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Most people have a ‘common sense’ theory of emotions that sees emotional reactions in interpersonal situations as a physiological reaction “caused” by something another person did.

This idea is captured in a statement such as “You made me so angry when you stood me up!” Further, such emotional experiences are described as “normal”. In other words, someone stands me up that “causes” me to be angry (hurt, anxious, pissed, annoyed, irritated, etc. etc.), which I say is a “normal” reaction to being stood up. What follows is usually some reactive action (yelling, not speaking to the person, retaliating in some way) that is justified by the “normal” reaction of being angry at being stood up.

This “common sense” theory of emotion assumes that each emotion is distinct, having a distinct physical state with a corresponding distinct brain state. For example, you have a set of “anger neurons” that are trigged when your co-worker, friend, or spouse does something that annoys you.

A New View

Research carried out by Lisa Feldman Barrett and her colleagues at the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory at Northwestern University gives us a new way to look at emotions.[1,2,3] According to this approach, emotions (even basic ones like fear, anger, sadness, happiness, and disgust) are not distinct entities inside us. Feldman Barrett’s research found that no brain region is dedicated to any single emotion. Furthermore, every supposed emotional region of the brain is also activated during non-emotional thoughts and perceptions.
Feldman Barrett challenges the idea that there are unique biological “fingerprints” of each psychologically identifiable emotion that can be identified from your facial muscle movements, your body changes, and your brain’s electrical signals.

It Depends

Emotion words like “anger”, “happiness”, and “fear” refer to diverse biological states that vary depending upon the context in which they occur. For Feldman Barrett, “When you’re angry with your co-worker, sometimes your heat rate will increase, other times it will decrease and still other times it will stay the same. You might scowl or you might smile as you plot your revenge. You might shout or be silent. Variation is the norm.”

How can we understand our emotional reactions? How can we understand what context means when it comes to understanding and managing our emotions? How do we assess the context in which our emotions occur so that we can better understand and manage them? Here are two ways to think about context: (1) our own history, the historical context, and (2) the current situation we are in.

You Have a History

You can understand your emotional reactions in terms of your own unique history. The way we react emotionally evolves in the context of our relationships with our early caregivers and how they respond to us. Every child needs every-day taking care of, needs comfort and reassurance, and needs the experience of cognitive mastery.[4]

Early fear and anxiety are related to the growing awareness that we have little control over whether and how others provide for us. Anger likely develops because others will not or do not respond well to our need for help, love and reassurance, and mastery of our world. The unwillingness or inability of our caregivers to provide for us also challenges the child’s sense of omnipotence, i.e. the fundamental wish or belief that he/she is entitled to have all its wants fulfilled on demand. Of course, all emotions begin in very rudimentary, ill-defined form and become more refined over time with maturation and the changing nature of these caretaking relationships and our relationships with others.

History and Context Merge

In your daily life somebody will do, or not do, something that will elicit—or better, “trigger,” a personal reaction. Suddenly your feel angry, hurt, pissed, annoyed, irritated, miffed, etc. This is a personal situation for you, although we do not usually recognize it as such. The common phrase “taking something personally” fits this kind of event perfectly—your own personal history is being played out in the current interpersonal situation.

Here are a few examples of taking something personally:

  • “I am angry because you are not doing your fair share of the work.”
  • “I can’t believe you are ignoring me like that.”
  • “My opinion doesn’t count; You treat me like a second-class citizen in this relationship.”
  • “You spend so much money on things that are not important; you’re so selfish.”
  • “You always want to sex.…you’re a sex addict.”

In each of these statements, the items in bold are you portraying or characterizing another person’s action. This is your experience of the situation—without talking to the other person about how he/she sees the situation.

Others rarely, if ever, experience their own actions in the same way that you are characterize it. The sense of “unfairness” (from a history of being the youngest in a family?) in the example above is your personal experience of the situation. The feeling of being “ignored” (history of feeling abandoned?), etc., is significant for you on a personal level.

What Can You Do?

You can learn to recognize your personal take on situations and give yourself time to reflect and defuse rather than react automatically. Take whatever time you need to do this reflection, which will take some practice.

Once you are at least somewhat defused, you are in a position to assess how the situation is a problem for you. In the situation where you want to accuse your co-worker of being unfair to you, try to describe what the problem is. Is he not doing all the work assigned to him? Is she not completing work assigned? Is she doing things other than assigned work? These issues are real concerns that affect your work and the work of others. However, your co-worker will not see this as being unfair to you—he/she will have an explanation, which you may or may not agree with.

When you are not reacting to a situation, you can describe what is occurring that is creating a problem for you. Descriptions pose ways to address problems, emotionally based characterizations do not!

Describing a problem opens that way to negotiate a resolution. It may not always work out; negotiation may not be possible because the other person reacts, does not want to negotiate work tasks, or is not accessible. You may have to go some other route, e.g. speak to a manager, go to human resources, decide to move on, seek counseling with your spouse, etc.

Even if you are unable to resolve the issue, you will benefit from your ability and willingness to be self-reflective.

Takeaways

  • Emotions are not “things” in your brain; there is no such thing as “anger neurons”
  • What you feel depends on your own history with others and the current situation
  • Recognize your personal take on the situation
  • Learn to describe not characterize
  • Once you can describe the situation, you can define the problem
  • Make your best effort to discuss the problem

References

1. Barrett, Lisa Feldman. “What Emotions Are (And Aren’t)”. New York Times, Sunday, January 17, 2016.
2. Barrett, Lisa Feldman. (2006). Are Emotions Natural Kinds? Perspectives in Psychological Science. Vol.1(1) 28-58
3. Barrett, Lisa Feldman. (2006). Solving the Emotion Paradox: Categorization and the Experience of Emotion. Personality and Social Psychology Review. Vol 10 (1) 20-46.
4. Nussbaum, Martha. (2003). Upheavals of Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.