The Nature of Emotions: Part 2

As stated previously, the purpose of these posts is to sort through a somewhat disturbing grain of truth weaved throughout my inner emotional world.   At the core of my greatest struggles is the realization that my emotional world is ripe with a paradoxical irony I can’t quite wrap my mind around.   As someone who happens to be studying the field of psychology at the graduate level, I’m having trouble shaking these personal realizations.  Human nature is – after all – at the core of my field of study.  It would be ridiculous to study this stuff and not take time to apply it meaningfully to my own life wouldn’t it?  In this blog post, I hope to explore the “other side of the coin” – emotions from a sociocultural and psychological perspective.   I again am not sure where this blog post might end, I simply hope to record my ongoing train of thought and see where takes me…

Irony and Paradox

“A lot is at stake if we view emotions in this way, as intelligent responses to perception of value. If emotions are suffused with intelligence and discernment, they cannot…be easily sidelined in accounts of ethical judgment” (Nussbaum, 2003, p1).

While neurological perspective of feeling provides, a description of common features in brain’s production of emotion, a sociocultural perspective provides understanding of variances in the experiences of feeling, individually and culturally. These perspectives each propose contradictory interpretations on the implicit nature of feeling. For example, while Dr. Bennett (2015) proposes that we “f*ck feelings”, Nussbaum (2003) asserts in the above quote they contain an intelligence – all their own. Underlying the grain of truth in both perspectives is the disturbing fact that human experience, at its core, is ironic and self-contradictory.   I realize in stating this I am probably jumping ahead of myself.  Why don’t we step back a bit and consider emotions from a social sciences perspective…

A L@@K  at the Other Side of the Coin…

From a sociocultural perspective, emotions are much more than “intraindividual states of conscious awareness” (Frijda & Mesquita, 1994, p51). In fact, as Leu, (2001), notes: “Emotions cannot be separated from the sociocultural contexts in which we find ourselves” (p. 65).  While I don’t want to get bogged down in the details, it is important to note how they reflect our conceptualization of life events.   The process of appraising a situation for its emotional relevance is at first colored by an array of personal concerns.  From within the framework of a historical and cultural context the emotional significance of an event colors our perceived meaning of it.  By acting on this perceived meaning and felt significance, we then perpetuate the historical and cultural context we utilized to analyze the situation.  It is for this reason that emotions are often more reflective of a person’s cultural, historical and temperamental reference points than brain matter (Frijda & Mesquita, 1994; Leu, 2001).  Excellent examples of this can be the changing definitions if love through history, from the courtly variety to our own modern versions of it.  Irving Singer’s books provide a good comprehensive view of this notion (and really worth reading).

It is important to note that a sociocultural perspective of emotion does not end here.  Appraisal theories of emotion focus on how people understand and interpret their environment (Ellsworth, 1994).  This perspective is in stark contrast to universal theories which focus on how emotions exist as hardwired byproducts of primitive brain function (Ellsworth, 1994).  The appraisal process of emotions only begins as the perpetual process described above.  Goffmanesque insights can be found when considering how emotions exist as a form of social communication and exchange (Frijda & Mesquita, 1994).   For example, others’ ascertain how we appraise life events and significant others based on our emotional expressions.  In this sense, emotions are not just “inside our head” they are also “out there”, as a felt connection with others and the world in which we reside.  They communicate valuable implicit messages to others about how we evaluate ourselves in relation to others and provide a sense of connection.  I’d like to conclude this section by mentioning that, as building blocks of a relationships, emotions might be actually thought of as forms of social control (Kityama & Markus, 1994).  As a key component in social behavior, emotional expression adheres to normative rules and cultural beliefs.  Culture provides us with emotional schema regarding attitudes toward feeling.  It creates a belief system that acts as a framework with which to make sense of things including: “when does one feel, where does one feel and how does one feel” (Kityama & Markus, 1994, p99).

Interpreting Emotions – “A Clashing of Schemas”

Here’s where things get complicated.  Since culture influences the way we interpret emotions, a clashing of perspectives is inevitable.  A convenient example of this sort of “clashing” comes from within my very own family.   As your typical American, I was raised within a very individualistic culture that encourages values of pride, independent thinking , and speaking your mind.  In contrast, my mother is from the Philippines, a collectivist society in which the extended family plays a more central role in daily life. As a result, I have observed in my mother an adherence to values including humility, stoicism, respect for elders, and appreciation for the value of duty in relationships as an expression of love.  After much reflection and personal growth, I have come to understand much of our ongoing miscommunication was a result of these diverging culturally-based belief systems.  As a child, I failed to understand my mother’s expressions of love.  Preferring to hear and witness outwardly visible affective indicators of love, it was instead an unseen dedication to her duty as a mother.  As I am only able to contextualize now, it seems the underlying cultural gap between us has been a failure to acknowledge key differences between us.  At the core of these differences, are divergent perspectives on what it means to be a person int his world.  What follows is a quote from a dissertation on the acculturation process in Filipino-American families, that touches upon this insight.

“To the Filipino, actions always speak louder than words, so instead of conveying love and fondness ith words, parents will endure extended periods of separation and/or hold down two jobs so that they can send their children to the best schools, pay for lessons and activities and provide material support and other opportunities.  This is the way they express their affection and the children are expected to recognize and value it.  If they do not express or show appreciation, parents might perceive them as lacking utang na loob – serious infraction of social mores” (Fortune, 2012, p12).

As I have wrestled with this ongoing miscommunication, two interesting tidbits from my studies have helped me make sense of this cultural gap.  The first insight comes from Marsha Linehan, founder of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy.  Several years ago, while attending a DBT skills therapy group, I learned a bit about the concepts of primary and secondary emotions.  According to Linehan, we experience both primary and secondary emotions.  Primary emotions refer to our initial reaction to what is happening and secondary emotions are reactions to this response…”or feelings about your feelings” (McKay, et al, 2010, p131).  When applying these concepts to one’s own life it is possible to note an endless change of emotions resulting from an initial response to a singluar event.   As it pertains to my own relationship with my own mother, I notice we can tend to react to some emotional events in culturally divergent ways. For example, situations resulting in the overt expression of feelings are natural to me.  Instead with my mother this might produce feelings of discomfort.  Understanding subtle cultural differences such as this has been critical to bridging the cultural gap between us.

Related to these concepts, is affect valuation theory, which states that how people wish to feel (ideal affect) is different from how they actually feel (actual affect) (Tsai, et al, 2006, p288).   In other words, one’s ideal affect reflects a person’s goals, while their actual affect reflects an innate response (Tsai, et al, 2006). For example, those from individualist societies “aim to influence their environments to fit their own needs, collectivists aim to adjust (i.e., modify, alter, subvert) their own needs to fit those of their environments” (Tsai, et al, 2006, p. 290).  In accordance with these culturally relevant goals (i.e. ideal affect) “individualists” tend to express feelings of excitement or elation openly (Tsai, et al, 2006).  In contrast those from collectivist societies display a greater preference for a calm and peaceful demeanor (Tsai, et al, 2006).

Having taken this line of thinking to its logical conclusion, I will pick it up later in a future post.  I would like to share some of my past journal entries on the subject emotional regulation, and discuss a few useful DBT exercises applying many of the insights here… Until next time 🙂


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.
Fortune, B.V. (2012). Acculturation, intergenerational conflict, distress, and stress in Filipino American families (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from Proquest database. (Regents University, Order No. 353526).
Frijda, N.H., & Mesquita, B. (1994). The social roles and functions of emotions. In. S.E. Kitayama, & H.R.E. Markus, (1994). Emotion and culture: Empirical studies of mutual influence. (p.p. 51-87)). American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/10152-002
Kitayama, S.E. & Markus, H.R. (1994) Emotion and culture: Empirical studies of mutual influence. American Psychological Association.
Leu C.M. (2001). Emotions as dynamic cultural phenomena. The Journal of Linguistic and Intercultural Education. 5. 62-75.
McKay, M., Wood, J.C., & Brantley, J. (2010).  The dialectical therapy skills workbook.   Practical DBT exercises for learning mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation & distress tolerance.  Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Nussbaum, M. C. (2003) Upheavals of thought: The intelligence of emotions. Cambridge University Press.
Tsai, J.L. Knutson, B., Fung, H.H., (2006). Cultural variation in affect valuation.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 90(2) 288-307.


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