The Nature of Emotions: Part 1

As I sit here and prepare to work on another blog post a pile of school notes and old journals beckon me.  While thumbing through them, a favorite book comes to mind (Silverstein, 1976). Within these piles of material are themes prevalent in my thinking that this book describes so succinctly.  My own missing pieces are at first represented by deep wells of unresolved trauma which are the primary subject my old journals.   Over time, this missing piece perspective has morphed into what Shel Silverstein (1981) describes with his Big O Character .   This emerging 20-20 hindsight has become the byproduct of my own desire for self-understanding.  As I progressed from self-help junkie, therapy client, to student, I’ve had to wrestle with bitter truths that are impossible to ignore.   I now realize, much of my own thinking can be thought of as a “backa**wards flustercuck”.  The solutions aren’t what I thought they’d be, and neither were the problems.  As I’ve bypassed the big “4-0”, I’ve come to two conclusions:  (1) life happens when you’e doing other things and (2) it all adds up to something at some point.  Ironically, reflections of my personal history can be found throughout my school research.  As an individual who processes information verbally, working through this jumbled up mess is much like detangling a knot.   The big dose of reality that I’ve struggled with most is the nature of emotions.  They create a felt value which flavors my own life experiences.   They are the motivational underpinnings of my belief systems and thought processes.  They complicate the nature of reality due to a causal relationship, which more than one-sided.   An inability to wrap my mind around all this is what produces missing pieces in my thinking.  As I ponder this train of thought, I realize it will need to be the subject of a series of posts.  I’m not sure where this train of thinking will end, but it should be interesting.  In this post, I’ll explore the nature of feelings as an essential precursory understanding to insights I gained from a DBT skills class I took several years ago.

Divergent Ways of Being…

As I engage in this metacognitive endeavor, I find it ironic that a diversity of perspectives on emotions can be found in literature as well as my own family. As per usual, I find all this research is causing me to stop and reflect a bit.  My father comes from a neuroscience background which stresses the universal nature of emotions as byproducts of interacting structures in the brain. In contrast, as a student with a background in psychology and sociology, I’ve focused on the appraisal-oriented aspect of feeling. My interest has been in the individual and sociocultural variants of emotional appraisal and expression. As a result of diverging viewpoints, my father and I have very different ways of relating with emotions. Whether internal states or second-hand observations, my father holds feelings at a distance and contextualizes them in terms of brain function.  Preferring to utilize his prefrontal cortex, emotions are seen by byproducts of the limbic system and cloud rational thought.  In contrast, I work through them in an uncertain manner, led by an instinctual drive to see them to their often absurdist conclusions.  In doing so, I attain a clearer perspective on matters.  Along the way, I’ve come to terms with my own missing pieces and discovered new ways of being.  This journey has taught me to respect the differences between my father and I.   It seems the whole is not equal to the sum of its parts.

A Neuroscientist’s Perspective…

While I’m not wanting to get too bogged down in details that might bore my readers, I would like to begin by defining the concept of emotions from a neuroscience perspective. Emotions are complex states in which your mind and body become inextricably connected. They are experienced as a series of physiological responses that arise at a preconscious level as we interact with our external environment (Baumeister & Vohs, 2007).  Emotional perception begins with the intake of sensory information when the limbic system works to assess its emotive relevance (Lambert & Kinsley, 2011).  For example, the hippocampus stores memories of emotional events that can initiate a stress response when we encounter things that trigger these memories, (Lambert & Kinsley, 2011).  In this event, our amygdala triggers the fight-or-flight system, experienced as an emotional reaction that exists independent of our control or awareness  – at least initially (Franks, 2006). Occurring without the prefrontal cortex’s input, we are at the mercy of the brain’s more primitive components.  The limbic system changes our affective state by initiating a reactive process throught our body with the release of chemicals in the brain. For instance, during a visit home to see my parents one year, I ran into an old childhood bully at the local grocery store. This experience flooded my mind with adrenaline and norepinephrine causing my heart rate and breathing to rapidly increase.  My hands shook uncontrollably as I gripped the shopping cart until my knuckles when white and numb. While attempting helplessly to present a cool exterior, my limbic system continued betraying me.  Hippocampal memories of old traumas caused my amygdala to do my thinking for me.  As I left the store I was perplexed and stunned by both the immediacy and extremity of this reaction, completely out of my control.   I berated myself for this display of insecurity and sat in the car to calm down before making my way home….

…With fresh snow on the road, the drive home was slow, giving me time to think.  Now alone with my thoughts the nature of my affective state began to enter conscious awareness.  My prefrontal cortex was at work engaging in a bit of cognitive reappraisal, (Lambert & Kinsley, 2011). I began thinking through my emotions rather than with them.  My parents’ words of advice echoed in my mind “Remember Kathleen:  Exercise your prefortal cortex”.

Concluding Remarks

Much of what occurs in the brain is a covert operation. While out of view of our experience, these unconscious processes have profound affects on our well-being and lived experience. It seems the Buddhist monkey-mind concept has a neurological correlate in the limbic system.  For this reason, understanding emotions as a felt value we imbue our life with, only scratches the surface of reality.  Therefore, it might not be unwarranted to characterize emotions as matters of self-deceptive bullshit.  The following quote comes from a blog by a psychiatrist that summarizes this idea succinctly:

“If you want to make good decisions or get good advice about them, don’t pay too much attention to your feelings…Most things that make you feel bad aren’t within your control, so sharing your feelings won’t make you feel better for long….And focusing on your bad feelings makes them more important, so you’ll forget other important things in your life…I know, you’ve got lots of feelings about what you can’t change and you’d prefer to ask why rather than accept what you consider as defeat.  But here’s the advice that I think can be most helpful: fuck that shit. You’re never defeated if what’s stopping you is reality.” (Bennett, 2015).

So have I managed to merge this perspective with my own in a way that makes sense?  While thumbing through a book titled “Emotion & Culture”, Ellsworth, (1994) makes a point that “What is needed is a framework that allows a consideration of the general and particular at the same time” (p. 25).   A neurological perspective of emotions provides a general background on the biological components involved in the production of feeling.  From this perspective emotions are evolutionary adaptations from our environment, and exist as primitive byproducts of our earliest ancestors (Franks, 2006).  In this respect, emotions can be considered innate and universal byproducts of hardwired neuroanatomical elements.  In contrast, a psychological and sociocultural perspective describes the unique variants in emotional expression and understanding within individuals and across cultures.  From this stance, the focal point of understanding is how we choose to interpret and appraise our environment (Ellsworth, 1994).  Finally, it is interesting to note the byproducts of these diverging perspectives in research.  For example, some studies assert a universality to emotional expression and understanding by noting commononalities in facial expression and emotional attribution across cultures (Ellsworth, 1994).  In contrast, research indicates variances in emotional regulation and understanding between cultures.  For example, one study I found states that individualistic and collectivist societies vary significantly in how they interpret and handle emotions due to varying belief systems about self in relation to others (Kitayama & Markus, 1994).  As a result, divergent emotional schemas exist between individualstic and collectivist societies (Kitayama & Markus, 1994).  I conclude this post here, by noting it provides only half of the story on the nature of emotions.  In an attempt to leave my posts to a reasonable length, I will discuss the “other side of the coin” on this matter for my next time…


Baumeister, R. F., & Vohs, K. D. (2007). Encyclopedia of social psychology (illustratition ed.). Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage Publications.
Bennett, M. (2015). F*ck feelings our Manifesto [Blog Post] Retrieved from
Ellsworth P.C. (1994). Sense, culture and sensibility. In S.E. Kitayama, & H.R.E. Markus, (1994). Emotion and culture: Empirical studies of mutual influence. (p.p. 23-50). American Psychological Association.
Franks, D. D. (2006). The neuroscience of emotions. In Handbook of the Sociology of Emotions (pp. 38-62). Springer US.
Lambert, K., & Kinsley, C.H. (2011). Clinical neuroscience: The neurobiological foundations of mntal health. (2nd ed.), New York, NY: Worth Publishers
Kitayama, S.E. & Markus, H.R. (1994) Emotion and culture: Empirical studies of mutual influence. American Psychological Association.
Silverstein S. (1976).  The Missing Piece. New York: Harper Row
Silverstein S. (1981). The Missing Piece Meets The Big O.  New York: Harper Collins.

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Personal Identity – on being full of hot air…

“From a symbolic interactionist perspective, the self’s Achilles’ heel is the constant possibility of losing trust and self-confidence.   We are blown-up balloons and it is always possible for the air to come out….It’s [an] emperor-has-no-clothes problem.  Culture in general, selves in particular, are based on ‘hot air’ – shared belief.” (Wiley, 2003, p507).

EmperorOne night after my family went to bed, I began my homework. While sifting through journal articles, the above quote jumped out at me.  In light of recent affairs, it forced me to stop and think. At this point in life, I’m working hard to overcome old patterns and “get unstuck”.  In addition to working on a Master’s degree, I’m trying to pay off some debt, and lose weight.   As I work on accomplishing these goals, (and overcome a few old vices), I hope to maximize my efforts with a bit of radical self-responsibility.   The idea that my hard work could yield another hamster-wheel experience frightens me.   For this reason, I’ve worked hard to understand the underlying patterns in my life.  What I’ve discovered is the solution (and its problem), aren’t so much about what I’m looking at but how I’m choosing to looking at it…

….You see, underlying these goals is a desire to understand the full breadth of possibility for who “I am”.  I find my personal development thus far has been fraught with poor decision-making and happenstance, as I’ve struggled to balance the responsibilities of work and family.  The person I am now is a byproduct of a needs-based reaction to the pragmatic details of daily life.   I’ve become the embodiment of adaptive responses to others self-perceived opinions and needs.

Entering the “Hall of Mirrors”….

Wiley’s (2003) description of identity as a self-fulfilling prophecy in the above quote, summarizes a personal life lesson.  It is for this reason I feel this insight is worth examining more closely.  According to the DSM-5 manual, identity can be thought of as an “experience of oneself as unique with clear boundaries between self and others” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p823).  Psychiatrist Ronald Laing, makes a point of noting that identity has both subjective and objective components (Laing, 1960).  From a subjective vantage point identity is a collectivity of beliefs and perceptions about oneself.  At the same time, in order to form an identity, an objective reality is required that can act as a contextual mirror within which we can view ourselves (Wiley, 2003). As I stop and consider this conceptualization of identity from a personal perspective, a vivid hall-of mirrors presents itself.  On the one hand, as I review my experiences with critical “others”, I am forced to face divergent, (and often conflicting), distorted images of myself.  For example, the “me” I am known as to my kids and husband varies substantially from how my childhood bullies or coworkers might perceive me.  A view of this hall-of-mirrors becomes a confusing “flustercuck” when I try to sift through my role in things.  It is at this point that Wiley’s (2003) hot-air notion comes to play.  I’ve become what I believe I am and often confuse the byproducts of my identity construction, as evidence of it.  Allow me to explain…

The Achilles Heel of Identity….

“The usual sense of the self as being who we ‘really are’ and as being continuous and consistent over time seems to be an illusory construction of imprecise awareness….We are not who, or even what we thought we were. What we take to be our real self is merely an illusory construct” (Wedding & Corsini, 2013, p467).

Since identity construction is based on a system of belief, it exists as a self-fulfilling prophecy.  In an effort to define this concept Robert Merton, (1948) quotes Thomas Theorem which states: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” (p193).  He then notes that self-fulfilling prophecies are based on “a false definition of the situation” (Merton, 1948, p145).  It is only by acting upon this erroneous definition that it becomes true. In other words, beliefs exist as cause.  In contrast, what we understand as evidence of who we are is often best conceived as a byproduct of our beliefs.  With this in mind, Wiley (2003) notes: “If people define themselves as real, they are real in their consequences” (p506-507).  This causes me to question the reality within which I’ve come to understand myself.  Am I as I am, because this is me?  Or is this me, only because it has been believed into being? What if I had chosen otherwise?

It is with these questions in mind, that it is possible to insert a “ray of hope” into the conversation.  If identity is a belief system that acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy why not choose otherwise?  After all, if we are full of hot air, why not fill up our balloons with more of what we desire to experience?

Concluding Remarks

I caught the video below on one late sleepless night. In this video, a young man discusses insights gained in the aftermath of a life-changing injury. Having cared for individuals like him in my life, I can recall intimate conversations on this very subject matter. A person can’t help but leave an experience like this with a renewed perspective of life…


American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, D.C: Author.
Laing, R.D. (1960). The divided self.  New York: Random House
Merton, R. K. (1948). The self-fulfilling prophecy. The Antioch Review, 193-210.
Wedding, D. & Corsini, R. (2013). Current Psychotherapies. (9th ed.). Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning
Wiley, N. (2003). The Self as Self‐Fulfilling Prophecy. Symbolic Interaction26(4), 501-513.

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