Not too long ago, a client was consulting the “emotions wheel” I asked him to find online. It was useful. When we were discussing the options he might choose, I asked him if “disappointed” was on his wheel. It was not. I was surprised, since what young child is not severely disappointed at some point — like with the authority figure who denies her a cookie? Or who hasn’t felt disappointing after a failure or after being criticized? I considered disappointment to be a basic feeling.
After our session was over, I took a look at all the emotion wheels in my resources folder which I often passed out. I could not find “wonder” on them. There was no “tenderness” or “betrayal.” I realized, “These wheels are all different!” They must have some philosophy behind them.
I started researching. I needed to do some thinking because I, like you, have some assumptions about how my emotions work. And maybe like you, I realized my assumptions were not examined very well, even though most of what I do all day deals with emotions!
Thanks to Google, I found this scholarly article by Maria Gendron and Lisa Barret about the history of emotion in psychology; then I found an overview for a less-scholarly summary by Tchiki Davis. Those women taught me I should be careful about what I pass out. The emotion wheels do have some thinking behind them.
There are many theories of emotion which try to organize the feelings we often have difficulty naming. The theories help us understand where emotions come from, how they relate to each other and what they mean in our culture. The most well-known of these theories is the “discrete” (or basic) theory of emotion. This was the theory used in the movie Inside Out. Pixar’s goal in that popular movie was to encourage children, in particular, to welcome the full spectrum of emotions because they all matter; there is nothing wrong with feeling sad. That’s nice.
The movie also made an indelible impression that feelings have an “identity” that is unlikely to change. So our emotions should just learn to get along. We should be inclusive of all our feelings. That’s an extension of the basic premise that emotions are separate, discrete things, that they are basic elements of all humans because they originate from having to deal with fundamental life tasks like running away from a predator or getting food when you are hungry.
Another well-known chart of emotions is Plutchik’s wheel, above. This wheel suggests there are primary, secondary, and tertiary emotions. Each of the basic emotions in his wheel are amplified and can be combined to create new emotions. Both the charts above are based on the theory of evolution, which assumes survival instincts are imprinted on our species; there are immutable feelings in us all. What Robert Plutchik adds is how the emotions keep adapting. They not only have a complexity born of a long evolutionary history, they keep combining into new and relevant forms. His chart has a movement to it; the feeling states are all part of a process involving both cognition and behavior and containing several feedback loops.
Dialogue about emotion is broad
The theorizing already feels complex, right? Part of the reason for that is the question that kicks off the dialogue: “What is an emotion, anyway?” More than ninety definitions have been offered over the past century. There must be almost as many theories. English, in particular, continues to add to a complex array of overlapping words to describe them.
My psychotherapy clients are mostly men and it often helps to have a list of words from which they can select their feeling. They understand they are angry and sometimes anxious, but some of the other feelings are harder to name. Emotions are complex. What’s more, they are amplified, daily, on the screen. Add on the demand for idealized versions of emotion from partners and a man can feel overwhelmed (and women, too, of course). They might feel like everyone is supposed to have the kind of emotion that’s on the chart or explained by Pixar and they are afraid to choose wrongly.
My research into the history of how the present sense of emotion in the U.S. developed taught me the argument is rather broad. Darwin‘s musings lead to the idea of “basic” emotions. Then philosophers and scientists tried to prove those few emotions were either innate or were caused by reactions to typical external forces. A lot of thinking in the past 200 years, really, has been about “is it this or that?” As is usual for modern thinkers, the researchers came up with “dichotomies that define modern ideas about emotion — basic emotion vs. appraisal, evolutionary vs. social constructionist, dimensional vs. discrete, experience vs. expression.” (Gundren and Barrett)
The “basic” emotions people were met by the “appraisal” theorists, who said emotions are mainly a matter of humans making meaning. The higher thinking of humans is twinned with higher feelings. We feel and think about what we think and feel. We are not merely reactions to what is happening to us, we also happen to ourselves and consult with others. This theory was a corrective to the assertion that emotions are derived from reactions along the rocky road of learning how to kill a mastodon and survive the ice age. On the contrary, the appraisal people said, the emotions came into consciousness by firelight when people were painting the hunt on the cave wall and naming what they felt.
My main problem with the emotions wheels I have been distributing is that they might lead clients in the wrong direction. Most clients are in therapy because they want to adapt better to how they feel and learn things that will make them happier and more lovable. They are experiencing a very complex “chart” of themselves and realizing how responsible and capable they can be. What’s more, once they get comfortable with themselves and their often-unrealized capacity, they sometimes uncover an even deeper ability to relate spiritually. They feel things , both inside and out, that are fearsome and joyous mysteries, not reducible to five pieces of pie on a chart.
The constructionist view and God
In a further article, Lisa Barrett goes on to assert her “psychological constructionist” view of emotion, which I think appropriately considers how emotions are not just inside out, as the appraisal people imply, they are also outside in like the discreet people imply, and they are more. Emotions are formed by and deal with all the ways our brains, bodies and relationships contribute to what we feel. She asks, “What if psychological facts are not physical facts? What if the phenomena we want to explain—emotions, cognitions, the self, behaviors—are not just the subject matter of the human mind, but are also the creations of that mind? What if the boundaries for these categories are not respected in the very brain that creates them?”
The discussion about emotions is as complex as the formation of them. That statement may give you comfort and cause you to take a deep breath and listen to what is going on, trusting the process, so to speak. Or the discussion may add to your distress and cause you to wonder how you will ever figure yourself out if the experts are all arguing! I think you should take the breath. One of the great things about us is we never know or feel everything we can imagine we should already understand. But that discomfort forms us.
One of the best things about the postmodern thinking which deconstructs the binary arguments and assumptions of the past is that it leaves room (like Barrett’s quote does) for mystery. There are still plenty of scientists who think they have it all figured out, or who believe their next experiment will solve the problem. But, more and more, people are a bit more content that they may never know enough. The advances in brain science lead some researchers to think that psychology as a science might be dispensed with. But the phenomenon of emotions is one of the realities that prove our experience is much larger than how the neurons are firing.
The constructionist view includes the full breadth of human experience in the formation of emotions. If you look for it, this view can be seen lurking, unacknowledged, in most of the binary arguments of the past. You can also see the view in the Bible, as just these few verses from Proverbs 14 show. These wisdom sayings are full of the mystery of being human but deeply appreciate our capacity to discern what we feel and what is good in the moment within all the competing stimuli:
Only the heart can know its own resentment;
likewise no stranger can experience its joy.
Before every person lies a road that seems to be right,
but the end of that road is death and destruction.
Laughter can mask heartache,
and joy often gives way to grief.
A disloyal heart has its fill of disloyal ways,
but a good person will be satisfied from above.
The gullible believe anything they are told,
but clever people know to question every step. (The Voice)
The constructionist view of emotion asserts all the multitudinous ingredients the brain creates 24/7 are involved the phenomena psychology explains: emotions, cognitions, the self, and behaviors. From elements we might see as inside or outside of us, the mental states called “feeling” and “thinking” are created.
I may lose the emotion wheels
When I took a new look at my emotional wheel charts, I was not sure I could correct the ones devoted to “basic emotions.” They might need a warning label: “too simplistic.” As the constructionists imply, the process of forming emotions is bigger than a chart. Emotions may appear to be discreet, nameable, even universal things, but the whole creation is having a dialogue and coming up with something next right now.
I thought it would at least help if I put a little circle in the middle of a “basic emotions” wheel with “truth/love” at the center. That would give it some movement and an appropriate mystery. I think our experiences and meaning-making are generated from our godlike dialogue between mind/brain and heart/body, heaven and earth — speaking and hearing the truth in love.
The emotion wheel charts imply emotions just happen in us, they are built in, “it is what it is.” I not only think we make meaning of our thoughts and feelings, I think we make choices that create them and heal them. Unfortunately, the charts are studiously devoid of anything outside their immanent frame. In their estimation, no one would never feel “godly” or “soulful” or “virtuous” or “kindly” or “convicted” or “blessed” or even “thankful” — any number of feelings that are precious to us all, the kind we feel when we are most deeply alive.
I wish I could retract all the wheels I have passed out over the years. I am chastened to resist going with the flow when it comes to psychology. From now on I will pass out a list of words to help someone give a name to what is happening in them and to them — no colors, no charts to impose a theory. I may need to add a few words that are missing! A person looking over the list may need to add some of their own. A list allows us to imagine our own process, not just conform to someone else’s idea of who were are or are supposed to be. We’ve probably done enough of that conforming already, which is why we can’t figure out what we feel!
I hope we grow to feel comfortable with “good” and “bad” feelings and thoughts, free to welcome them as part of a human life. If that life is lived in grace, even the worst feeling has meaning and the other side of it has hope.