Feelings Vs Emotions: What’s The Difference?

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We tend to talk about feelings and emotions interchangeably, but they’re not the same thing.  Let’s find out what the difference is between them, and how being aware of this difference can have a huge impact on our lives.

1. TYPES OF EMOTION

Emotions can be divided into 2 categories. 

Core emotions are the most basic impulses that we instinctively feel in our bodies when moving through our lives.  There are relatively few of these, and some psychologists have narrowed down the list to as few as 6 core emotions (happiness, sadness, surprise, disgust, fear and anger), though each one will be able to manifest in different forms – for example, happiness could be felt as contentment, as euphoric joy or in its highest form as love.

More complex emotions are typically formed by a combination of a core emotion (which comes to us spontaneously when we experience something) and a mental judgement about what we’re experiencing.  For example, If I find out that my money has been stolen, I might instinctively feel sadness or fear, and these emotions come first.  But then, when I very quickly mix that with a judgement that whoever did it shouldn’t have done it and deserves to be punished, I may then become resentful or vengeful, or feel betrayed.

These more complex emotions then give rise to additional experiences in our body and in our emotional state, as they trigger the release of hormones that amplify the effects of the judgements.  It’s actually quite dangerous, as it can lead to an ever-deepening cycle where we’re dwelling on what’s negative, thereby strengthening the judgements and causing the release of more hormones, that create even more intense emotions, so that the whole negative cycle becomes completely overwhelming and almost impossible to break through.

I call the core emotions – that arise spontaneously in us – feelings.  They are the most natural and spontaneous emotional experiences that we have, and the word fits with how we talk about listening in to and being guided by our intuitive feelings.  The second group, I call complex emotions, or simply emotions, as they are generally more intense and complicated emotional experiences.  This is the way I’ll refer to feelings and emotions for the rest of this article.  Do be aware though, that there is no standard language about them, and some people label them the other way round.  The important thing is to know that there’s a difference.

But why is this difference important and why do we tend not to be aware of it?

2. WHY THE CONFUSION?

It may seem technical or pedantic to go on about the differences between feelings and emotions.  After all, they both relate to what we feel.  Why would we need to bother about understanding which category they fall into?

In fact, it’s quite deliberate, unconsciously of course, that we don’t want to know the difference, and the reason has to do with honesty and what we want to allow ourselves to believe and accept.

To take just one small example, imagine someone suddenly shouting at you in the street for no apparent reason. The initial feelings – the core emotions – that may come up instinctively might be a mixture of surprise and fear, with perhaps some anger or sadness.  These are inner experiences that do not easily give rise to dramatic external expression (we’ll come back to anger a little later).

Now, it’s likely, given the current culture of society, that you wouldn’t leave it at that, because there’s something else going on here.  This episode has shown us that we are subject to adversity that’s outside our control, and we don’t like that.  We don’t want to walk around in the knowledge that someone could quite easily come along and ruin our day  We prefer the certainty and comfort of feeling safe and secure to go about our lives without risk.  So now we start to react not only to the particular situation that’s just happened, but to the underlying vulnerability that it’s forced us to recognise, and which we don’t like.  So, we avidly try to defend our right to security.

The problem is that we don’t have any right to such security.  The rules and laws that human society puts in place are aimed at giving us as much of it as is possible, but situations like this are always a possibility.  They might completely spoil our condition or state of mind, with nothing that we can do about them.  This is just the reality of life.

We don’t want to accept the reality of life.  We don’t want to accept the possibility that the unknown could come to disturb us at any moment.  We want to feel safe and free.  So, we try to trick ourselves into believing that things are actually how we want them to be, rather than how they really are.  And we use our emotions to do this.

So in this situation of being shouted at in the street, a certain internal commentary would very quickly emerge in your mind, not about what is happening, but about what should or shouldn’t be happening.  You might judge that the person shouldn’t be shouting at you like that, as they don’t have a reason to, and even if they did, they should express it differently.  You might decide, therefore, that the person is wrong and has committed an aggressive act towards you.  This might bring up the realisation that having been assaulted in this way, you are vulnerable to such acts, and hormones will be released in your body that give you the unpleasant emotional experience of vulnerability to help you to act accordingly.  This emotional experience may include an element of panic that you need to thwart the aggression before it sets a precedent for future interactions, so you might decide to defend yourself.  What will help you to stand up for yourself with resolve is a conviction that the person, having committed a wrong, deserves to be responded to harshly.  This judgement then leads to emotions of resentment, bitterness, fury, desire for revenge and so on, each with the appropriate release of hormones, and the result will be that you respond in a much more aggressive way than you would do if you’d kept a level head.  This will, of course, most likely lead to a reaction in turn from the other person, which will give you something else to react to and a reason start this whole complicated process again from a much more triggered position.

Different people might have a different sequence of beliefs and emotions in the same situation according to their individual tendencies, but in all cases, it begins with the initial feelings, which we don’t like, and a decision that rather than accept our vulnerability to such feelings, we’d prefer to pretend that the events that caused it were an aberration and that we’re actually quite safe.  When combined with the various judgements that we described, this leads to a complex spiral that make us lose our balance and slip straight into old patterns that might not be optimal for us.

That was just one example.  There are countless things that could happen in my life that might invite me to go down into this trap.  If people reject me, it’s painful to accept that there’s something they don’t accept about me, or even that there’s just a mismatch between our energies.  It’s much easier to pretend that it’s them who’s done something wrong, then I don’t have to experience the pain.  If I do badly in an exam, I don’t want to think I’m not capable of passing, so I might try to cast doubt on the quality of the exam itself or blame someone else for disturbing me from studying.  It would be impossible to make an exhaustive list of all the reasons I might do this sort of thing.

I don’t want to accept or even recognise that there’s a difference between feelings and emotions because I’d then need to recognise my own responsibility for creating – or at least deepening – my negative emotions by resisting whatever is going on in my life that I don’t like rather than simply accepting that life isn’t always comfortable and that’s okay.

It’s all an attempt to fight for the way we feel the world should be, because we’re afraid we can’t cope with the way it actually is.  It leads to us becoming increasingly incongruous with the realities of life, and over time leads to patterns being established where we’re more and more triggered by the slightest challenge to how we judge our lives should be.  That’s why there’s so much conflict in the world.

3. STABLISING OUR EMOTIONS

There’s no easy way to avoid this pattern happening.  The only real way is to allow ourselves to be honest about whatever it is we don’t like – in this case (as in many cases) it’s the fact that vulnerabilities are inherent in our lives.

We need to come to a place where – however chaotic these disruptions are for us – we accept that they can happen and that’s just how life is.  And we need to remember that our judgements don’t actually carry any weight – after all, who am I to say what should and shouldn’t be, and to think that my assessment of this is superior to someone who has a different perspective.

If we can do this – and we can do it quickly, in the moment that we’re about to go down the rabbit hole – then we can avoid going through that whole destructive sequence of beliefs, judgements and emotions that build on each other and make us react in ways that give us more adversity to react even more strongly to.

Then, over time, we find that we stabilise emotionally.  We find that we’re more at peace with ourselves and spend less time lost in emotions that spiral out of control and dominate our lives.  We don’t escape the pain of whatever situation comes up, but we no longer use it as a springboard to put ourselves under pressure and hurt ourselves further.

And then we don’t feel so vulnerable anymore.  As well as attracting such situations much less often, we focus on developing the inner-strength and resilience to know that when they do happen, we can handle it emotionally.

We accept our uncomfortable feelings, and with our new strength and resilience, we take responsibility for processing them without the need to scapegoat someone else for them, so we consciously avoid descending into the blaming and judgement that leads to emotional spirals.

We come to understand that accepting whatever life gives us and our responsibility for making the best of it is not, after all, a crippling burden, but a tremendous empowerment, which we can use (with a lot of practice) to build a life of joy in the face of what we might not have chosen but which is beyond our control.

4. WHAT'S BLOCKING US

But acceptance isn’t always easy.  We’re socially programmed to be terrified of anything that might compromise what we believe are our interests and to seek to destroy it, rather than to have faith in ourselves and our own inherent strength, and in our ability to thrive in a wide variety of  circumstances, including imperfect ones.

I’m aware of 2 things that can successfully help to create this faith. 

An essential foundation is an effective spiritual component in life.  This is the only thing that can erode our inherent fears and help us develop an inner core of strength and acceptance.  I’ve practiced Heartfulness meditation for nearly 25 years, and as I often share, it’s very unlikely I’d have ever made it to 40 without it.  I have found it to be exceptionally transformative in ways that I couldn’t have imagined before beginning with it.

The second thing, to build on this and to better realise the potential we’ve unlocked with our spiritual practice, is to clear away the emotional baggage and associated energetic imbalances in our bodies that are colouring our reactions (and most likely causing all sorts of other health and wellbeing issue).  There are many ways to do this.  One way is by talking things through with some sort of counsellor or therapist.  However, this can be intense, painful and draining, as well as slow and inefficient.  

By far the best way I’ve ever come across is Energy Healing (if a capable practitioner is chosen).  I’m still amazed at how much emotional baggage can be so easily cleared away without any need to discuss or relive painful memories.  This is why I launched Heartful Healing and chose healing as my new career when it unexpectedly came into my life.  I don’t regret it for a moment.

5. CLARIFICATION: ANGER

I said earlier that we’d come back to anger, which is almost always classed as a core emotion, which I said didn’t usually give rise to dramatic expression.  However, we have all seen dramatic expressions of anger.  So, what’s going on?

Unfortunately with anger, we use the same word for both the initial impulse – the core emotion – and also for the more complex emotion that it can develop into. 

For example, when I see an injustice, I feel anger.  That anger might propel me into some sort of positive action on behalf of the person who I feel has been wronged.  But if I dwell on my judgements about the perpetrator and fuel myself with thoughts of how bad that person is, then I might erupt at them with a more complex concoction of anger, hatred, resentment, vengefulness and so on, which is clearly no longer a core emotion, but linguistically, we still call it anger even though it’s no longer the same core emotion of anger that we started with..

That’s why it might sometimes feel unusual to include anger as a core emotion. 

A similar thing can happen when the core emotion of fear morphs into a more complex emotional blend of terror, horror, panic and so on.  We use the same word – fear – even though the emotion has become immeasurably more complex.

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