- Emotions are constructed, not inevitable outcomes of experience.
- We can intentionally construct emotions that serve our mental and physical health and well-being.
- Remember that you do not need to believe everything you feel.
When my daughter was 2 years old, she bloodied her knee while playing outside. As I comforted her, she looked at me with terror in her eyes: "Is all my blood going to fall out?" Her scary prediction that she would lose all her blood amplified the sting of the bloody knee, triggering fear. I explained, "No, honey, you just have a skinned knee. Your knee will stop bleeding, your body will make new skin, and you will be fine. A bloody knee just means you've been having fun!" Her face relaxed, and with a smile, she resumed playing.
A skinned knee represents a minor event compared to something serious like war or a diagnosis of cancer. Yet our emotional responses are constructed the same way my daughter created hers. Our emotional reactions to events are shaped mainly by our assumptions, based on prior conceptual knowledge, and our predictions. Because my daughter had no concept that her body could grow new skin, she predicted a very dire outcome.
Assumptions about events depend on how we categorize them. Is this good or bad, dangerous or fun, exciting or weird, normal or abnormal? The categories we use for those assumptions depend on our prior learning. If we have limited categories in our memory bank, as my daughter did, we have a narrow range of options.
Predictions also depend on our current understanding, learning, memory, and experience. The first time a child attends a school can feel overwhelming if they've never seen a campus, a desk, or a teacher. Everything is new, unexpected, and unpredictable. Once we've attended school, we understand every classroom for the rest of our school career.
Manage Emotions Better by Broadening Your Knowledge
Most of us assume that emotions are natural reactions to events. If someone yells at me, I expect to feel angry. I expect to feel disappointed when someone fails to do what they promised. Yet, according to emotions researchers, we live up or down to our expectations, predictions, and constructions of how we expect to feel. In other words, we make it all up.
When we expand our concepts, we can manage our emotions better. With more raw materials for constructing emotions, we strengthen our emotional flexibility. In my book Frazzlebrain, I describe how I respond to my talkative neighbor. When I'm in a hurry to bring in my groceries and begin preparing dinner, I find her chattiness annoying. "Doesn't she understand I have things to do right now?" I think. On a Saturday, when I leave the house for a long walk, I love talking with her about her exciting life. As the writer Anais Nin says, "We don't see things as they are; we see them as we are."
We make predictions about our day mainly based on our energy, or our "body budget," as Lisa Feldman Barrett calls it. We constantly spend and replenish our body’s resources. Suppose you didn't sleep well the night before and have a packed schedule with an important presentation to deliver. In that case, you will likely have less patience for the mess in the kitchen or your teenager's moodiness. When your body battery (energy reserves) feels low, your mood may lean negative as you anticipate less energy to cope with the day's demands.
Feldman Barrett, a neuroscientist and psychologist, is among the top 1% most-cited scientists in the world. She found that emotions don't just emerge from what our senses experience; in fact, 90% of what we feel emotionally is constructed from our predictions, memories, and parts of our brain that have little to do with actual sensory input. We learn concepts like kindness, rudeness, safe, and unsafe, and our brain quickly scrambles to categorize what we're experiencing (Barrett, L. F. 2017).
Once we’ve categorized a behavior as “rude,” our emotional response stiffens in a predictable way. Categorizing someone as rude then shapes our perception of all their behavior. We might miss the cane the person is using or other factors that might lead us to a different conclusion. An angry response to rudeness may seem inevitable, but we can change our response by broadening our interpretation (Fridman, J. et al., 2019).
When people misbehave, I often think of a story that humanizes them: Perhaps they live with chronic pain, they’ve suffered a terrible loss, or their body battery is low. I don’t have to take it personally; I can summon compassion (another concept) and feel emotionally more resilient.
Compassion is more easily summoned when our body budget has reserves. It helps to focus on energy replenishment first. How can you sleep better, eat better, and manage physical discomfort better? How can you make yourself feel more physically comfortable and healthier? Negative emotions improve when we replenish our energy with rest, nutritious food, water, and emotional support.
Once you attend to your physical needs, pay attention to the words you use to describe your situation. Is the story you are telling yourself serving how you would like to feel? Understand that whatever you feel is not fixed in stone. The pain is not welded to your heart. The suffering is not a breakdown of your being. Depending on our inner monologue, we can hypnotize ourselves into negative or positive feelings.
How Feelings Shape Perceptions
Researchers found that police officers who were primed to feel angry and stressed were more likely to make errors in a gun detection test, perceiving more unarmed people as armed (Baumann, J. et al. 2010). We tend to see the world as more threatening if we feel more distressed and threatened.
In another study held one month after the Boston Marathon bombings, participants were tasked with a simulated shooting exercise in which they had to shoot armed suspects and not shoot unarmed people. Before the shooting exercise, one group of subjects viewed emotionally alarming news stories about terrorists. The other group viewed emotionally positive stories about the community coming together. Subjects who viewed the alarming news stories made more shooting errors than the other group. Their emotions distorted their perceptions (Wormwood, J.B. et al. 2017).
How to Feel Better Faster
If you don’t like how you feel, examine the words you’re using to describe how you feel. In my psychotherapy practice, I often hear, “I’m sick and tired of this!” I asked the person, “Do you want to be sick and tired?” Maybe you’re angry and upset that something you don’t like hasn’t changed. Must you be sick and tired too?
When we change the internal story, a shift takes place in our emotional world. We stop hypnotizing ourselves to believe, “I can’t handle this! I’m at a breaking point! I’m losing my mind!” Instead, we could say, “I need a break from this problem. My body battery needs refueling. I need help with the problem I’m facing.” Changing the words changes what we see. It changes how we feel.
To manage feelings of overwhelming distress, try the following three suggestions:
- Broaden your knowledge. Read books by foreign authors, literary fiction, history, science non-fiction, and a wide range of poetry, short stories, and news magazines. Broadening your concepts allows you more flexibility in your thinking and clarity of perception.
- Don’t believe everything you feel. View your feelings as signals, not permanent truths. If you feel sick to your stomach, it could be a virus, seasickness, or you could be falling in love. Allow yourself the flexibility to change how you feel.
- Tell yourself a better story. Describe your feelings in objective, more neutral terms and watch the tendency to exaggerate. Perhaps you’re hungry, not starving. Your feelings might be hurt, but must you feel devastated? Many of us suffer multiple traumatic losses in our lives. We can find a story of meaning and purpose to help us through our trials.
We all need community, support, kindness, and comfort through the hard times. No matter the struggle, we can summon strength from our imagination. It takes little energy to imagine a better future for us all.
Barrett, L. F. (2017) How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York.
Baumann, J., and DeSteno, D. (2010). Emotion guided threat detection: expecting guns where there are none. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 99, 595–610. doi: 10.1037/a0020665
Fridman, J., Barrett, L. F., Wormwood, J. B., & Quigley, K. S. (2019). Applying the Theory of Constructed Emotion to Police Decision Making. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 463151. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01946
Wormwood, J. B., Neumann, A. E., Barrett, L. F., and Quigley, K. S. (2017). Understanding emotion in context: how the Boston marathon bombings altered the impact of anger on threat perception. J. Appl. Soc. Psychol. 47, 13–22. doi: 10.1111/jasp.12412