boat logo

Home Page



Understanding Emotions
by Serge Kahili King

What are emotions?
The easiest way to answer that is to define an emotion as "energy in motion." That's actually similar to the original Latin roots of "e-" (meaning "ex" or "outward" plus "movere", to move. An emotion is not a "state of mind" or an "instinctual feeling" as some dictionaries claim. It always involves an energetic reaction of the body to some circumstance, internal or external. That circumstance could be a thought (like "I'm going to fall!") or an imminent threat--actual or perceived-- from someone or something (like a sudden clap of thunder or the approach of a wild bear), or the behavior of someone or something that breaks a habitual rule (like someone being late for an appointment) or the appearance of something wondrous, beautiful or highly pleasurable (like a special sunset, the breach of a whale, or a hug from an old friend).

Of course, emotions are felt by the person having them, but they can also be recognized as such by an observer through what might be called body language. And while thoughts can generate emotions, emotions can also generate thoughts, which may enhance, change, or even eliminate the emotion being felt and affect the perception of the observer. Therefore, emotions can be both subjective and objective

Subjectively, an emotion can either feel good or feel bad. Objectively, the person experiencing the emotion can usually be seen as appearing happy or unhappy. Even more objectively, the emotional person may use the energy of the emotion to act in a particular way that is not only seen, but which may have a direct effect on the observer.

What kinds of emotions are there?
Emotions have been given a great many different labels, making it difficult sometimes to know with any accuracy what emotions are being felt or seen. After a great deal of research with clients, students and myself, I have found it very useful to divide all emotions into four categories: Anger, Fear, Love and Enthusiasm.

Anger is an attempt to avoid or reduce pain by resisting someone's behavior or some event from memory, current experience, or future expectation. Such resistance always arises from the breaking of an individuals rules about how people should act or how things should be. Anger emotions include jealousy, envy, sadness, depression and grief.

Although jealousy is frequently treated as a sign of love, because it seemingly shows that someone cares, what the jealous person really cares about is his or her loss of respect and privilege. Envy is simply being angry that one does not have what someone else has. Sadness could be called a mild form of anger, because it comes from resistance to the fact that something good that once existed is no longer there. Depression is a little more complicated, because it is a combination of feelings of anger plus helplessness. The realization that grief, particularly extended grief, is a form of anger was the result of many consultations with grief-stricken clients. I was surprised that in case after case the underlying emotion was anger that the deceased person had left.

Fear is an attempt to avoid or reduce pain by trying to run away from something perceived as a danger to one's health, well-being, happiness or success. The desire to run away is there, even when it can't be done. Related emotions include anxiety, terror, panic and embarrassment.

Some people think that fear is natural, but it isn't. It has to be learned from some sort of painful experience, and that experience doesn't have to be consciously remembered. As a young boy I was very afraid of dogs, even though I couldn't remember any bad experiences with them. Then one day my mother revealed that when I was a baby in a carriage a man rescuing a puppy from in front of a car inadvertently tossed the pup into my carriage where the poor frightened thing scratched me up. So the fear became my body's way of protecting me from being hurt by a dog again. Aside from the fear of physical pain, people can also develop fears of loss, of rejection, of failure, and many other things that might have produced internal or external pain.

Love, as an emotion, is an attempt to increase pleasure by connecting with someone or something. The pleasure comes from the sense of self-expansion. The emotion of love includes sexual love, naturally, but also affection, friendliness, kindness and helpfulness. Humans are amazing creatures, in that they can love not only each other, but animals, trees, Nature in general, objects, buildings, games and anything they can connect with.

Enthusiasm is an attempt to increase pleasure by getting excited about someone or something and joining with it vicariously or personally. Related emotions include those arising from achievement, accomplishment, discovery and adventure.

I hope this brief discussion stimulates your thinking about emotions, and perhaps inspires some to find more ways to work with emotional healing and development.

palm isle