The Distinction Between Emotions and Feelings, and What To Do With Them

People tend to throw around a lot of words to describe their emotions or feelings. We’re confused or we feel frustrated. We’re hurt or we’re excited. Whatever the label, deciphering feelings from emotions can be a bit perplexing. But learning the difference offers big rewards: it pinpoints what’s going on inside, so we can free ourselves from what’s holding us down from living a fulfilling life.

John’s world was looking gray. The spark was somehow gone, and he just couldn’t seem to get it back. Friends and family were drowning in his doom and gloom whenever he was around.

John had reason to be upset. He’d lost his job three months ago and was collecting unemployment. He felt unworthy and inadequate. Was he depressed? Apathetical? How could he get the upper hand and shift those feelings around?

First, like all of us, John has to distinguish if he’s dealing with feelings or experiencing emotions. Across all cultures, and throughout all human time, we share the same six emotions – sadness, anger, fear, joy, love, and peace. The old, the young, rich, poor, smart, and everyone in between can feel them all.

According to Attitude Reconstruction, emotions are spontaneous physiological reactions to what we experience throughout the day. They have no words. Just look at the word “emotion,” and you can see “e-motion,” or “energy in motion.” Each emotion produces a different sensation in our bodies and has a different physical expression.

•  Sadness: heavy heart, constricted chest, low energy, tight throat, slow  —  expressed by crying

•  Anger: hot, flushed, tight muscles, aggressive, cold stare, explosive   —  expressed by striking out verbally and physically (without harming anything of value)

•  Fear:  cold, tense muscles, stomach knots, elevated pulse, agitated  —  expressed by shivering

•  Joy: blissful, expansive, sparkling, carefree, active, exuberant, light  —  expressed by bubbling

•  Love:  warm, open, full, soft, smiling, inclusive, connected  —  expressed by embracing, crying

•  Peace:  relaxed, tranquil, content, perceptive, alert, calm  —  expressed by quiet relaxed silence

When John realized that all he had to do was check in on what sensations he was feeling in his body and determine whether it was sadness, anger, or fear, he felt an enormous relief. He wasn’t feeling so angry or afraid anymore. Sadness was what he felt. Now he knew the task at hand – deal with his sadness.

While you only have six emotions, you can have hundreds of different feelings. Feelings are the labels you attach to your emotions. Emotions are physical. Feelings are how we describe and interpret these wordless physiological reactions.

Examples of Feelings Associated with Each Emotion

Sadness: unlovable, lonely, needy, guilty, small, incapable

Anger: jealous, dissatisfied, frustrated, resentful, stingy, hateful

Fear: worried, nervous, stressed, indecisive, confused, impatient

Joy: lovable, independent, secure, self-accepting, powerful

Love: open, satisfied, tolerant, compassionate, grateful, humble, generous

Peace: relaxed, calm, confident, patient, flexible, productive

If we say each of the feeling words out loud, we realize even though each has a distinct flavor, they all share the same basic energy. Underneath all feelings is one or more of the six emotions.

Why is this distinction so important? Because knowing there are only six emotions simplifies your life. Since joy, love, and peace aren’t the problem, when you’re off, it’s either sadness, anger, or fear.  If you can identify what emotion you’re experiencing, you can attend to that, rather than getting lost in your head by trying to figure things out.

The most natural, clean, and direct way to get rid of the emotion is to express it physically and constructively. Allow the body to do its thing.

Sadness = Cry.  Anger = Pound/Kick/Stomp/Hit/Yell.  Fear = Shiver.

While you’re moving out the physical energy, refrain from verbalizing or feeding negative thoughts. Just occupy your mind with what’s true. In the case of sadness, while crying, it’s “I feel sad. I just need to cry. Its okay.” While releasing the anger in a non-damaging physical way, it’s:  “I just feel mad. Its okay to feel angry. I just need to pound it out.” When expressing fear and shivering, think or say “Im just feeling scared right now. Its okay to shake it out. Ill feel better if I do.

John was relieved to be given permission to cry. He decided the best way to get the tears flowing was to rent a couple of movies like the old classics, “Brian’s Song” and “Terms of Endearment.” They really did the trick, and he was surprised at how much better he felt afterwards.

If emoting isn’t your thing, you can use your mind to deal with sadness, anger, and fear.  With your thoughts you must do two things: interrupt your old mental chatter, (which only fans sadness, anger, and fear), and replace it with opposing thoughts. That means thoughts that honor yourself, are accepting of other people and the situation, and are present and specific.

John took on two phrases: Im a good person. Ill do what I can and the rest is out of my hands. After repeating these lines over and over, he felt ready to enjoy his family in the evening and hit the pavement yet another day.

You can get a grip on your emotions, too. If you deal with your sadness, anger, and fear energy physically and think thoughts that are unequivocally true, you’ll marvel at how those emotions and feelings slowly fade from the limelight, allowing the brilliance of your true self to finally shine through.