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  • Writer's pictureTony Richards

The Difference Between Emotions and Feelings

In everyday situations and communications, we often use the words emotion and feeling interchangeably, while psychologists distinguish between them. Emotions are the interpretations of your feelings. The feelings you have emerge from your motivational system. You generally feel pretty good when you are succeeding at something you are striving for and bad when you are not. The more deeply your motivational system is engaged with a situation, the stronger your feelings are going to be.

Your motivational system is not connected to your brain regions that well which help you tell stories about your world. Often, in order to make sense of what you are feeling, you use information about what is happening around you to help you translate those feelings into emotions and those emotions help to guide your actions by giving you feedback on how well you are currently achieving the goals the motivational system has become engaged into.

Many times, that interpretation is fairly easy. Let's say you are crossing the street and suddenly you have to quickly move out of the path of an oncoming vehicle, it is clear to you that the negative feeling you are having is fear from nearly getting struck by the vehicle. If someone you work with compliments you on something you have accomplished well, it is obvious to you the positive feeling you are experiencing is pride.

Often things are not that clear. You might have a bad interaction with a family member before getting to your job. As the day wears on, you may interpret your negative feelings as frustration with the project you are working on rather than lingering negative effects from the interaction you had that morning.

Many people try to power through their negative feelings rather than attempting to understand them more fully. This is a real lost opportunity. Emotions provide valuable information about the state of your motivational system. Ignoring those signals and information is like driving around lost but refusing to consult your GPS or even look through the windshield. You continue to move forward, but who knows where you will actually end up? On the other hand, paying too much attention to your feelings is also bad. That is like staring at your GPS without ever starting your car. You won't get anywhere that way.

The key is that when you have negative feelings, slow down and pay some attention to what you are feeling and why you are feeling that way.

When you find yourself stressed, anxious, or angry, take five or ten minutes for yourself during the day. Sit alone and breathe deeply. The deep breathing will help take some of the energy or arousal out of the feelings you are having. This can help you think more clearly. Then start to think about some of the events of your day. Pay attention to how those thoughts influence or decrease the intensity of those feelings.

You may not completely understand the source of your feelings the first time you do this. Over time, you will become more skilled at paying attention to when and where you start to feel bad.

Once you have figured out what is bothering you, it's time to plan a course of action. If you keep thinking about things that bother you, you run the risk of solving nothing while getting yourself more upset. Instead, use your knowledge to figure out how to deal with it. If you are really upset about something, hold off on actually executing your plan until you have given yourself a chance to calm down. Responses that seemed like a good idea in the moment may seem less ideal to a cooler head.

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