The range of human emotional experience seems to have infinite potential with how much it fluctuates and flows. There’s no doubt it’s vast — some psychology experts even say that there are as many as 34,000 emotions that can be distinguished and identified! So, while all of us have feelings, it obviously takes a certain sophisticated rigor to accurately differentiate and express our feelings.
Quite the Challenge
From early childhood, the adults in our lives endeavor (with varying success) try to teach us how to “use our words” to communicate our internal states instead of merely vocalizing, screaming, or acting out in counterproductive behaviors like hitting, spitting, biting, throwing or breaking things.
But verbalizing feelings is a deceptively tricky task, even when we are highly skilled at it, because our emotions seldom occur in isolation, clearly distinguished from each other. Instead, they cluster, shift suddenly, occur simultaneously, or alternate rapidly.
Grief and love deserve extra special consideration with regards to their emotional complexity — there’s nothing simple about them!
There’s also the challenge of distinguishing emotions from physical sensations such as hunger, pain, fatigue, nausea, agitation, and weakness. When our bodies are compromised or in need of attention, our feelings tend to reflect our physical status in response, with a generalized inclination toward irritability (e.g., being “hangry”). If our emotions are especially intense or prolonged, we can end up with our bodies manifesting new and surprising symptoms in response.
Next, consider the myriad interpersonal and environmental factors that introduce all sorts of additional stressors, demands, and opportunities. As a result, the constellation of responses we manifest is further complicated.
Sorting Them Out
We tend to group emotions by the qualities they share. The most elemental are joy, excitement, awe, desire, gratitude, interest, acceptance, serenity, disappointment, sadness, fear, loneliness, confusion, anticipation, frustration, shame, contempt, anger, disgust, and surprise. From there, we fine-tune the related internal states and their descriptive terms in order to clearly communicate our experience.
Oftentimes feelings are murky and elusive — this can occur whether the feelings are strong or subtle. We struggle to understand and identify them, particularly when we are having a new experience. At such times we tend to use catchall descriptives, such as distress, uncomfortable, overwhelmed, or upset. Sometimes our psyche gets so flooded with feelings that we resort to saying we’re numb — a version of freeze, which is a close kin of fight, flight, and appease.
The phrase "emotional intelligence" is meant to describe the advanced ability to accurately differentiate, express, and regulate our affective states.
This leads us to the notion that there are certain feelings we avoid or push away, calling them "bad" or "negative". So, then let’s consider — are these two terms interchangeable? I'd say they are, somewhat, but would like to propose that referring to a feeling as bad indicates a less precise, more pervasive state (manifests more internally), while a feeling is called negative because it's difficult to navigate, interferes with routines and responsibilities, and disrupts exchanges with others (manifests more externally).
I venture to say that these interpretations are partially derived from adverse physical sensations associated with the feelings. Shifts in our chemistry cue us to recognize that we’re feeling “off”, with the most extreme changes accompanying trauma. Likewise, these feelings often indicate social conflict and interpersonal strife (sometimes setting off a vicious cycle). Therefore, we judge them because we don’t like their impact on our daily life and community.
It’s important to keep in mind that there’s nothing fundamentally dangerous about any feelings —it’s only how we handle them that can causes trouble. Feelings inform us and therefore all of them fundamentally have a constructive value – they help us understand ourselves (and others, of course), our world, and our interactions with it. When we’re aware of our feelings, accept their existence, and manage them effectively, all of them help us to live authentically and in community with others. This approach also gives us permission to face and reconcile ourselves to them.
My recommendation is that we dispense with the words “bad” and “negative” altogether in the affective realm because they imply judgement and rejection of the associated state (e.g., deny, avoid, dismiss, minimize or stuff it). When we have these reactions, we sacrifice the utility of both the feeling and the label we give the feeling, thus limiting our capacity to know and accept ourselves, to integrate the associated experience, and to communicate clearly with others. In fact, such intense feelings alert us to challenges that need special attention.
Instead, in order to improve our quality of life, we might want to define the affective spectrum more as a range from easy to difficult feelings, pleasant to unpleasant, or maybe comfortable to uncomfortable. These options allow us to remain open and to move with our feelings, recognizing their origin and enacting potential interventions that will help.
If we could agree on a new — and more evolved and beneficial — identification system that honors all feelings, including those that are currently referred to as bad or negative, we could liberate ourselves from unnecessary and unhealthy limitations that prevent us from living fully. As a result, we would become more present and better able to act in concert with our higher values, thereby making the world a kinder and more caring place.
Which replacement identification system do you think would be most useful for including “bad” and “negative” feelings?