What are Emotional States?
What most of us think are emotional states are really two separate things. We have sensations physically in our body and labels we use to describe that pattern of energy. The difference between the sensations and the label is critical. Sometimes we interpret and label a set of sensations as anxiety for instance when we could easily interpret it as excitement.
States and Emotions
States act like a filter on our perceptions and interpretations, which in turn affect emotions. There are other kinds of states beside emotional ones of course, for example “a learning state” or a state of curiosity. We respond differently to any kind of situation depending on how resourceful our state is at the time.
At the end of a long hot day, when we are tired, hungry and irritable after a run in with the boss, we are likely to experience a different state (and behave differently) than when we are refreshed and looking forward to a pleasant day.
Emotional states indirectly affect behavior. They do not cause it. When we are feeling angry, we are more likely to act aggressively. When we are relaxed, we will more likely take time to make decisions.
The gap between emotion and response can be some kind of thinking or another emotion or state that frames the first emotion (Meta state). As we mature, we are less likely to act out of our emotions (reacting).
Emotional States and Feelings
NLP considers physical sensations or feelings as Kinesthetic System Processing. We can have feelings that aren’t emotions. I can feel hot, cold, nauseous, or energetic. When we interpret those feelings or sensations, we have an emotion. NLP calls this a “Meta K” meaning about or Meta to the kinesthetic.
Even primary emotions such as fear are unconscious hard-wired interpretations of threat. How else could we feel fear in situations like public speaking when no one is physically threatening us?
Notice there are sets or groups of sensations. Emotions are interpretations of complex states made up of many chemical and hormone interactions creating changes in our nervous system, which in turn creates some kind of internal or external movement. The basis of the word emotion is “to move” An injection of adrenaline for instance increases heart rate and blood pressure.
The map is not the territory
Much confusion about emotions is from failing to distinguishing between these sensations and the evaluative label. In NLP, we think of this as “eating the menu”. We need to remember the Map is not the Territory The label we use to describe something is not the thing itself. The set of sensations I describe as happy is not happiness itself.
The labels we use to describe emotional states are like the pictures on the outside of boxes we use to recognize them. We know the difference between cereal and dog biscuits by the picture, words, color, shape, size etc of the box.
Inside our boxes are a group of experiences and memories where we have triggered that combination of neurological processes. They might be specific experiences or general categories. My label for excited for example includes my first trip to the circus, taking off in airplanes, getting books from Amazon and going to the computer shop yesterday (it’s sad I know).
Even though the label is a shortcut, it determines the meaning we give to the “emotion”. It’s only when we open the cereal box and find we have dog biscuits that we respond differently.
Emoting as a process
To confuse the issue even more, these labels (joy, contentment, anger) are processes disguised as nouns (nominalizations). The word “love” obscures that it is the process of loving. Fear is the process of fearing – responding to a threat.
Emotion itself is a Nominalization. Emoting is a process – our body’s way of communicating by marshalling sensations into a pattern, in the same way we organize sounds into a pattern to communicate in words.
Because we have obscured the process underneath them, many people believe that emotions aren’t under conscious control. We talk about our anger as though it was a toaster in need of fixing. Thinking in terms of how we are angering, the process, we gain power over it.
This mistake is common at least in Western Culture. Some dictionaries (Random House and the American Heritage set) for example consider emotional states arise spontaneously rather than from conscious effort. Which assumes it is an uncontrollable force rather than something we do via our associations and strategies.
Can you experience an emotion using conscious effort by remembering a time you felt it? Actors do this all the time. See eliciting states for more about this.
Emotions as information
Many have decided they need to avoid emotions all costs. They think the logical world is less painful and more practical. See the thinking feeling Meta program
Emotions whether pleasant or otherwise are information we need to attend to. Fear for instance is information about threats – it is up to us to evaluate what sort it is – often it is a threat to our status or self-concept rather than something physical.