ABCs of Emotions

It is common for people to react to an emotion by behaving in a certain way. When we feel fear, we run, we fight, or we freeze. When we feel happy, we clap, jump up and down, or hug someone. The urge is considered part of the emotions but the action itself is not part of the emotions. So the emotion and the urge (part of the emotion) is what prompts the action. But the emotion can be held in check and not acted upon, as they are most of the time.

But what activates the emotion? A variety of things. Sometimes it is a behavior of another. Sometimes it is our own belief about something. Often it is our own mistaken beliefs but we want to blame someone else. Sometimes it is another emotion.

My mother used to freak out whenever someone else drove the car. She especially got excited when a large truck pulled up beside us and stayed there for a while. She was convinced that this created a dangerous situation and it scared her. She was convinced she had no control over her fear of it but one day, looking in the rear-view mirror, I saw one approaching from the right side. I warned her and she steeled himself against it. She actually behaved like a turtle, pulling her head down into her shoulders. But she managed and it we got through it. A little after the truck passed, she turned and faced me and let out a tirade for my letting the truck stay beside us for so long. She was angry with me because she was afraid and fear is one source of anger.  Fear and pain, as a matter of fact, are almost always the beginning of anger. Anger doesn’t come from out of nowhere.  It is a secondary emotion. 

So in this case, some of the emotions were activated by events – the truck driving beside us on the freeway – and others were activated by other emotions. Those other emotions and thoughts that are not spoken or otherwise communicated are called “private events”. If I was not aware of these private events, I might have lashed back at my mother for her behavior. I knew, however, what an ordeal she had just experienced and made room for her reaction.

These private experiences can be so habitual and happen so fast that we are not even aware of them as separate thoughts or feelings. This makes it appear that an emotion comes from nowhere. Like an automatic reaction to a big dog headed your way when you have a long time fear of dogs. At the very most, the mere sight of the dog appears to have set off your fear or perhaps anger at the owner for letting the dog walk off leash. The truth is, a whole string of thoughts and emotions have passed through your brain and lit the fire that becomes a phobic reaction to a wagging tail.

Perhaps there was a flash of a memory of a dog that of course seemed giant to an 18 month old. He was growling menacingly and you remembered other instances, perhaps seen on TV or in the neighborhood, where someone got hurt when a dog growled. Perhaps you mother or brother reacted badly to a dog and got bit. Perhaps you were just warned by someone that a growling dog is not a good thing. Anyway, you started to scream, and the dog became afraid and its behavior became aggressive in his attempt to get away or defend itself.

That whole scenario could have flashed through your brain before the behavior took hold.

These events and feelings are called ACTIVATING EVENTS according to the late Albert Ellis, PhD. They prompt, activate or call forth the emotion. A person's thoughts, behaviors, physical reactions, and private events activate our emotions.

Activating events can be events happening in the present (an interaction with someone, losing something, physical illness, and financial worries).  Activating events might also be a memory, a thought, or even another feeling (we feel ashamed, and then feel angry about feeling ashamed, for example). In managing our emotions, it is important to be able to recognize activating events.

The second thing, it is important to recognize is the behavior caused by the activating event. Behavior is more than just what can be seen by watching what you do. Private events such as thoughts and feelings are also behavior. Behavior is anything you do, even if no one else can see it.

When someone does something stupid, and you think, “Damn, that’s guy is stupid!” Even if you don’t say it out loud, thinking that thought is behavior.

So we have and an activating event and then a behavior. The truck drove by us on the freeway and my mother behaved in an angry way.

What are emotions, anyway?

Emotions  are caused by what we believe. My mother believed that the semi-truck would lose control and run into us and we would die – or at the least be badly crippled. That belief made her feel fear – an emotion.

The person who sees the dog approaching believes that dogs are dangerous so they feel fear and perhaps anger.

The person who heard the man speaking believed that what he said was stupid so he felt contempt.

When I heard my mother get angry with me, if I had believed that she meant it, I would have gotten hurt and/or angry and possibly scolded he back.

 According to Wikipedia:

Emotion is, in everyday speech, a person's state of feeling in the sense of an effect. Scientific discourse has drifted to other meanings and there is no consensus on a definition. Emotion is often intertwined with mood, temperament, personality, disposition, and motivation. On some theories, cognition is an important aspect of emotion. Those acting primarily on emotion may seem as if they are not thinking, but mental processes are still essential, particularly in the interpretation of events. For example, the realization of danger and subsequent arousal of the nervous system (e.g. rapid heartbeat and breathing, sweating, muscle tension) is integral to the experience of fear. Other theories, however, claim that emotion is separate from and can precede cognition.

 In Ritual Humanism, Emotions are the feelings we feel because of what we believe.

If my boyfriend breaks up with me and I am still in love with him, I will feel all kinds of negative emotions including sadness, anger, pity for myself, fear of being alone, inadequate, etc, etc.

If I am not in love with my boyfriend, but I am afraid of hurting his feelings so I don’t say anything, and he breaks up with me, my feelings might be hurt, but at the same time, I’m relieved. I’m free to make new plans for the future, I’m happy to be alone again with no one to check in with.

If I believe the democrats make good presidents, I will feel happy about a democratic win in 2016. If I believe only republicans produce good presidents, I will be unhappy about a democratic win in 2016. If I don’t believe it makes any difference, I will probably just feel relieved that the election is over. My feelings are based upon my beliefs.

Robert Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions

Robert Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions

Robert Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions

Again, according to Wikipedia:

Robert Plutchik developed the "wheel of emotions", suggesting eight primary emotions grouped on a positive or negative basis: joy versus sadness; anger versus fear; trust versus disgust; and surprise versus anticipation. Some basic emotions can be modified to form complex emotions. The complex emotions could arise from cultural conditioning or association combined with the basic emotions. Alternatively, similar to the way primary colors combine, primary emotions could blend to form the full spectrum of human emotional experience. For example, interpersonal anger and disgust could blend to form contempt. Relationships exist between basic emotions, resulting in positive or negative influences.


Somatic Theories of Emotions

Somatic theories of emotion claim that bodily responses, rather than cognitive interpretations, are essential to emotions. The first modern version of such theories came from William James in the 1880s. The theory lost favor in the 20th century, but has regained popularity more recently due largely to theorists such as John Cacioppo,  António Damásio, Joseph E. LeDoux and Robert Zajonc who are able to appeal to neurological evidence. 

So we have the beginnings of a very popular and useful theory of emotions:

  1. Stands for the Activating event that sets off the emotion or calls up the beliefs about the event.
  2. Stands for the Beliefs about that event that has occurred.
  3. Stands for the Consequences............

And now we have the next thing that happens after the emotion and behavior. If the emotions and behaviors remain private, they will have little effect on the world at large. They may have a negative effect on the individual who is experiencing them. But this theory can be a salve for that, as well as for the public reaction.

When my mother yelled at me because of that truck that had the nerve to stay beside of us for a whole minute, I could have yelled back at her protesting; that it is not my fault that that vehicle decided to stay right there for that time. That would have been one consequence of her beliefs which lead to fear.

over arrow

Beliefs  arrowEmotions  arrowBehavior  arrowConsequences

Another consequence would be for me to just say, “I know that frightened you and I’m sorry, but I had no control over that truck.”

Or, I could have said or done nothing. All of those are possible consequences of her behavior and ultimately, her belief about that truck and it’s driver.

I honestly don’t remember what I said or did. Probably a lecture on how I had no control or responsibility of or for that truck.

Let’s look at the woman who lost her boyfriend. She is sad and feeling inadequate and lonely. For a while, I would hope that her friends are sympathetic and try to comfort her. If she stays with the hopelessness, her friends are going to get bored and not know what to say or how to comfort her further. One possible consequence could be that she would end up very alone. On the other hand, if she takes her friends comfort and begins to rebuild her self-esteem, her friends will probably continue to invite her to spend time with them and perhaps even try to help her find a new beau.

over arrow
     Belief    arrowEmotions     arrowBehavior     arrowConsequences
(I’m useless)   (sadness, depression)   (long term sulking)               (really alone)
  (I’m OK)        (sadness, depression)     (get on with life)          (lives a rich and full life) 

This is exciting News!! Why is this exciting? You ask. Because, if you want to change the consequences, all you have to do is change your beliefs! Those thoughts that lead you to believe that you are no good, or you will never love again, or you’re ugly or stupid or whatever is leading you to your loneliness, are probably lies, anyway. In any case, it is not the whole truth.

We continue with our page on the Tolerance of Distressful Emotions.