Understanding Emotion

Feelings are often difficult to explain. I can often identify them, but any attempt at explanation is usually inadequate to fully express what I feel. I say I feel, “love” or “sadness” but a simple word has little to do with the reality of the experience. Sadness can be a temporary warning as I stub my toe or a depth of sorrow that has me crumbled in on myself and past a point where life seems worth living. Words are not feelings.

Feelings are a physical, chemical event in my brain and body. My feelings form a half of my consciousness, a half that helps me interpret my internal environment, understand morality and empathize with others. Without feelings, good and bad would be nearly meaningless, and experience would be bland. Feelings help me stay motivated and validated. Feelings bring connection, engagement, and joy, enabling me to communicate with others.

The other half of my consciousness is my thoughts and rational mind. Thoughts interpret the external world, solve problems, and bring the coolness of logic. With thoughts, things make rational sense. My environment is put into order, and I have the tools needed to function, live and interact.

My thoughts and feelings work together to create my consciousness. Within this consciousness are my emotions. My emotions are my primary feelings combined with the interpretation of my thoughts. Emotion is the strongest experience, both mind and feeling working together. I am the sum of my feelings and thoughts, working together to create my emotions and then character.

What exactly makes up my self, my character? I created this diagram, not as absolute truth, just as a way of thinking about what makes me me, and how feelings, thoughts, and emotions work together to form my character.

At the bottom, I started with my genetics and environment that form my basic underlying state. From the time I was an infant, I had this sense of self, and from that came my feelings. Feelings turned into thoughts, and sometimes back into feelings. As I grew, I experienced a wide range of events, gained knowledge and perceptions and began to experience a wide range of emotions. These emotions over time formed my attitudes.

My thoughts lead to my decisions and my words and actions. From these, I created my habits and routines. My habits and routines create what my physical state was, what challenges I created for myself, the relationships I developed, and my spirituality. These, in turn, have a direct influence on my underlying state.

My habits and routines, combined with my attitude form my character. My character is who I am on an ongoing basis. My underlying state is how I get there. Ideally, I want my underlying state to be one of happiness, and joy. So how exactly do I change and mold my character and influence my underlying state?

Each box is a different gradient. The darker the color, the easier it is to control and change. My decisions and words and actions are quite easy to determine and change. From there, I can change my knowledge and perceptions, my habits and routines, and to continue to influence all aspects of my self.

Often, I try to directly influence my underlying state or feelings or emotions: “Be happy,” declared with the force of a drill sergeant, rarely actually brings happiness. My underlying state, feelings, and emotions are often difficult to directly control.

Instead, I can try to influence my decisions, my actions, and even my thoughts. For instance, I put a small smile on my face, I think of an event in my life that brought me happiness. Usually, I start to feel happy, creating a pleasant emotion even if I didn’t quite feel that way before.

My underlying state has a lot of influence on how I function as a person, and ideally, I want a healthy, vibrant state, one of primarily peace and happiness. But this doesn’t start by directly molding my character: it starts with simple decisions and actions that work together in a circular manner to lift my underlying state.

There is this thing called the paradox of hedonism that basically envelops a lot of different philosophies on how pursuing our own happiness seems impossible because a lot of time when you actively want to be happy and try to make yourself happy, you end of failing completely. I think part of this idea comes from this basic idea is that one of our greatest desires is to control our emotions—and we find ourselves simply failing at it.

I remember first reading that our thoughts control our emotions—that phrase is understated, but it offered a glimmer of hope that I had more control of my life than I thought I had.

I can at least direct my thoughts if I can’t control them completely. And I can control what I do.

Emotions can be terrifying because they seem so outside of our control—but they aren’t, not completely. Because we do have control over our decisions. I have to remind myself of that someday—often we give up that control in order to just go with the flow of life. But I can choose. I can choose something. Maybe I can’t choose happiness directly, but I can choose something that will get me there.

Emotions do not have to overwhelm me to a point where they control my life. I’m going to feel intensely—I’m going to feel emotions that I don’t want to. But my life is more than that.

I recently was trying to fix a toy—it was not a simple task, but at first, I was excited about the challenge. Except for I ended up fixating on getting this toy fixed, and then when I couldn’t do, I felt a very large amount of frustration. I knew I didn’t have to keep working on this toy. My baby was crying and wanted attention, but I was choosing to ignore her. My kids were wasting their time. I had other things to do. But I wanted to get the toy fixed. Frustration grew into intense anger—and the mixture of frustration and anger usually results in throwing things. I broke the toy even more. The irony of it? My two-year-old broke it originally because he was frustrated and threw it. It soured the day, and it is a moment I am not proud o. But there were so many steps in that moment where I could have chosen differently: I could have stopped working on it. I could have taken a break. I could have asked for help. I could avoid the damage to the toy—and more importantly, the damage to myself and my children. I’ve had similar experiences that have not been intense at all—because I chose to walk away. What I couldn’t choose to do is keep working on that toy and do it happily—that was impossible. A lot of times the deep intensity of frustration comes when I’m trying to do the impossible—but I can choose to stop trying, a choice that usually comes before the emotion.


Think of a time where you experienced a powerful emotion.

  • What was the event?
  • What were the initial feelings?
  • What were your interpretations and thoughts regarding the event and feelings?
  • What are your emotions after interpretation?
  • How did your body respond?
  • What were your actions or decisions?
  • How did it affect your character, what were the aftereffects?

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