IS there a difference between emotions and feelings?
Questions like this are frustrating to me because they’re simple questions with answers so complex it’s difficult to answer with 100% certainty. I’d hazard that if you asked 1000 psychologists, you’d have several hundred convinced one way, several hundred convinced the other way and the remaining several hundred saying it’s too tough to call because there’s evidence to support both arguments.
I’m not attempting to answer that question here. Rather, I’m sharing with you a view on emotions and feelings that helps me manage my mental health and live a more fulfilling life. I’ve done my research but the academic side is less important here than the practicalities of using this knowledge in everyday life. This way of thinking about emotions and feelings has helped me break some of the negative cycles that kept me feeling low, lost and less than. I hope it is useful to you too.
The relationship between emotions and feelings
They are part of the same circuit and not all researchers agree that there is even a difference between them. The easiest way I have found to think about it is to use Professor Steve Peters’ “Chimp Paradox” as a base and go from there.
In the ‘chimp model’, you have the Chimp, the Human and the Computer. The chimp is the instinctive, emotional part of your brain. It operates below the level of consciousness, is stronger and faster than the human and receives information before the human.
The human is the conscious part of the brain. It is logical and measured, and can think and plan but it is slower and weaker than the chimp and gets information after than the chimp – so when they disagree, the human has to work a lot harder to win because the chimp has already made its instinctive decision and has already primed the body to whatever it thinks is best in that situation.
As Peters explains, “The human is you and you live in your frontal lobe. The chimp is your emotional machine, given to you at birth, and lives in your limbic system…You are not your chimp but you are responsible for managing your chimp.”
By using the chimp/ human distinction, you could think about emotions and feelings like this:
- Emotions arise in the subconscious mind. They are the chimp’s reactions. They are fast, can be irrational and intense and they ALWAYS have an impact on the brain and body.
- Feelings are conscious which means they always have a thought component. This makes them the territory of the human.
- Feelings can only ever tell part of the story – because they are interpretations of emotions.
The final part of the chimp model is The Computer – a storage area for thoughts and behaviours, stored throughout the brain. Both the chimp and the human can program information into the computer and these programs become the beliefs, rules and values we live by.
Your brain has one function: To keep you alive. Emotions are the programs pulling every lever in your brain and body to make that possible – usually without conscious awareness or control. For emotions to work as they’re supposed to, they must be instinctive, instant and, depending on the level of threat or reward, intense.
Many theories talk about small sets of ‘core emotions’ and although not all lists include the same emotions, most include fear, anger, disgust, sadness, happiness and love. Emotions are believed to be ‘universal’, which means they are experienced and expressed in similar ways across cultures. Again, there is survival benefit in this – it’s much easier to get along with other members of the group if you can sense and react appropriately to them in various situations. The universal nature of emotions also makes them objectively measurable, by testing things like heart rate, blood flow, pupil dilation and brain activation.
Some theories suggest emotions originate in the brain while others say they originate in the body. For my money, it makes perfect sense that they can originate wherever they like – after all, if survival is the name of the game, why make the most powerful player in the process use a one-way system?
What can emotions do?
When it comes to the levers they pull in your mind and body, it’s probably easier to ask, “What can’t emotions do?”
They play a part in ALL of these:
- Heart Rate
- Decision Making
- Breathing Rate
- Immune function
- Blood flow
- Pupil dilation
- Saliva production
By pulling levers in all of these processes, emotions can change EVERYTHING. Your entire experience of life – where you look, what you see, how you see it, what you say, how you say it, what you think, what you remember, how your body moves, your facial expressions – is driven, at least in part, by your emotions.
Feelings are the conscious interpretations of emotions – they are the meaning we apply to our emotions and experiences.
Feelings are not universal. They are subjective and cannot be objectively measured. They contain a thought component and exist only in the mind. They’re influenced by beliefs, values and experiences so, what you register as a feeling has already been run “through the computer” where a series of rules and filters has been applied.
Feelings are less intense than emotions but they can persist for a lot longer. Think anger versus resentment.
The thought component of feelings is extremely important because that’s the part we have (limited) control over. More about this in my next blog post. You can also read about ‘Better feeling thoughts’ if this is something you’d like to explore further.
The relationship between emotions and feelings
As I mentioned already, many psychologists believe there is no difference between emotions and feelings and that the distinctions I have talked about so far are merely two sides of the same thing. Again, the chimp model helps. If we think of ourselves as having ‘two brains’, it’s easy to see how we could be talking about the same thing yet recognise how that thing could manifest differently in each brain. That’s how I think of emotions and feelings.
Of course, we don’t have two brains. We have multiple brain regions, all working together.
Put simply, emotions are there to keep us alive. We’re not supposed to be able to switch them off. If we could, we’d have died out a long time ago, killed by things we didn’t fear or wiped out after eating rotten food that didn’t disgust us. All emotions serve a purpose and by accepting that fact, we can make better use of our feelings.
The emotional rollercoaster
We know that emotions have both mental and physical components while feelings are exist in the mind.
Let’s imagine a situation where a wife finds out spouse has cheated on her. What emotion does she experience?
You probably answered anger or sadness – and she would likely experience both at various points.
But her feelings determine whether or not she works through the emotions just once or whether she recycles them many dozens or hundreds of times over.
Feelings like self-loathing, shame, blame can reignite the anger and sadness over and over, bringing the physical sensations back long after the marriage is over. She can sit in an empty room and relive those emotions as though it’s all still happening, making escape from the awfulness of the original event feel almost impossible.
Getting off the emotional rollercoaster
For this, I return to the chimp model. Getting off the rollercoaster requires the human to take responsibility for the chimp. The human has to learn how to calm the chimp – this is important. Notice I didn’t say ‘how to control the chimp’.
Getting off the emotional rollercoaster isn’t about getting the chimp in a headlock and shutting it up. It’s about creating a space within yourself where the chimp can experience safety and, in so doing, naturally calm down on its own.
Later blogs in the Emotions Series explore how to do this in more detail.
Summary of differences
|Hard wired, instinctive, we have little or no control over them||Have some control of them but not full control|
|Are the visceral reactions we have to experiences||Are how we make sense of our emotions and experiences|
|Occur in the brain and body||Occur only only in the mind (but have the capacity to trigger emotions – and therefore physical responses)|
|Experienced consciously and subconsciously||Experienced consciously – you don’t have subconscious feelings|
|Believed to be universal – i.e. experienced in similar ways across cultures||Experienced in unique and subjective ways – influenced by beliefs and experiences (both physical and emotional)|
|Can be measured objectively||Cannot be measured objectively|
|Can be intense but are always temporary||Less intense but can persist for much longer periods|