Let’s talk about the four main emotions that people struggle with – anger, sadness, fear & hurt. It’s said that all other emotions such as frustration, resentment, grief, terror etc are derivatives of these 4.
We also have guilt though it isn’t considered a real emotion as it’s experienced only by humans, not animals. So guilt is considered a “made up emotion”.
The fact is that we need these four emotions, they have vital information for us even though we don’t like the way they feel.
I think about it this way; the body has this all figured out. The happy feelings – happiness, joy, love, excitement etc, they all feel great in our body. We instinctively know that these emotions are health promoting because they feel great.
Anger or sadness or fear or hurt, they don’t feel great. In fact they feel lousy and we want them gone. Our body instinctively knows we don’t want to keep hold of these emotions. It’s the message they contain that we need. And the fact is that the emotion will keep returning until the message is fully understood and where relevant acted upon. This is how your emotions work for you, day in day out.
The following information comes from a CBT model which tells us that each of the four main emotions has a purpose as follows:
The purpose of anger is to tell us that our boundaries have been crossed.
We have boundaries for what we consider acceptable and when something falls on the wrong side of those boundaries it basically breaches our beliefs and values. Anger is triggered within us to tell us when this has happened.
The purpose of sadness is to let us know when we have suffered a loss.
A loss can be the loss of a person – either through bereavement or because a relationship has ended – or it might be the loss of an object or money (stolen or misplaced perhaps) or the loss of something intangible like loss of status (e.g. A job or role) or loss of power or connection. Sometimes what we grief for is a perceived loss like a loss of trust where we have had to update our thinking after realising that someone wasn’t worthy of our trust after all. In a his instAnce we haven’t actually lost anything because we never really had it, hence perceived loss.
Sadness occurs to make sure we get the message – we have lost something or someone. We may need to adjust our outlook or we may need to take action and perhaps try to reclaim the loss.
The purpose of fear is to let us know of potential danger. Whether the danger is real or not it’s up to us to make a decision and that’s the bit that people often forget to do. They feel the fear and follow the feeling unquestioned. Fear of flying is a perfect example of this – its not a rational fear as it’s actually a very safe way to travel but many people go with the feeling rather than a rational decision.
The important thing to remember about fear is that it’s a notification of potential danger, a signal to assess the situation.
The purpose of hurt is to let us know we have some healing to do. This applies to emotional hurt and to physical hurt.
If we have hurt feelings from the words of another we know we are holding some sensitivity somewhere which has enabled us to feel the hurt. For instance if someone says to me that they don’t like my shoes I can either decide that’s their choice and doesn’t affect my opinion of my shoes of I can feel hurt because I was hoping they would approve of my choice of footwear. If I feel hurt it indicates that I was not 100% sure in my choice of footwear and was hoping for some confirmation from elsewhere. If I was 100% good with my choice I would not mind the other opinion.
When it comes to physical hurt, I hurt my hand and I feel pain. The pain is there to let me know I have an injury and therefore have some healing to do.
If you have a dog or a cat it will be obvious to you that animals feel anger, sadness, fear and hurt. Some people say their dog looks guilty when it has stolen food but in reality the dog will be fearful of the consequences rather than feeling bad because it took the food. Put the dog in the same situation and it will likely do the same again showing that
1) it has no understanding of right and wrong and
2) it therefore doesn’t feel bad about taking the food.
So we know from this that guilt is not something animals do. They definitely do anger, sadness, fear and hurt and this us why we don’t consider guilt a real emotion – we think of it as something that humans have constructed. As such it has no purpose as an emotion. It isn’t one.
Let me give you an example of what I mean:
If I walk down the street and bump into an old lady, I will of course stop, check she is ok and apologise.
There are a number of ways this could pan out even with me acting the same in each scenario
1) She is ok, I apologise, she accepts and we both go on our way. Should I feel guilty?
2) She is ok, I apologise, she doesn’t accept and we both go on our way, she in a huff. Should I feel guilty?
3) She is hurt, I apologise and offer to walk her home. She accepts and I make sure she gets home ok and doesn’t need medical attention. Should I feel guilty?
4) She is hurt, I apologise and offer to walk her home. She refuses and in a huff she sends me away. Should I feel guilty?
Basically I made a mistake. I can’t turn back time, I can only apologise, offer to make amends and look to learn from what has happened so I can do my best to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Where in any of these scenarios would guilt have a useful purpose? We don’t need guilt to learn from mistakes and we don’t need it to make amends either.
Guilt doesn’t help us earn and move on, it keeps us stuck in feeling bad – a less than useful state. We have lots more resources available to us when we let go of guilt and allow ourselves to move on.
Take a moment to consider, in each of the four scenarios above, in which instances does it benefit the old lady if I feel guilt? Does it benefit me? Does it benefit the world?
I think of guilt as a product of overthinking – the thing that us humans do when we try to use our conscious mind to control our emotions. That’s an impossibility by the way which is why it doesn’t usually work out too well.
You cannot think your emotions, you simply have to feel them.
When you allow yourself to feel your feelings they generally sort themselves out without much further input. It’s a system that works very well when we allow it to run without trying to interfere!
It’s when we wade in and try to overrule the system that we tend to get a bit stuck, things stop working as they should and we run into trouble.
When we leave well alone our emotions are a self regulating system but in order to do this we have to accept that we need our emotions, the full range of them. We can’t choose to have some and not others – it simply doesn’t work that way. If you try to minimise feelings you’ll be minimising all feelings, happiness included.
In working 1-2-1 with people, almost every session I’ve done in ten years as a coach has been about unraveling the knot that happened when the person tried to control or override their emotions. And in my Practitioner Training too, the biggest change that I see happening is when someone understands it’s truly ok to feel their feelings. When they lose the fear and the need to control. That’s true freedom and funnily enough it’s also true control of the emotions, the personal power that enables the emotions to run as they are meant to.