By Phil Slade
“Our emotional responses shape our experience of the world. Emotions can feel profoundly enriching and painfully unbearable. Sometimes we may want to hold on to emotions forever, and other times we may want to banish them immediately. " - Paul Ekman, PhD
As a Psych I am always asking people “How are you feeling?”, to which the usual reply is “I’m exhausted!” or “I am so flat out.” Well, that is interesting, and could be an influencing factor on your emotional state, but doesn’t actually say anything about what emotional space you are in. If I pick up a pen and closed my eyes I could say I am feeling (sensing) a pen, but you wouldn’t confuse that pen to be an emotion because it sits in the physical world. But because your energy levels exist within your internal world, it’s easy to get them confused. The reality is that simply because you can feel (sense) your tiredness, it doesn’t make it any more an emotion than the aforementioned pen.
The same goes for feeling bored, with a slight exception. When you talk to someone who is feeling bored, it is often a result of having energy they would like to devote to something, but can’t, and are as a result having trouble focussing attention. Not surprisingly the underlying emotion is actually a low level of anger (irritation or frustration) or medium level anxiety (worry).
Tiredness and boredom are not emotional states, they are just things that impact our emotional state. Ever noticed that saying you’re tired can actually make you more tired, or saying you’re bored usually does nothing to abate your boredom? This is very unlike emotional states where the articulation of the state often has a mediating effect.
It is at a neurological level that the differences become more clear. When we activate emotional states under fMRI machines we see that the brain is activated, it is engaged in activating your body to move somehow. Sadness motivates retreat, anger – aggression, anxiety – vigilance, excitedness – anticipation, scared – fight/flight response. Emotion is the term we use to explain what moves us on the inside. E – motion. It’s right there in its name. However, when we look at tiredness and boredom, the exact opposite is happening. Our neural system starts to disengage, not engage. It’s not a bad or good thing, in fact, science leads us to believe that our brain needs to be bored every now and then in order to be creative, but it is not an emotion.
In order to better define what is, and is not an emotion, take note of the three key elements:
Am I responding to an external stimulus or experience? This is the way you interpret and are mentally impacted by the external environment eg. pain
Is there an internal physiological response preparing me for action? This is the way your body responds to your environment eg. butterflies in your stomach, blood rushing to your head.
Is there an almost uncontrollable behavioural response? This is the way emotion is physically expressed eg. smile, frown, jump, laugh, run away.
If the answer to all these questions is yes, then chances are there is an emotion at play. When bored you might want to ask what emotion it is stirring up in order to avoid the pain of the banal. Is it anxiety (like being in a waiting room without your phone), or is it anger (being forced to sit through a training session you believe is wasting your time)? If you can articulate the emotion, you will better be able to calm it and navigate the moment in a much more peaceful way.
However, back to my initial question. One could argue that tired or bored is actually a perfectly valid answer to, “How are you feeling?” So, if I want to understand what emotional state you’re in, then maybe I should change the question and ask something like, “What emotion are you experiencing?” Either way, it’s good for us to separate the concepts of tiredness and boredom from emotion. Odd things we humans are.