Understanding our emotions
It’s Canadian Mental Health Week! This year’s theme is understanding our emotions and we’re here for it. I love asking my clients, why do you think we have emotions? When I do, I get anything from a blank stare of confusion to very intuitive answers. As part of the ensuing conversation, we usually discuss how we live in a culture that privileges reason so much, that asking such a question can be unexpected. Have you ever asked yourself why we feel? Have you ever found yourself thinking life would be much easier if you didn’t feel?
What emotions do for us
Despite the social demands telling us we should ultimately be rational, the truth is we need emotions. Antonio Damasio, an important figure in psychology, went as far as to say that without emotion we cannot make decisions, no matter how logical they seem. There appears to be evidence to support his thoughts. My personal and professional experience align with this, as well, and I’ve shaped my practice to place emotions front and centre.
Through my years of training, I’ve learned that emotions are a quick assessment of an event. As a result of this evaluation, they motivate behaviour. Additionally, in the process, they help us make meaning of our experiences, which tell us about our needs and our beliefs. Finally, they have an individual and social function, as well. Individually, they are the way our body organizes for action, based on our best, fastest interpretation. Socially, they provide cues to others about our needs and experience.
In paying attention to all of this, we can see the rich and deep information that emotions provide to the human experience.
The parts of an emotion
In understanding emotions, it might be worth looking at what they really are. Emotions are a complex bodily response that involves several systems. For the sake of brevity, I’ll focus on a breakdown of what makes an emotion based on the appraisal theory and, in particular, Arnold’s work. As explained by Sue Johnson in the Emotionally Focused Therapy model, an emotion is composed of:
- Cue: The event that triggers an emotional response. This can be internal or external.
- Appraisal: Quick assessment of the situation by lower parts of the nervous system. Am I safe? Am I resourced?
- Body arousal: The way our body begins to respond.
- Re-appraisal & meaning making: Re-evaluation by the higher parts of the nervous system. What other information helps us understand this situation?
- Action tendency: What we do as a result of the above.
A simplified version comes from George Faller, who created the acronym TEMPO to help visualize the parts of emotion as they occur in one’s experience:
- T — Trigger: This is the cue that starts an emotional response.
- E — Emotion: The physiological response of our body preparing for action.
- M — Meaning: When cognitive appraisal kicks in; the significance we make out of the situation.
- P — Protection: The Action Tendency; what we actually do automatically
- O — Organization: The capacity to bring awareness into the above.
While the TEMP part of emotion happens in less than a second, too automatic for conscious choice, the Organization is linked with awareness and, therefore, the possibility of change.
The benefits of understanding our emotions
Knowing this breakdown makes room for choice and agency. That’s what Organization is all about. Over time, the re-organization of what happens during TEMP through awareness plus new experiences can change the way we assess an event. At the same time, paying attention to what happens as we assess a situation multiplies the amount of data we have. If we can use our awareness to re-organize the abundant information contained in emotion, we can also organize our inner world.
A different and, to me, special benefit of paying attention to emotion is its potential to be revolutionary. As I mentioned earlier, we live in a culture that privileges rationality and logic above all. Have you ever questioned who benefits from it? Who gets to have which emotions, while restricting the emotions of others? This way of experiencing our authenticity can be a rebellion, and that’s a good thing.
I grew up speaking Spanish. English is my second language. When I communicate in English, I make mistakes. I've chosen to let the writing on my blog reflect the kind of mistakes I make when speaking, so that you have an idea of what it might feel like to talk to me. I trust the message is still clear but, if it's not, please don't hesitate to ask me for clarification.
The information provided on my blog is a mix of my personal thoughts, professional approach, and articles related to mental health. The purpose of sharing all of this is to communicate the models at the core of my practice, as well as to provide education. I hope this will help to minimize some of the power imbalances related to my profession. The articles on this blog should not be considered as professional advice for any one person or group of people. If you have any questions about the appropriateness of this content for you, please contact a qualified mental health professional.