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The critical difference between emotions and feelings


The critical difference between emotions and feelings

Emotional intelligence is more than the ability to understand other people’s emotions. It starts with understanding the difference between emotions and feelings, which allows you to experience authenticity. As well as understanding that how you feel is not who you are. On the contrary, other people should influence your identity.

Did you know that there is a hugely significant difference between emotions & feelings? And that difference is the solution for many psychological obstacles you might be facing. More so it allows you to experience authenticity and create a self-determined identity.

One of the biggest obstacles you deal with daily is managing your relationships and role expectations. Since you were a child, you learned to adapt your behavior, feelings, and thoughts according to what is expected of you. This is a big part of building a functioning society and how you learn to differentiate between ethical and unethical behavior. 

But in that same process, you are also taught certain belief systems that are based on structures that a) are not necessarily aligned with your own basic emotional understanding and b) might have been based on the traumatic memories of others – memories that you were never a part of in the first place.  (Read more on generational trauma in the next blog post).

This, combined with the lack of emotional education, often creates emotional confusion, stress, and anxiety. So what can you do to develop an emotional understanding that benefits you and your relationships?

Emotions vs. Feelings. Emotions are chemical reactions within your body, while feelings are the social, cultural, and individual interpretation of emotions.

Let’s start with a Workable Definition of Emotions.

This is truly my favorite part of this topic. Especially after I came across the different definitions of emotion, I felt incredibly excited. And I hope that you will share the excitement with me. 

Emotion in Latin means motus, which can be translated as having been moved, in motion, as well as energy in motion. And energy isn’t bad or good; on the contrary, energy simply means that something is moving. In physics, we refer to the positive and negative poles between which energy is created. Again, though, there is no judgemental reference in this: no good or bad.

On the contrary to general psychology, which labels emotions and feelings as good or bad, I am proposing the detachment of labels. Unfortunately, you have most likely developed the habit of classifying the many different emotions you experience every day as either positive or negative instead of seeing them for what they are: energy in motion. 
So let’s use energy in motion as the first part of our definition of emotions.

The second Component to Emotions.

Humans have one thing in common: we tend to overcomplicate things, especially when it comes to our own well-being. This can be observed in two ways: 1. You might perceive your feelings as facts, and 2. Understand your emotions as feelings because you feel the sensation in you. You can certainly feel your emotions, but what you understand under ‘the feeling’ is not necessarily what you feel. A ‘feeling’ is the socialized and processed classification of your experience within an interaction.

Emotion + Socialization = Feeling

K. Mnich

Emotions are, in fact, simply chemical reactions within your body, while feelings are your personal interpretation of that reaction, based on your individual social, cultural, and circumstantial experiences. Emotions are happening just within you: they are raw signals that guide you. Feelings are your personally filtered version of those emotions. 
Unfortunately, all too often, the filtered version doesn’t represent what you are truly feeling, but what you believe you are supposed to feel. Feelings are, thus, often much more complicated than emotions – and have several layers of socially constructed (and misconstructed!) concepts.

Let me give an example:

Say a friend stood you up at a restaurant. Next time you see each other, she or he doesn’t mention it, no apology, just lots of inconsequential small talk. You don’t bring it up either because you are surprised and confused by your friend not mentioning it. Then, when you arrive home you tell your partner how disappointed and sad you are about this whole thing. But, underneath your calmness,  aren’t you, in reality, at least a little angry about someone not respecting your time?

Anger is also a great example of how cultural factors have managed to firstly label an emotion and then insert an entire sub-system of rules/interpretations on how to suppress, change and rename it. All this for something that is as simple as feeling some anger because someone has stepped over your boundary!

But healthy anger just means that you understand where you stand on this particular matter. It also means that you are able to express authenticity.

Here is another example: 

You gave an incredible presentation in front of the entire company. But your boss comes to you and criticizes that one typo on slide 44. Your boss has a history of undermining confidence and isn’t particularly known for supporting others in their career development. Nevertheless, instead of setting a boundary and standing up for yourself, you are ashamed and feel like a fool. How could that have happened? 

Shame is a construct that has been used throughout history as a tool to align people to social and cultural norms. It is anchored within you as part of the identity you are supposed to represent. As a human being, you are rewarded through positive ones and ‘punished’ through negative impulses in interactions. Negative impulses are supposed to align you with social norms. Unfortunately, some people abuse emotions to impact you negatively and make you feel ashamed negatively. 

Next time your boss shames you for an irrelevant mistake, remind yourself of his limitations. And remember that some people are not even aware of their words’ effect on you. Further, at the same time, redirect your thoughts to the positive feedback received from others. 

Then, instead of questioning your own abilities, you will be addressing the real issues at hand and starting to set boundaries.

The Difference etween Emotions and Feelings.

The difference your emotion and feelings.

The difference between emotions and feelings becomes visible when we do emotional labor. A term that Arile Hochschild coined in the 70s – describing the act of aligning your emotional expression to socially expected feelings. Hochschild conducted her research predominantly observing flight attendants adjusting their emotional expressions to standards of what the airline expects regarding how to treat customers even in difficult situations. In most cases, the feelings attendants experienced did not represent their own inner emotional world.

A great example of that is the difference between a fake smile and a real smile. What Hochschild started observing, and what many more described later on, is that the outside expectations eventually become the inner understanding of yourself. 

The result is anxiety, depression, identity conflict and even identity loss. You just don’t feel true to yourself. 

I hope that at this point, the difference between emotions and feelings is crystalizing. While emotions are internal directional signals and are personal, feelings are connected to your environment and cultural expectations. They are closely related and interconnected because they are sensations. Feelings can be changed and can override emotions, emotions are a chemical reaction to the outside world (see graphic). 

You are experiencing emotions, which are within you, whereas feelings are culturally constructed outside of you. Even though they have become a part of you, it is usually easier to name your feelings than your emotions. This is because, quite often, emotions are cluttered with feelings. Feelings give you a sense of who you are through the connection between your inner and outer world. That’s why many people believe that their feelings determine who they are, while their emotions are directions and energy. 

So what does it mean to be yourself? Or to be yourself authentically?

How Emotional Awareness allows you to Experience Authenticity.

Authenticity and Identity

Why am I bringing up authenticity? Well, let me ask you this question: how often do you judge yourself based on how you feel? 

What I mean is, how often do you believe that you succeeded in something because you felt good about yourself at the time? Or how often do you think less of yourself because you were not feeling well because someone else’s simple reaction was enough to shake your confidence again?

Authenticity involves both knowing who you are and showing who you are. Knowing yourself means understanding your character, your interaction & communication style, and what you like and don’t like. It also means that you are aware of what you stand for and what your values are. Knowing who you are, also means understanding your thoughts, feelings, and desires. Usually, you feel inauthentic when your words and actions (showing) don’t line up with your emotions (knowing) and when your actions don’t represent (showing) your thoughts and beliefs (your value system – knowing).

Emotions and feelings are happening instantaneously. Though, by learning to break down these processes it will become easier to discover authenticity and feel like yourself. 

By going through this process and discovering authenticity for yourself you will find yourself start making statements like this: 

  • I know who I really am.
  • People have expectations, but they don’t impact me or my decisions any longer.
  • Pleasing people is no longer a problem. If they don’t like me they don’t need to be around me.
  • I connect easily with new people.
  • I am simply who I am. 

Because identity and authenticity are so closely connected to how you feel in relation to the people around you, it can be challenging to understand who you are. The first step in achieving that understanding is gaining insight into your emotions. This insight enables you to create guidelines that [a] help you know what is going on within you personally and then [b] help you differentiate that from your perception of what others believe is going on – or should be going on – for you.

In other words, learning to understand the factors which change our emotions into our feelings is a strong starting point in understanding what you want out of life and how a few small changes in approach may yield rather special results!

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Curious to learn more about emotions? Read here:

The Individualization Of Emotions

Emotion Theory and Research: Highlights, Unanswered Questions, and Emerging Issues


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I'm Kinga Mnich.

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