What are Fear, Anger and Sadness telling you?
I used to wish emotions didn’t exist.
I used to think they are a useless part of human nature that just deteriorates us from rational thinking.
I felt like the only thing emotions do are coming at us, out of nowhere and without any heads-up, and make us say things we don’t mean and react in ways that make us feel embarrassed!
But when I started to look closer into the science of feelings, I realized that emotions are more useful than I thought! They can actually tell us important insights about ourselves or a situation — if we are willing to listen!
The Wheel of Emotions
According to renowned professor and psychologist Robert Plutchik there are 8 primary emotional dimensions: grief (sadness), loathing (disgust), rage (anger), vigilance (anticipation), ecstasy (joy), admiration (trust), terror (fear).
All other emotions are either a form of the primary emotion on a different level of intensity or a combination of two emotions. For example, annoyance is a less intense form of anger and optimism is a mix of joy and anticipation.
Furthermore, the 8 primary emotions can be grouped into 4 pairs of polar opposites: fear vs. anger, sadness vs. joy, disgust vs. trust and anticipation vs. surprise.
To help classify the range of emotions and show their combinative nature and polarity, Plutchik developed the Wheel of Emotions in the 19080s.
General Role of Emotions
- They Motivate us: We can feel our emotions in our body — they either make us feel comfortable or uncomfortable. In that way, emotions send us a signal to take an action to change our situation or to stay where we are. Fear triggers our Fight or Flight response whereas feeling joy makes us want to stay in a certain situation.
- They are Social Signals: When you feel an emotion, there is a great chance it is showing up on your face through one of 30 facial muscles designed to express feelings. In that way, you are signalling to other people how they should behave around you. For example, if you are angry, it shows other people to approach you with caution or not at all.
- They Serve as Internal Signals: When faced with a difficult decision, we are often told to trust our gut or listen to our heart. The way we feel about something can be a great indicator for us to understand if going forward with something is a good idea.
Specific Role of Emotions
When we feel fear, we experience our brain’s reaction to a nearing threat or danger. The emotion of fear is thus a natural survival mechanism designed to keep us safe. However, what is perceived as threatening or dangerous, can vary greatly from person to person and throughout our lifetime. Whenever we feel fearful and anxious it gives us a sign to pay special attention to what we are about to do. But once we’ve acknowledged the “caution” sign it is up to us to decide whether we move forward. Sometimes we need to feel the fear and do it anyway…just like the saying goes “Everything you want is on the other end of fear”.
Feeling joy brings us a sense of well-being, contentment and inner peace. Our drive to experience pleasure motivates us to make plans for the future that we hope will give us joy, even if we need to make sacrifices for it today. The possibility of happiness spurs us on! Furthermore, our hope to experience joy encourages us to experiment with new things, whether it is trying a new activity, meeting new people or exploring new places. Research also shows that positive emotions like joy can help to undo the cardiovascular effects of negative emotions like anxiety and stress.
Sadness is usually related to a feeling of loss or disadvantage. If the feeling prolongs for a long time, it can lead to longer periods of depression which can be very painful. Sadness keeps us from doing things we normally enjoy or even paralyzes us to a point where we can’t work anymore or deal with minor daily tasks. No wonder we might feel that there is no point in feeling sad! But feeling sad CAN give us important hints about what needs to change in our life: sadness concentrates our attention and forces us to stop our daily lives. This can be a valuable opportunity to reflect and evaluate our life and take the necessary action steps to change things for the better. Some research also suggests that sadness serves as a way to control our energy levels. When we don’t see any chance of succeeding at something anymore, we loose our motivation to pursue it further and thus our misery prevents us from wasting our energy on pointless projects. Sadness can also be a way of signalling to others that you are in need of help — especially when expressed through tears.
From an evolutionary perspective, anger used to be a very useful emotion, a tool of defense: it prepares our body for a potential attack and gives us extra-energy and alertness for the fight. In today’s world, we can benefit from the physical and mental peak state caused by anger, if we are able to channel our fury into something productive. Furthermore, anger can give us essential insights about ourselves: it might tell us that someone crossed our emotional boundaries or a core value has been compromised, that our emotional needs are not met or that there is an old wound that needs to be healed.
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Liz Huber is a Mindset & Productivity Coach and Founder of refinedlife.io. With her books, courses, and 1-on-1 work, she helps entrepreneurs overcome overwhelm, lack of focus, fear, and self-doubt. As a result, her clients are able to confidently achieve their goals by prioritizing what is truly important and streamlining everything else.