In everyday life, the specific emotions are very important to us. We don't just feel 'emotional', we experience anger or sadness or joy or guilt, or whatever it might be. Emotions exist in quite discrete ways although they can also appear in very complex mixtures. So, for example, we might well experience sadness in a very pure form if our dog has just died or we might experience a complex mixture of sadness, anger, anxiety, jealousy and even guilt and shame if our relationship has just ended.
Are some emotions more important than others? When we are in the all-encompassing throes of a particular emotion, it seems as significant at the time as any other. We might be as wracked with envy over a rival's promotion as we are consumed by anger over a social slight or trembling with anxiety at the thought of an impending speech. However, there is one sense in which some emotions do seem to be more important than others, in that they are more basic to survival. For example, fear is probably more linked to fundamental survival than is envy, or joy/happiness is more important to survival than pride.
The usual list of primary or basic emotions is: fear/anxiety, anger, sadness and happiness, with disgust sometimes added as a fifth.
Fear is perhaps the most straightforward emotion of all and is clearly grounded in biology, for survival. It is very distressing and is directed towards some specific object or event, alerting us to potential danger and mobilising us to flee, to escape. It is at its most obvious when physical danger is present but becomes considerably more subtle with all the learned fears that are created by modern society. Here the range might go from fear of failure to fear of walking into a room full of people.
Anxiety is arguably the most commonly experienced emotion and is certainly among the most studied. Most of us experience anxiety to some degree nearly every day. It is a feeling of apprehension about something that lies ahead and at mild levels can be extremely motivating, in a positive way. For example, you are likely to perform better in an examination or an interview if you go into them with a moderate level of anxiety. Too low or too high a level of anxiety detracts from performance. However, we all differ considerably with respect to what is moderate in this context. Moreover, when anxiety levels are abnormally high, this is thought to be the basis of much that can go wrong or be harmful to us.
The experience of anxiety provides us with good information that something is wrong and needs fixing. In the extreme, it can be debilitatingly unpleasant. In its extreme acute form, it is a panic attack, something suffered at some or other time in life by a surprising number of people. On the other hand, if a high level of anxiety is chronic, that is, it continues for some time, the almost inevitable result is depression. It is a case of unpredictability in life leading to uncontrollability.
This brief discussion of anxiety 'going wrong' by being too high points to the broad issue of whether or not emotions in general can be abnormal. The answer to this is squarely 'no'. An emotional reaction is an emotional reaction - it cannot be wrong. So if someone says to you that 'you shouldn't feel angry' or 'you shouldn't be sad for so long' or 'I should have thought that you would have been happier than that', and so on, this is complete nonsense. You are experiencing whatever emotions you are experiencing and every one of them is providing you with information.
So, emotions cannot be wrong. It may be that your expression of a particular emotion might be inappropriate in the context. It might not be regarded as seemly, for example, to give open vent to your anger at a board meeting or to continue grieving too openly for too long over the death of your cat. But the experience of such anger or grief is simply the experience and there is little you can do about it other than to give it due attention.
In general, if any of the specific emotions occur too little or too much, if they occur at unusual, inappropriate times and places, then they are doing little good for us or for those around us. This is even so with the positive emotions. Imagine what it would be like to be ecstatic for days. It would be debilitating in the extreme.
Imagine that you work with a team of people and do your absolute best to contribute to the overall good. You speak up whenever there is a point to be made but whenever you do one of your colleagues tends to speak over you and drown you out. On the rare occasions when you manage to make your point, the same colleague brings it up a few moments later as though it was his or her idea. Anger, like fear, also mobilises us for action, in this case defence rather than escape.
Anger is clearly related to aggression but they are not one and the same. It is possible to be aggressive without being angry and it is equally possible to be angry without becoming aggressive. However, the two (the emotion of anger and the behaviour of aggression) are linked and are biologically based, with obvious survival value. Anger always results in a much increased burst of energy and, although biologically based, is seen by some psychologists as largely socially constructed. That is, some people might be temperamentally more prone to anger than others, but the extent to which they express this is probably socially determined. In our culture, for example, boys are encouraged to express their anger more openly than girls and a far greater proportion of men than women are made to take anger management courses. These are learned differences, not differences of biology.
Imagine a family sitting watching a television documentary about the terrible deprivations that are suffered by children who live in countries wracked by famine. Or think of your reactions when you lose some favourite object. Sadness might be described as somewhat purer than the other negative primary emotions. It is made up of a mixture of down-heartedness, being discouraged, loneliness and feelings of isolation. It tends to follow the loss of something that was dear to us, whether this is a job, a house, a loved one, a favourite car, or even something like time. Unlike fear, anxiety and anger, the main effect of sadness is to slow us down rather than speed us up. In the extreme, sadness takes the form of grief, although grief is made up of much more than sadness alone. It also embraces anger, disgust, contempt, fear, guilt and even shyness, protest and despair. In this sense, it is not an emotion but a state comprised of a constellation of emotions that vary from time to time and person to person. Not all those who experience grief will necessarily experience all these processes and those who do might not experience them in the same order or over the same time period.
You have been meaning to do a large job in the garden for some weeks. You eventually get round to it and spend the entire day digging, weeding and clearing up. As twilight approaches, you finish the job and stretch your back, looking round at the cleared garden and the completed job. You walk quietly indoors, looking forward to a glass of wine and a quiet evening. The only primary emotion that can be described as positive is happiness (there are simply fewer positive emotions than negative ones).
Talking of happiness, joy, elation, euphoria, etc., seems to be talking of variations on a theme or positions on a dimension. It is a very difficult emotion to pin down because it can have so many different meanings, even involving sadness in some cases. Think of the strange mixture of happiness and sadness in nostalgia, for example.
If you think about the conditions that bring about happiness, they often involve the possession of something or some quality, often (although not always) a thing or a quality that we have and others do not or that we have now when we did not previously. In other words, happiness is relative and depends on a perceived change in circumstances. Although some people might be generally more content (temperamentally) than others, a state of happiness or joy or elation cannot go on for long. If one won Lotto every week for a year, the elation would begin to pall after a few weeks, even for the most avaricious. Nothing stays the same, least of all emotional reactions.
Sometimes included in the list of primary or basic emotions (in that it seems to have a clear biological basis) is disgust. Imagine that it is lunchtime and while you are talking you put a forkful of lettuce into your mouth. You bite into something soft and succulent that you realise should not be there. You spit out a half-eaten slug. Disgust is about rejecting anything that is bad, harmful or noxious from possible ingestion into or even proximity to the body. This gives disgust a very obvious survival value. However, at the human level we learn to be 'disgusted' at a wide range of things that have to do with moral values and even aesthetic appreciation. This might range from a reaction to an art work to responses to how some people treat their children or animals.
Related to disgust is contempt. In the way that disgust involves an essential 'spitting out' of something from the mouth, contempt involves a sort of looking down the nose at something. One psychologist even referred to contempt as 'dis-smell'. Something that is held in contempt is beneath our attention.
The far more negative emotions of jealousy and envy also depend on comparisons between what one has and what others have. The word jealousy is often misused. It is impossible, for example, to be jealous of another person's car. Jealousy is about the possibility of losing another person's affections because they are being directed towards a third person. Interestingly, there is a general female/ male difference with respect to jealousy. For the male it tends to be about sexual interest and for the female it is about the emotional aspects of the relationship. Envy, more simply, is concerned with wanting something that someone else has, whether it is an object (such as a house or car or set of clothes) or a quality (such as high intelligence, or creativity or a good singing voice or sporting ability).
In some ways, the most interesting emotions of all are what are referred to as the self-conscious emotions. These are: embarrassment, pride, shyness, guilt and shame.
You have begun a new job and are attending your first meeting. It is important that you create the best possible impression. You have just been welcomed by the chairperson and settle back into your seat, hoping to sit quietly and learn. Just as the chair is about to begin the first item, your cell phone shatters the silence.
You go shopping for your usual groceries at the supermarket. You live close by so it is not far to walk. You have been very busy and so are in a bit of a daze, but you manage to go round and collect all that you need. Five minutes later you realise that you have arrived home pushing a supermarket trolley full of goods for which you haven't paid.
You and your wife or husband are attending the school play. Your 7-year-old son or daughter has been given a part and this is the first time he or she has performed anything in public. You are amazed at how well they do and what a success the play is.
Imagine a man in his late teens who usually travels to work on the same bus at the same time each day. Quite often on the bus there is also a young woman whom he admires. He glances at her from time to time over the top of his book and thinks that she is lovely. One day she happens to be sitting next to him, looks over and says, 'What are you reading? That looks interesting.' He blushes to the roots of his hair and can barely stammer a reply.
From these examples, it should be clear why these are called the self-conscious emotions; they all make reference to the self in some way and how the self is performing in some social situation. (In the case of the example of pride, the reference was to how proud the parents were of their child.) So, to some extent all these emotions depend on the evaluations made of us by other people, either at the time or more generally.
Embarrassment, guilt and shame are, perhaps, the most important of the self-conscious emotions because they are to do with social control. They give us information (and also give the information to others through our reactions) about the extent to which we are conforming to social rules and standards.
Embarrassment is the simplest of them and need not be an entirely negative emotion; one can be amused at one's own embarrassment. It is mainly about making a social gaffe of some sort, or, to put it more formally, of not fulfilling a social role properly, losing self-esteem and leading others to form what one believes might be a negative social impression of one. Think, for example, of a situation in which it is important that you make some smooth social introductions and halfway through them you forget one of the key names (somebody you know perfectly well) and simply cannot think of it for the life of you.
Guilt follows the transgression of a rule that comes from an authority. In order to experience guilt, one has to be accepting of the authority. So, for example, if a teenager is told off for coming home late but no longer accepts that his (or her) parents have any rights to say so, then no guilt will be felt. The essence of guilt is that one has caused harm, either by doing something that one should not have or by not doing something that one should. Perhaps the most significant aspect of guilt is that it involves possible reparation. It is usually possible to right the wrong that has been done.
Shame is much more fundamental because it concerns one's beliefs about oneself as a whole, not about some simple transgression. And it cannot be put right. If one does something that causes shame, the shame stays - the matter cannot be put right because it is about one's character. At least the process of putting it right might take some time. When feeling shame, all the person wants to do is to find a rock to crawl under or a hole to swallow them up. In some ways, it is the most debilitating of all the emotions.
Shame occurs when the person is exposed in some way. The obvious example in our society is sheer physical nakedness, at least in situations in which it is not encouraged. But any exposure of one's flaws will do the trick, particularly if one has been brought up in a particular way. Compare, for example, the difference between a child being told, 'No, you should not have done that because it would hurt your brother. Don't do it again' and 'Why on earth did you do that? You must be bad through and through. What's wrong with you?' The first type of telling off would be engendering guilt and the second shame.
More than all the other self-conscious emotions, shame relies on a basic evaluation of the self by the self. And what is regarded as shameful varies from time to time, from society to society or culture to culture. It is at the core of social control. Putting people in pillories or stocks was an attempt at social control through shame, as is publishing the names of bad debtors in supermarkets or those who have been convicted of drunken driving in the newspaper.
It is also important to point out that it is thought that the self-conscious emotions do not develop until a child has developed a 'theory of mind'. That is, until the child understands that there are other people and that they have their own minds with their own particular viewpoints that might well be different from the child's.
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