.

Because emotional responses and expressions are learned, we can learn how to change emotional patterns that are self-defeating or harmful to our growth towards self-actualization. We can also learn how to develop ways to become more emotionally expressive.

In our society, people oft en experience alienation or lack of ability to express emotions. And it sometimes appears that many of us have almost for- gotten how to cry or laugh or express genuine feelings for ourselves and oth- ers. Th erefore, we hope this chapter will help you become a more emotionally mature person and help you better understand the reasons behind some of your emotional reactions to certain people or situations. And we hope that you will be able to get ideas about ways you can manage emotional patterns that are giving you trouble in living with yourself and others.

What Are Emotions?

If someone asked you to explain emotions, what would you say? In all prob- ability, you would say, “Th ey are the diff erent feelings I have.” You might even give these feelings a label such as anger, love, hate, and so on. Now, suppose someone asked you to explain the term feelings. Would you be likely to say, “Th ey are the diff erent emotions I have?” And, you might even give these emotions a label, such as anger, love, or hate. Th e point is, it is quite diffi cult to separate the two; therefore, we will use the two interchangeably.

Think about this How Would You Feel in Th ese Situations?

You have just turned on the TV and the screen is fi lled with smoke from the World Trade Center attack. You are sad and afraid. No! Perhaps you are just in shock and extremely depressed.

It has fi nally happened! You have found that special person, and the two of you are discussing marriage. You are soo—in love.

Once again, your boss said some critical, unfair things to you today. You are really angry. Th e telephone rings, and you learn that one of your best friends has been killed in an accident. You are fi lled

with sadness and grief. Your spouse has just come in and told you, quite unexpectedly, that he or she wants a divorce. You are very,

very hurt. No! Maybe you’re angry.

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Chapter 4 Dealing with Emotions 157

Actually, Dr. Daniel Goleman (2006), author of Emotional Intelligence, defi nes emotion in this way:

“I take emotion to refer to a feeling and its distinctive thoughts, psy- chological and biological states, and range of propensities to act.” Richard Carlson (2007), in the New York Times bestseller, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff . . . and it’s all small stuff , says: Your “feelings act as a barometer, letting you know what your internal weather is like.” Th erefore, we are going to think of emotions as feelings that are experienced.

Without emotions, we would be little more than drab, colorless machines that run the same way day aft er day. We would not know the happiness of success or the pangs of disappointment. We would not experience joy from the companionship of others and would feel no grief at their loss. We would neither love nor hate. Pride, envy, and anger would be unknown to us. We would not even be able to understand the joys and sorrows of oth- ers. Roger-John and McWilliams (1994), in their book, Life 101, summarize the impact of emotions with these thoughts: “We experience life’s pains and pleasures through our emotions.”

Fortunately, we are not machines; we are humans. Th erefore, each of us, young or old, male or female, is capable of having and expressing many diff er- ent emotions. Although it is true that individuals experience and express their emotions in many diff erent ways, psychologists generally agree that emotions are very complex experiences, with at least four common characteristics: physiological or internal changes, behavioral expressions, cognitive interpre- tations, and motivational tendencies (Wood and Wood 2007). We will now look more closely at these characteristics, as well as briefl y discuss the eff ect our moods have on our emotional reactions.

Characteristics of Emotions

PHYSIOLOGICAL OR INTERNAL CHANGES. Let us assume that you are walking alone at night when suddenly a large object jumps in front of you. Would your neck muscles tighten? Would your stomach possibly feel “funny”? Would you be able to hear the sound of your heartbeat, even when you later discovered that the “large object” was just a box blowing in the wind? Would you still be breathing faster? What would be happening inside of you? How do you feel inside when you are nervous, frightened, or angry?

As the question suggests, a main characteristic of emotional states is that they involve physiological changes.

When our emotions are aroused, there are physi- ological changes over which we have no control. In strong fear and anger, you do not tell your adrenal glands to pump adrenaline into the bloodstream so that you will have extra energy. Th ese physiological changes in the nervous system are nature’s way of preparing you to react faster, harder, and for longer periods of time. In essence, your whole body is mobilized for action—you are physiologically ready to run or fi ght.

When you experience strong feelings, the internal changes in your body contribute to your feelings. For example, in grief or depression, there is a

T he feelings or emotional aspects of life lie pretty

close to the value and signifi cance of life itself.


Why do you feel so tired when you’re depressed?

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158 Chapter 4 Dealing with Emotions

reduction of pulse rate, breathing, and muscular strength. Consequently, you feel tired.

BEHAVIORAL EXPRESSIONS. Even though emotions are felt internally, they oft en lead to observable expressions. Th ese expressions may come in the form of a blush, trembling hands, sweating palms, or a tremor in the voice. Behav- ioral expressions can also include crying, laughing, cursing, kicking a chair, or even hitting another person. Sometimes people will deny they are feel- ing anything, even though their external and behavioral expressions indicate something else. We will discuss some suggestions for verbally expressing feel- ings later in the chapter.

COGNITIVE INTERPRETATION. While it is true that there is some connec- tion between physical behavior and emotional states, in most situations, our emotions cannot be separated from our mental lives. Cognitive appraisals are an essential part of the experience. Realistically, individuals are constantly appraising the events they experience for their personal implications: Do I care about what is happening? Is it good or bad for me? Can I do anything about it? Is this matter going to get better or worse? Can I cope? Psychologist Arnold Lazarus (2000a) believes that the cognitions involved in emotion range from your immediate perceptions of a specifi c event to your general philoso- phy of life. For example, do you see the glass as half empty or half full?

Cognitive appraisals also help explain why people diff er in the intensity of their emotions. Cognitive therapists Albert Ellis and Robert Harper (1998) believe our thoughts, beliefs, and prior experiences will color the way we view an event and, thus, profoundly infl uence our emotional reaction to that event. Two people confronted with the same situation may interpret it in a diff erent way and, therefore, respond with diff erent feelings.

Actually, we go through life describing the world to ourselves, giving each event or experience some label. We make interpretations of what we see and hear; we predict whether they will bring danger or relative safety. Sometimes, these thoughts are very powerful, and as you will discover in chapter eight, they can create most of the major stresses we experience in life.

MOTIVATIONAL TENDENCIES. Emotions themselves may function as motives, directing you toward pleasant situations and away from those that are emotionally unsatisfying, anxiety provoking, or painful. In fact, the root of the word emotion means to move , indicating the close relationship between motivation and emotion (Kagan 2009). In essence, when you are feeling a particular way, you are going to do certain things because of that feeling, in spite of that feeling, or to avoid or change that feeling. Another way of saying this would be: You do what makes you feel good, and you avoid what makes you feel bad. UCLA psychologist Gary Emery (2000) explains this further:

Pleasure motivates you to move toward something. Your pleasure feelings, for example, motivate you to move toward a certain crowd of people (“Th ey think my jokes are funny!”); you continue to interact with these people until it no longer feels good (“Th ey made fun of me because I don’t drink”).

Anxiety motivates you to run or escape from a possible loss (“I had to run for my life”).

Anger motivates you to fi ght against a perceived loss (“I had to fi ght for my life”). You yell or you attack someone to get rid of your angry feelings, even though you know your outburst will make matters worse.

T here is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.


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Chapter 4 Dealing with Emotions 159

Sadness motivates you to shut down and withdraw aft er a loss. If you lose money in the stock market, your sad feelings motivates you to be much more cautious playing the market and protect the money you have left .

MOODS. Before we leave our discussion of the characteristics of emotions, we need to briefl y discuss the eff ect our moods have on how we respond emotionally. Your moods are a general feeling tone, and they have a defi – nite infl uence on your emotions. Stated another way, Gardner (2002) says, “Our mood generally informs about the general state of our being.” Even though we do not like to admit it, our moods are oft en evident to others: For example, “Don’t ask Mr. Jones for a day off —he’s really grouchy” or “Mrs. Smith is in such a good mood today, I bet we can talk her out of the test today.”

Th ink for a moment and try to recall how your moods aff ect your emotions. Are you ever grouchy for no reason at all? Do you know what puts you in a bad mood? Oft en, we do not know what event or events put us in a particular mood; hence the old saying, I just woke up on the wrong side of the bed.

Now that we have a better idea of what emotions are and how they aff ect us, we will discuss some of the emotions which cause us the most diffi culty.

Types of Emotions

At this point, you may be asking, “Just how many emotions are there?” We really do not know the answer to this question, because our emotions include many subjective factors and individual diff erences. Our language is rich with words to describe our emotions. Table 4.1 gives a partial list of some common emotions we experience.

In a way, this list only represents labels we give to our feelings. Perhaps we need to explain these labels further. One way we can do this is to identify emotions or feelings as either primary, mixed, mild, or intense.

PRIMARY AND MIXED EMOTIONS. Psychologists who study emotions have made up lists of certain basic emotions. Robert Plutchik (2002) identifi ed eight primary emotions : joy, acceptance, fear, surprise, sadness, disgust, anger, and anticipation. Th e emotion wheel (see Figure 4.1) illustrates that these primary emotions are inside the perimeter of the circle. He suggests that these primary

Th e fully human being is aware of the vitality of his senses, emotions, mind, and will; and he is neither a stranger to, nor afraid of, the activities of his body and emotions. He is capable of the whole gamet of emotions: from grief to tenderness. What I mean, is that the fully human being experiences the fullness of his emotional life; he is in touch with, attuned to his emotions, aware of what they are saying to him about his needs and his relationships with others.

Carl Rogers On Becoming a Person

The Fully Human Being

Do you get upset by things that you can’t control?

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160 Chapter 4 Dealing with Emotions

Table 4.1 Some Emotions: How Do You Feel Today? accepted envious insecure sad

afraid exhilarated intimidated sentimental

aggravated fearful isolated self-reliant

angry friendly jealous shy

annoyed frightened joyful sincere

anxious glad lazy sorry

ashamed grieving lonely supported

bitter guilt-free loved surprised

calm guilty loving tense

cautious happy optimistic terrifi ed

cheerful helpful out-of-control tired

comfortable hopeless overcontrolled trusting

confi dent hostile pessimistic uneasy

confused humiliated powerful unsure

contented hurried powerless uptight

defeated hurt puzzled vulnerable

defensive impatient regretful wanted

depressed inadequate relieved weak

embarrassed incompetent resentful worried

energetic inferior restless

feelings can combine to form other mixed emotions , some of which are listed outside the circle: love, submission, awe, disap- pointment, remorse, contempt, aggressiveness, optimism, etc.

Psychologist Gary Emery (2000), however, indicates that there are only four basic emotions: mad, sad, glad, and scared. He suggests that all the other emotions we experience are just derivatives of these basic four. For example, too much sadness becomes depression, too much gladness becomes mania, too much fear becomes panic, and too much anger becomes rage.

Although you may not agree with the specifi c primary and secondary emotions just identifi ed, you would probably agree that it is possible to experience several diff erent emotions at the same time. For example, consider the following example.

You are going to have some friends over for hamburgers. Your date is going to help you get ready for your guests and also act as a host for the evening. An hour before your date is due at your house, you get a call that he has an unexpected guest from out-of-town arriving and will be unable to join you and your friends. Your date tells you that this is just an “old friend” he used to date, and she is only going to be in town for the evening.

Now, would you just be angry? No, you would probably be hurt, jealous, and even embarrassed that you are the only one without a date. Th e point is, an emotional event can create a wide range of feelings. We generally communicate only one feeling, however, usually the most negative one. In this case, it would probably be your anger. Could your anger become a problem for you? Let’s see!


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Figure 4.1 The emotion wheel: primary and mixed emotions.

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Chapter 4 Dealing with Emotions 161

INTENSE AND MILD EMOTIONS. We have discussed that it is human to have and express emotions and that our emotions have a lot to do with how much pleasure and enjoyment we get out of life. Our emotions can have negative eff ects, however, and cause problems for us. For example, strong emotions such as fear, depression, anger, and hate can disrupt our functioning and abil- ity to relate to other people.

Generally, our emotions begin to have negative eff ects when they are viewed as being excessive in intensity and duration (Ellis 2001) . For exam- ple, if intense emotions linger, your ability to get enjoyment from life may be increasingly decreased. It is perfectly normal to be sad when someone close to you dies. However, if you are still depressed about this three years later, this sustained, intense emotion may be a problem for you. For example, other people may want to avoid being with you, because you are so sad and probably feeling sorry for yourself!

How about another example? Have you ever had to get up in front of a group and give a speech? How did you feel? A “little bit” of anxiety before a speech can help you prepare and do a more eff ective job in delivery. Total fear, however, will probably cause you to be unable to concentrate on preparing adequately for the speech. In some cases, intense anxiety can cause you to stammer and forget important aspects of your speech.

Now, let us answer the question concerning your date who did not show for dinner: When could your anger become a problem for you? It would be normal for you to be angry if you were left in this situation. If this anger becomes so bad that you awoke for “nights on end” and “stewed” about your anger, or even tried to harm your date and his “guest,” then your intense anger or rage would be a problem for you.

Consequently, we say that when mild, emotions can be facilitative —they assist us in preparing for the future, solving problems, and in doing what is best for us. However, intense, sustained emotions can be debilitative —they disrupt our overall functioning (Ellis 2001). For example, we may experience diffi culty in performing certain tasks, such as passing a test or giving a speech, and in solving problems—“stewing” over that date who did not show up for dinner.

What are we trying to say? Essentially, emotions can serve a purpose in one situation and in other situations may serve as a hindrance. Specifi cally, what emotions cause us the most diffi culty?

Living with Problem Emotions

Some emotions cause more diffi culties than others: fear, anxiety, anger, guilt, grief, and love are such emotions which are experienced oft en and with mixed reactions.


We all experience the emotion of fear. It can take many forms, serve many purposes, and create many diff erent responses. It is important to distinguish fear from anxiety (Ellis 2000).

A specifi c situation or object elicits fear , whereas anxiety is objectless. Th erefore, we speak of fear when we think we know what we’re afraid of and anxiety when we’re unsure.

B e careful of anger; it’s just one letter away from danger. UNKNOWN

O f all the passions, fear weakens judgment most. CARDINAL DE RETZ

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162 Chapter 4 Dealing with Emotions

TYPES OF FEAR. You may feel the emotion of fear as a type of warning that danger is near. Th is warning may take the form of an external “cue,” or it may refl ect your learning. For example, if you walked into your house and a burglar carrying a gun met you in the hallway, you would feel frightened. Th is feeling of fear was caused by an external force. Sometimes fear reactions are learned through past associations. You might be afraid of thunderstorms

because your father had a tendency to believe that lightning could result in a tornado. Aft er all, his mother had been killed in a tornado when he was quite young.

Although most of the above examples refl ect physical dangers, we also have fears of being left out of the crowd, of being ridiculed, of being a failure, or of being rejected. For example, if you have ever been rejected in a relationship, you may be afraid of getting involved in another relationship again. Actually, this is a good example of where you are really experiencing mixed emotions. Is it fear you are feeling, or is it hurt? Could it be that you want to protect yourself from get- ting hurt again? Th is type of fear/hurt is one that takes time to work through. Aft er all, do you really want your “bad feelings” from one rela- tionship to “rob” you of the opportunity to have a healthy and satisfying relationship with someone else?

Some people have a personal fear of failure. Have you been wanting or at least considering a fi nancial, personal, or scholastic risk? What is the worst that could happen if you did experience a disappointment? Could you cope with that? Remember that even if you do fail, some good can come from it. How did you learn to walk? You did not just jump up from your crib one day and waltz gracefully across the room. You stumbled and fell on your face and got up and tried again. David Burns (1999) makes some valid points in the following thoughts:

At what age are you suddenly expected to know everything and never make any more mistakes? If you can love and respect yourself in failure, worlds of adventure and new experiences will open up before you, and your fears will vanish.

We will have more to say on the fear of failure and learning to take risks in chapter ten.

How do you handle your fears? Because fear and anxiety are closely related, below are some suggestions for dealing with these emotions. First of all, let us get a clearer picture of the sometimes troublesome emotion of anxiety.

T he fear of disapproval is a strong one, and it takes the

courage of principles to act in the face of it.


How To Face Your Fears and Anxieties 1. Admit your fears. It is one thing to mask your anxieties with physical and creative activities;

but if these activities become avoidance techniques, anxiety eventually increases.

2. Take risks. Fear does not go away unless you take chances to make your dreams come true. You will gain new strength and improved self-esteem with each accomplishment.

How do you feel when you have to speak in front of a group?

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Chapter 4 Dealing with Emotions 163

I believe that courage is all too often mistakenly seen as

the absence of fear. If you descend by rope from a cliff and are not fearful to some degree, you are either crazy or unaware. Courage is seeing your fear in a realistic perspective, defi ning it, considering the alternatives and choosing to function in spite of risk.



As we mentioned earlier, when the basis for our fear is not understood, we are experiencing anxiety. Actually, anxiety is an unpleasant, threatening feeling that something bad is about to happen. Rollo May (1973) in his book, Man’s Search for Himself, states:

Anxiety is the feeling of “gnawing” within, of being “trapped and overwhelmed.” Anxiety may take all forms and intensities, for it is the human being’s reaction to a danger to his existence, or to some value he identifi es with existence. . . . It is the quality of an experience which makes it anxiety rather than the quantity.

TYPES OF ANXIETY. Many times the basis of our anxiety is so vague it is very diffi cult to explain what we are really feeling. As Rollo May suggests above, anx- iety may occur in slight or great intensity. It may be mild tension before going for an important job interview; or it may be mild apprehension before taking an examination in your educational endeavors. Th ese are common examples of preparation anxiety , which help us get energized to deliver our best.

Th e emotional tension that we commonly refer to as anxiety also func- tions as a signal of potential danger. For example, “I better study for that test, or I will fl unk!” However, when the quality of the threatening experience is blown way out of proportion to the actual danger posed, and to the point that our anxiety hinders daily functioning, it becomes “neurotic” anxiety . A common example of this is when a student loses his “cool” over a test: “I can’t do it—I just know I am going to fl unk” and goes totally blank. Is this normal anxiety or neurotic anxiety?

Worry is also a form of anxiety (Leahy 2005). For example, it is normal for people to worry about future events they are going to be involved in and whose outcome they are uncertain about. However, some people worry and lose sleep, lose sleep and worry even more, over “things” that never happen. Does this ever happen to you? In recent years, researchers have learned that there is a genetic component to anxiety; some people seem to be born worriers (Gorman 2002).

Th e diff erence in normal and “neurotic anxiety” may be in one’s ability to handle or cope with the anxiety-producing situation. Just ask yourself, “Am I in control of this situation, or is the anxiety controlling how I react to this situation?”

Th e fears that resulted from the attacks on the World Trade Center have been minimal for some individuals, and for others the anxiety has led to extreme overreactions. In the wake of the most horrendous attacks in

3. Acknowledge the positive. Anxious people tend to overlook their own strengths. When you are scared, make a conscious effort to remember some past positive experiences instead of focusing on your failures.

4. Avoid catastrophic thinking. Ask yourself what the worst possible outcome of the situation could be. Having faced the worst possibility makes it easier to deal with what does come.

5. Stay in the present. Much anxiety is the result of projecting yourself into future situations. Stay focused in the present—here and now—because that is all you can control anyway.

6. Have patience. If you are overwhelmed at the thought of confronting an anxiety triggering situation, take it one

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