Have you ever wondered what our emotions mean? Most of us simply accept our emotions without thinking about them too much. If we do, we're often more interested in what triggered an emotion than in what that emotion might be trying to tell us.
Last week, I gave a workshop on emotions and the different ways they can be expressed non-verbally. Here's a little sneak peek into what I've learned.
There are eight main emotions: anger, contempt, disgust, embarrassment, fear, happiness and sadness. And all of them serve universal purposes. Culture may dictate when it is appropriate to express an emotion, but under our skins, we all feel the same things.
Anger serves a very basic purpose. It alerts us when something is wrong. Unfairness, prejudice, and trickery are all appropriate triggers for anger. When our expectations are violated, no matter how small or large, we get angry. Anger spurs us to action, filling us with energy. But it also shuts down our ability to empathize, which makes it difficult to communicate and come to a joint solution with our opponents. It's also a mirrored emotion. If someone sees someone who is angry, they are likely to become angry themselves, creating a vicious cycle.
Contempt is a form of societal bonding. It defines the people and behaviours which are acceptable and those which aren't. On it's own, it's a pleasant sensation of superiority, power and status. Paired with disgust, it can provoke people into horrific levels of violence. Contempt allows a person to demonstrate or prove their inclusion as an insider or as part of an elite.
Disgust is a another part of our social barometer, defining intimacy. Suspending disgust with someone is a sign of affection and bonding. Like a parent cleaning up their baby's vomit or allowing someone to stick their tongue in your mouth. Actions which should be disgusting become acceptable. It also prevents us from consuming food or drink which is likely to be contaminated, increasing our survival.
Embarrassment is a display of submission. It is triggered by violating social taboos or norms. By demonstrating embarrassment, we express regret and seek to appease those around us, hopefully reducing any possible censure. Embarrassment is not actually a separate emotion and is actually a combination of fear and sadness in rapid alternation.
Fear is a protective emotion, preventing us from getting into dangerous or treacherous situations. There are universal fears, such as threat of harm, snakes, the dark and public embarrassment. There are also learned fears, such as guns, flying and bad movie casting. A little fear is healthy, raising our alertness and granting us extra speed and strength with a boost of adrenaline. Too much fear saps our strength, leading to hopelessness.
Sadness is the flip side of anger. Anger alerts us to something wrong and sadness alerts others to something wrong for us. It is literally a cry for help. Anger drives us forward but sadness drains our sense of purpose and hope. When people see someone who is sad, they are moved emotionally, even if it is only a picture. Sadness inspires compassion and an urge to help in most people.
Happiness is our reward for doing things right. It tells us when things are good and allows us to enjoy it. People feel happier when they see someone who is genuinely happy. The word "happiness" actually describes a wide range of pleasant emotions, from enjoyment to elation to wonder to pride.
Surprise is a fleeting reaction to an unexpected event or stimulus. In some primal cultures, they do not distinguish between surprise and fear, as fear usually follows a surprise. Surprise actually covers two emotions: surprise and startlement. Surprise happens when something is truly unexpected. Startlement is when someone knows something is coming, but not when. For example, if I'm walking down the street and hear a gunshot, I will be surprised. If I'm at the gun range and someone fires, I'll be startled.
Eight emotions seems like a limited palette, but with them, we create the whole of human experience. They can often feel like they're in control, but with a little understanding of what they are trying to tell us, we can gain a whole new appreciation of how we interpret the world.