How well do you really understand your emotions?

In the work that I do, I spend a lot of time talking to people about emotions. One thing that comes up frequently as part of these discussions is the value and importance of different emotions. Although emotions are a central part of human life, we are explicitly taught very little about what emotions mean and how to cope with them.

One major theory suggests that all the feelings you experience can be traced back to six main emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear and disgust. All other feelings are just different combinations or intensities of these core emotions (for example, betrayal is a combination of sadness and surprise; and fury is an intense version of anger.)


Although people make distinctions between “good” and “bad” emotions, this is a bit of a misnomer. Even though feeling some emotions is less pleasant than others (people usually prefer to feel happy than sad), all emotions are good because they are useful. The main function of emotions is to let us know that something is going wrong (or right) in our environment, and to motivate us to change it.

Happiness lets us know that things are going well, and to continue doing what we’re doing.

Sadness is an indicator of loss and causes us to stop and process a significant event. Sadness also often motivates us to seek support from others, and let others know we need comforting.

Anger lets us know that there is a perceived injustice happening and gives us the passion to assert out rights. It’s important to remember that anger is very different from aggression. Although anger is constructive and motivating, aggression is almost always destructive.

Surprise helps us orient our attention to a new stimulus and prepares us to act quickly if we need to.

Fear lets us know that danger is possibly close by, and gives us the (nervous) energy for fight or flight.

Disgust motivates us to move away from stimulus that may harm us, either socially or physically.

So the next time you are feeling an emotion that you are finding unpleasant, take a moment to embrace what you’re feeling. This can help you to: understand why that emotion is popping up for you, what is happening in your environment (or mind) to cause it, and how to go about fixing it!

Ben Walters is a psychologist at the Centre for Human Potential. See

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