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Feelings, emotions, and experiences.

By Phil Slade


All roses are flowers, but not all flowers are roses. The same goes for feelings and emotions. All emotions are feelings, but not all feelings are emotions. As we know, emotion stems from chemicals our brain releases (primarily from the amygdala – our ape brain’s emotion hub) which motivates the body toward some form of action, movement or readiness. Happiness, fear, anger, sadness, excitement, surprise and disgust are all emotions because they are our body’s reaction to chemicals released by the amygdala. Any feelings that are not a direct result of this process we tend to class as experiences.

Bored, tiredness, pain, jealousy, envy, confusion, confidence, embarrassment, hot, cold, sick or hungry are all examples of things we experience that either trigger, or are experienced as a result of emotion. They are all feelings, but not emotions. This is a key distinction that is critical to make to begin to use and manage emotion, because emotions are much more in our control, and experiences less so. Good emotional health comes when we control the controllables (in this case emotions), and not waste energy on the things outside our influence (in this case experiences).

For example, you may experience boredom, which is the absence of mental stimulation, but the emotional reaction to the bored experience can change between individuals. Some people get frustrated, others feel sad, and some people even start to feel anxious when they are bored and start to panic or desperately search for distraction. Learning to control your emotions when you are experiencing boredom changes your behaviour and perception.

You could become eager to discover something new in your immediate surroundings (excitement), be mindful of your immediate surroundings to feel peace (happiness), or learn to use the space to daydream and be creative (often a technique to dial down frustration, panic or depression). These are all different ways to manage your emotions in response to experiencing boredom. You can’t always control how stimulating your environment is, but you can change your emotional reaction to it which significantly shifts how you navigate that experience.

As another example, if you are the target of someone’s aggression, you cannot control the person bringing the aggressive behaviour in the first instance, but you can control your emotional response to the aggression, which will then influence the situation for better or worse. By controlling the things you can control, you influence and change the experience. Dialling down the terror you might be feeling in the face of the aggressor will mean you are better able to diffuse the situation. It may also be the case that momentarily dialling up anger may be appropriate the bring order to the mayhem. The point is that you need to be in control, not your emotions.

But what about jealousy or envy? Surely they are emotions? Well, let’s examine them for a second. First, let's define the two concepts. Jealousy is what you experience when you notice someone else attracting the attention of someone you love and don’t want to lose. Envy is what you experience when you want something someone else has. People often confuse the two words, but they do explain different feelings.

Second, let’s use the story of Mary and Jason to help test the emotion versus experience notion:

Mary and Jason are a couple that have been together for more than a year. They are both working hard to save money for a future together, which often means they don’t get to spend a lot of time with each other. While getting ready for a New Year’s Eve party they get into a fight over something silly, but they are both exhausted after a big week and easily irritable. That night at the party Jason notices that Mary is talking and laughing a lot with her boss, Danny. Danny and Mary spend a lot of time together at work, and Jason starts to feel something unpleasant as he observes the playful connection Mary and Danny have. What he experiences could be envy (of the attention Mary is giving to someone else), or jealousy (that he might lose her to someone else). Each of these experiences could trigger a level of terror, panic, fury, or even excitement depending on Jason’s lived experiences and what his brain has learnt in response to life thus far. Mary may be still angry at Jason and intentionally ignoring him, she may just be enjoying the attention, or even simply using the conversation to distract her from the fury she is still getting over from the aforementioned argument. Jason, however, starts to misinterpret her focussed attention on someone else as desire.

If Jason tries to control the experience he’ll be seen as controlling, dominating and displaying a low level of trust or confidence in Mary. In that moment he really has little direct control over the situation. What Jason can control is how aroused his emotions are in response to these triggering experiences. Only when Jason can master his own emotional arousal, he can engage respectfully and with the playfulness the situation no doubt deserves. It’s only when he can take charge of his reactivity that he can explore any issues of trust, control, rejection, and other traumatic memories that contribute to the strong emotional reactions.

Control the emotion, and the feeling of jealousy or envy will be fleeting and quickly become irrelevant. Jealousy or envy is the feeling Jason experiences that triggers emotions, and by controlling the emotion he is then able to influence the situation constructively.

This brings us to another feeling people often mistake for an emotion, love.

We experience love, but the reason this experience is so powerful is that it is a potent mix of multiple emotions at different times. It’s designed that way to help us propagate the species, form strong tribes, and give us a sense of belonging and meaning. It helps propel life. Love is a strong feeling we experience, but it is not an emotion. It is a connection, a commitment, a state of mind. You can be furious at, or terrified of someone and still love them.

When we do ‘fall’ in love with someone there are all sorts of emotions and chemicals that get released. It’s a literal party of emotion. Dopamine and endorphins explode in the brain giving us a high that is only reserved for those moments when our brain wants to connect very deeply with someone. Our brain does an instant experience match of what a desirable partner might be and releases all the ‘feel-goods’ it can in order to overcome our doubts and inhibitions to forge a strong bond.

In modern times, swamped with media obsessed with interpersonal relationships, we often confuse love for this mix of high arousal happiness and excitement. People who equate this happy/excited feeling with love often fear they ‘fall out of love’ if they don’t continue to feel this high level of arousal – a state that is impossible to maintain.

Some people even connect love to different states of fear, particularly if it reinforces a deficient view they have of themselves. This can create a situation where people are drawn to and trapped in abusive relationships. In this case, they learn to love their abusers because it feels like a more honest connection. Dealing with the emotions that are driving the maladaptive connections is the first step to addressing some of the self image, identity, and trauma that is present in many abusive relationships.

Love is not blind as such, it’s being in a high state of arousal that blinds you, irrespective of what that emotion is. Anxiety, happiness, scared, excitement, anger and sadness can all be blinding if left unchecked, and all can be maladaptive if high arousal of any emotion is linked to the deep connection and belonging that our human brains need. Love is simply the experience our brain has of being unconditionally accepted by another. We love our kids, our partners, our siblings, our trusted colleagues, our parents, our close friends – even when we don’t feel emotionally positive toward them. The level of connection and the specific expression of the love will differ between people, but love is a commitment to each other, not simply a fleeting emotional state.

Modern media often correlates a strong ‘love’ connection with romantic excitement. Love is stronger and deeper than that. It is a verb, not an adjective. Of course, life has a way of twisting and turning in all sorts of ways, and some relationships dismantle for all sorts of reasons. But however your romantic and deep connections may evolve over time, love is the articulation of that connection and not a fleeting or reactive emotion that may be triggered in response to experiencing love. We may not have a lot of control over why we develop deep connections with some people and not others, but the emotional reactivity to connectedness (love) is something we have agency over. We are not as subservient to the power of the emotions that accompany love as the poets, artists, and filmmakers would like us to believe. We have more power over our choices and mindsets than we give ourselves credit for.

All emotions are feelings, but not all feelings are emotions. Once we identify what we can control (our emotions) then we start using them for good, rather than being subservient to them.

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