Feelings and emotions are words that are used interchangeably, but there are in fact some distinct differences between them. You may ask, “why does it even matter?”, well when we learn the difference between the two, we gain some insight into how we can manage and change certain “unhealthy” behaviours and find ways to develop happiness and fulfillment in our life.
In order to understand the difference, we also need to understand that they are highly relatable and connected. Many mental health professionals liken the two by explaining they are, “two sides of the same coin”.
On one side we have feelings and on the other emotions. Emotions are a physical response to a stimulus, which prepares the individual for action. This response has been hardwired throughout our biological history, and coded into our genes. Feelings on the other hand, are the subjective mental associations we attach to emotions, which are usually based on experience.
Theories of emotion are wide and varied. Each theory suggesting that emotion either derives from physiological, neurological or cognitive responses. The theory and basic principle that I will focus on, is the one that resonates with me the most.
Emotions are physical responses to stimuli, we can measure them objectively through blood flow, brain activity, facial expressions and via body cues. Feelings are related to the mind/mental state because we cannot accurately measure them. Emotions are usually predictable and universally understood, while feelings are often distinct to an individual’s experience – so it can be a little confusing. Feelings are a reflection of our personal associations to emotions.
Feelings are highly influenced by emotions, triggered by our own thoughts and images that we have associated with a certain emotion. Emotions are usually brief, but the feelings they trigger can linger and grow over time. Ultimately, emotions activate feelings and feelings then activate emotions. It can sometimes feel like your feelings cause a never-ending cycle of confusing and distressing emotions.
Emotions are innate and universal. The meaning we attach and the feelings they trigger are highly individualised. Feelings are formed by our own personal character and experience. Therefore, how I feel about a certain emotion or situation is very different to you. When I get angry, It automatically signals to my brain that I am scared. My immediate response is to fight back, because I FEEL threatened, I believe the other person wants to hurt me.
However, when my husband gets angry, this triggers another response. His anger is also associated with fear, but his fear is more around hurting others. He believes his anger will cause pain to others. So instead of fighting back he retreats from the emotion and becomes withdrawn.
Emotions are lower level responses that occur in the region of the brain called the Limbic System (emotional processing centre) and the Neocortex (area responsible for thoughts, reason and decision making). These responses create biochemical and electrical reactions which alter your physical state. A bodily reaction is activated via neurotransmitters and hormones released in the brain.
For example, when you are scared of something (emotion) your heart starts to race and you may run away. This stress response (the need to run) occurs in the presence of a threat. Hormones (norepinephrine) are triggered that prepare the body to either fight or flee to safety.
Evolutionary speaking emotions serve a specific purpose. Emotions produce responses to certain changes in our internal or external environment. Originally they helped the human species to survive by producing quick reactions to threat or reward. Think back to days of the cave man. Imagine he/she saw a lion, they would be scared and their immediate response would be to fight or flee so they could protect themselves.
“The amygdala (in the Limbic System) plays a key role in emotional arousal. It regulates the release of neurotransmitters that are important for memory consolidation, which is why emotional memories are usually perceived stronger and long-lasting.”
– By iMotions
Feelings occur in the Neocortical region of the brain. As I previously mentioned they are triggered by emotions, however, they are influenced by all the memories, experiences and beliefs we attach to the particular emotion. Feelings are the meaning we each attach to our emotions, the story we tell ourselves.
“Feelings are mental experiences of body states, which arise as the brain interprets emotions, themselves physical states arising from the body’s responses to external stimuli. (The order of events is: I am threatened, I experience fear, and I feel horror.)”
– Dr. Antonio D’Amasio
Personally, I view emotions as the “primal” part of the brain, the guy who does what he has to, to survive. While feelings can be seen as more sophisticated, the thoughtful part of the mind. Emotions happen on an unconscious level. Therefore, developmentally they activate the problem-solving process in our mind.
It’s like the brain shouts, “Hey, there is an issue here, please help me fix it!”. On the outside we can observe emotion. We see it when a person cries, scowls or appears agitated. Feelings on the other hand remain hidden. In the background, they lead us to consciously explore the issue that has been brought to our attention via the emotion. We then have the ability to design an appropriate solution to the problem.
How often have you blamed others or circumstances for how you feel? I know I have! The truth is though, other people and events don’t have that much power over you. It is YOUR thoughts about said person that has caused you to feel something. When we truly understand the distinction between the two, no matter what or how difficult experiences seem, they will never be more than just some physical sensations with thoughts attached to them.
Feelings and emotions play a powerful role in how we experience and interact with the world. Often our feelings and/or emotions influence our behaviour. Depending on how you react to your emotions and what feelings they trigger, will define how you live your life. Many of us are unaware of this connection and unconsciously make unhealthy decisions that lead to a life of unhappiness and chaos.
When we start to recognise and differentiate between an emotion and a feeling, we move toward becoming emotionally competent. We now have the ability to choose how we navigate and experience the world. We no longer feel like a victim to our own body and mind. Believe it or not, but the power lies in how you respond!
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
– Viktor E. Frankl
When we talk about emotional competence, we are relating to the self (you) and others (relationships). Emotional competence is similar to emotional intelligence, therefore it begins with self-awareness. Emotional competence is the ability to express and/or let go of our inner feelings in a healthy and constructive manner. This is a skill we can all learn and develop over time, and is necessary when learning how to manage our feelings effectively.
Emotionally competent people are comfortable with themselves and around others. They are able to effectively interact and express how they feel, as well as accurately recognise, understand and respond to people’s emotions. Emotionally competent individuals are empathetic, compassionate and have great social skills.
When we are able to develop emotional competence skills, the world within and around us starts to change drastically. The minute we start to understand and manage our emotions in a positive way, we improve the way we communicate.
This in and of itself reduces stress and anxiety, teaches us to manage conflict productively and improves all our relationships. Emotional competence makes us resilient and this has a far reaching effect. It positively impacts our sense of self, our spouse’s and children’s lives, our friends and work environment too.
With all the above skills and benefits, it seems obvious that we would all want to develop our own self competence. So how do we start?
Mindfulness meditation is the practice of focusing your mind on your experiences, with all your thoughts, feelings and sensations in the here and now. Mindfulness improves your ability to understand and recognise your own emotions and the emotions of other people around you.
It also strengthens your ability to manage and control your emotions, and differentiate between which emotions may be beneficial or not for you in that moment. Mindfulness teaches us to respond rather than react to our feelings. Our feelings don’t own us, and we do not have to react every time we feel uncomfortable or in pain. Being mindful means taking a step back, evaluating what and how you feel, so you can respond with kindness and compassion.
To begin practicing mindfulness, try and start each day with a morning mediation, which you can find here, or a mindfulness body scan. These are really simple exercises, but very powerful in helping you move toward becoming more emotionally competent.
There is no right or wrong way to feel. We cannot go through life trying to feel “happy” all the time. When we begin to acknowledge that painful experiences play a fundamental part in growth, we move toward emotional competence.
Self-care gives us the space to practice self-love and self-compassion. When we practice self-care we create a space where we can freely explore our physical, mental and emotional well-being. We give ourselves the chance to identify our needs and address them.
When we foster self-compassion we become wholly accepting of who we are, with all our strengths and weaknesses. Failure is seen as a sign of growth and challenges teach us to become resilient.
Here are some self-care practices to start implementing now:
Another amazing way to manage your emotions and feelings and develop emotional competence is to start labelling your emotions/feelings correctly. When we label our emotions we help to regulate them, and reduce the intensity of how we experience them.
Now, understanding the difference is important, but not as important as understanding what and how YOU feel, and giving that feeling/emotion the correct name.
Many researchers and theorists have their own viewpoint on what constitutes a feeling and emotion. However, I am going to provide you with some basics to get you going.
According to Robert Plutchik’s theory he states that their are eight basic emotions. These are:
When we understand that emotions are physical reactions to an event or an experience, and realize we have the power to choose how we respond to our feelings, life becomes a lot more simple. Start using your feelings to your advantage, and stop seeing them as “good” or “bad”. Embrace all your feelings by developing self awareness and by practicing mindfulness. When you become an emotionally competent person, life will feel more meaningful to you… just try it!