Acknowledging and expressing our emotions are two important aspects of our well-being. In order to do so we need 1) to understand what it is that we are feeling and 2) to know the language to express how we are feeling. To ex-press literally means to “expel pressure”, so it is a key component of promoting and maintaining healthy emotional and mental states. Unexpressed challenging emotions either grow exponentially, taking up most of our energy or rot, causing all types of physical and mental ailments.
This blog aims at providing an understanding of our primary emotions and their functions and finding the language to name and label what we feel. Once we understand what it is that we feel, we know what we are working with. The language will enable us to discuss it with the people of interest – family members, friends, or our therapist. In time, as we work towards more awareness and well-being, we will disidentify from the label (the emotion) and learn to decide how we want to feel about events and people. But it all starts with acknowledging and expressing how we felt originally.
Primary emotions are emotions that occur as a direct result of encountering some cue. They are regarded by many as being hardwired into our bodies and brains and, therefore, universally experienced in all human cultures. Primary emotions are the body’s first response, and they are usually very easy to identify because they are so strong.
Paul Ekman, a world-renowned expert in the field of emotions, theorized that primary emotions are innate and universally shared by all ethnicities. Moreover, according to his studies, emotions are accompanied across cultures by universal facial expressions.
Ekman identified seven primary emotions, each with a specific evolutionary purpose. These are happiness, fear, anger, sadness, disgust, contempt, and surprise. Let’s have a closer look at each of them.
Happiness is an emotional state characterized by feelings of joy, satisfaction, contentment, and fulfillment. A happy expression, a smile, for example, says I’m not dangerous. Happiness is the typical expression of joy and can be interpreted as the desire to share something.
Fear alerts us to the presence of danger or the threat of harm, be it physical or psychological, allowing us to defend ourselves against it.
Anger is an emotion characterized by antagonism toward someone or something. It can be very useful when it comes to finding a solution to eliminating an obstacle that stands between you and your goal. Excessive and/or unexpressed anger can have serious consequences.
Sadness is the response to a loss of any kind, it is used to fold in on oneself, therefore, it is a passive emotion. When you feel sad you fold back asking for the “help of the pack” for survival, while you lick your (real or metaphorical) wounds. When these are healed, you return to the active life of the pack. Sadness should be taken as an opportunity to understand what hurt you, identify the cause, and eliminate it from your life (or close environment), if possible. If you don’t use this emotion constructively the risk is that, after a while, your body says you haven’t understood the cause of the problem. Go back into your wounds, and start over. Of course, this creates the cyclicality of a problem with intervals that can get progressively shorter, generating all sorts of chronic issues like, amongst many, depression.
Disgust is used to avoid contamination and poisoning. For example, if yogurt has gone bad just the smell of it makes us feel disgusted so we do not eat it. This mechanism also works with moral contamination: when we meet people that we consider despicable, we feel disgusted and we walk away from them. Disgust calls for the removal, of yourself or of something/someone, from a situation.
Contempt is an emotion of dislike and superiority (usually morally) over another person, group, and/or their actions. A study on primates helps us understand how contempt is used to avoid conflict. In a situation where a young gorilla is trying to take the elder one over, if the latter makes an expression of sufficient contempt, in most cases the former will withdraw. The elder gorilla demonstrated being so confident in his power that the younger one feels he’ll be taken down so he avoids the fight. As a result, the conflict is avoided. Postulating that humans descend from the great apes, we can see how humans also use contempt to avoid conflict (even though in humans this mechanism is more complex): when we feel superior, morally or physically, we decide to avoid conflict. If you look around you’ll notice this happens all the time (exceptions made for litigious people).
An interesting side note about disgust and contempt is what happens when these two emotions enter a relationship. Through therapy work and/or goodwill many emotions can be repaired in a couple, except for contempt and disgust. Research shows that when either one of those emotions is experienced by one or both members of the couple, in nearly 100% of the cases the pair will separate within a year after those emotions first appeared.
Surprise arises when we encounter something sudden and unexpected. It happens lightning-fast and it is defined as a transitional emotion – it leads from one emotion to another. When we are caught by surprise, we lower our defenses and any real underlying emotions appear. For this reason, surprise is a strategy often used for interrogation.
- All other emotions are a response to or a combination of these seven and are therefore called secondary emotions. For example, shame is the secondary emotion of disgust, which is a primary emotion. These are not wired into our bodies and brains but are learned from our families, our culture, and our society.
- For more insights on the work of Paul Ekman, please visit the Paul Ekman Group at www.paulekman.com