Friday, March 02, 2012

  Oil on Canvas, 2010, Kangaroo Island - Roslyn Ross

What is the difference between feelings and emotions?

I was reading a book yesterday and came across the comment: 'Feelings are not emotions.' As a statement it is pretty absolute and my instinctive response was, 'No, that is wrong.' Was that a feeling response or an emotional response? Both probably.

I then began searching for explanations of the difference between feelings and emotions and found these examples, all of which were so complicated and convoluted I found myself feeling quite emotional - and in order to feel better and regain emotional stability I thought and felt I should work through them carefully:

 Feelings' in a general sense, are what we may feel in any part of our body. These may be simple body sensations, such as hot or cold, pain, a touch or else they may be feelings associated with emotions, such as love or hate, joy or anger.

It certainly makes sense that feelings are felt, or things that we feel. We feel hot, cold, hurt - but we also feel sad, happy, angry and depressed. And there must be reason why we use the word 'feel' for those things which are beyond the purely physical.

'Emotions', on the other hand, are feelings or reactions about someone or something, and usually involving our ego. We are angry about someone, afraid of something, in love with someone. These emotions may be directly felt in the body or we may just react strongly with thoughts or verbal displays originating from our head.

Yes, we have an emotional reaction but emotional reactions are accompanied by, if not sourced in, a feeling response. We are not angry about someone - we feel angry about someone or something. And any emotion felt in the body is of course a feeling and any 'strong thought or image' in our minds is accompanied by, if not sourced in feelings.

At this stage it seems to me that feelings and emotions are different words for the same things- or at least, variations on the same theme.

This means, we may have a strong reaction without actually being aware of a feeling in the body. We may even smash something in anger without feeling the energy of the anger itself in our body. 

That is absolutely true but just because we have a strong reaction, as in, an emotional response and are not aware of a feeling in the body does not mean there is not a feeling in the body, nor that emotions and feelings are different things. All it means is that we are much better at blocking out our body than we are our mind. We can cut ourselves off from physiological feelings certainly, but they remain a reality, albeit at subconscious levels.

Emotion is more similar to conscious thought than feelings are to conscious thought. Although emotion and feeling can be described as unconscious thought, one of them is going to be more similar to conscious thought. Feelings are more like sensations, when you touch something you get a feeling.

I am not sure that makes sense. Emotion, as in strong feeling, is more similar to conscious thought than feelings are to conscious thought. I would have thought and felt that feelings in the purest sense - too hot, too cold - are very quickly, very conscious. I would also have thought and felt that emotions are more easily disguised and kept below consciousness given the capacity of people to be unaware of their rage for instance, despite their body language, tone of voice and use of words clearly demonstrating it.

These are examples from only two sources but from what I could see the attempts to define the differences between emotions and feelings ended up in the same place - nowhere. After much convoluted circling of course.

Therefore feelings are faster than emotions and thought, because when you touch something there is a slight delay before you can think of something about it (thought), or feel something deeply about it (emotion).

Again, while there are neurological delays to physical feeling, there are also neurological delays to emotional responses. And whether you touch something hot or see something traumatic the 'delay' factor is likely to apply to both. Although I wonder. With physical injury - feeling - the body often goes into immediate shock and shuts down, whereas with emotional injury, witnessing a terrible accident, it is more likely that there will be an adrenalin response to support action, particularly if someone is in need.

Emotion is therefore just unconscious thought.

Well it can be but it does not have to be. Feeling responses can also be unconscious and often are - you don't know the tea is too hot until you drink it and become immediately conscious because of an unconscious response. You can look upon your newborn child and have a powerful emotional response and there is nothing unconscious about it, with or without thought.

But enough of the circling, my head is spinning and I am feeling confused. Is confusion an emotion? Maybe! And does it matter if we cannot clearly articulate the difference between feelings and emotions? Yes, I think it does because as this book, on dreams actually, written by a psychotherapist so clearly demonstrated, the prevailing view is that feelings and emotions are not the same thing and yet no-one, that I have found anyway, can clearly articulate what the difference is. And I believe that is confusing. Unnecessarily confusing.

I have not spent much time in counselling, on the basis that I always felt they could 'fuck you up' more than you were already if you did not get the right person and getting the right person, from my experience, was not easy. But I do recall having conversations with the half a dozen I saw, for brief periods of no more than a few weeks or months at most, over a twenty year period on 'feelings' and 'emotions.' And I found it confused me more than ever.

So why is there this need to separate feelings and emotions? Or at least to try to do so? If we know they are variations on the same theme, what does it matter what we call them? Or is this attitude sourced in the materialistic mindset of modern science in which modern medicine including psychiatry and psychotherapy is sourced?  I have a feeling the answer is Yes!

If I am feeling depressed or angry, how can it help to differentiate either of those as an emotion? I know how depression feels. I know how anger feels. They have physiological, psychological and emotional qualities. Surely it makes more sense to learn to connect the dots .... as in, when I am feeling angry I don't need to decide if it is an emotion or a feeling, because it is both, but I do need to observe how it impacts my body, my mind, my reactions (emotional responses.)

And even if it is a feeling, feeling, as the 'dividers' would argue and I put my hand on something hot - the experience, while it may be largely physiological will not be solely physiological because nothing is. There will be thoughts and there will be an emotional reactive response.

It seems to me that the feeling/emotion equation has arisen from the same mindset which has so divided up the human body that we now have doctors who specialise so specially that they know all there is to know about your big toe but nothing about your foot.

We are not just a body as machine, far from it. Every single thing we do, think, are, experience as symptom or reaction or response is sourced in the physiological, psychological, emotional and I would also argue, spiritual and energetic.

Given the amount of time which can be wasted chasing the faeries of feelings or the elves of emotion it seems to me it would just be simpler to forget about finding differences where none probably exist, and focus on the fact that we are feeling/emotional beings who have feeling/emotional responses. There is a tendency today to make even the simplest of things complicated.

I think I am feeling something and that is, I am feeling emotionally exhausted thinking about the difference between feelings and emotions. I think my emotional response is that I feel it is time to think about something else!


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