Developing Emotional Understanding, Part 2

Brief recap from Part 1: Emotions are generated in the primitive Limbic System as an automatic physical response to stimuli. They are universal to all humans. Feelings are reactions to emotions and are shaped by our personal experiences, beliefs, and memories.

The Basics of Basic Emotions

There are some basic emotions that are expressed similarly and the expressions of which can be understood across every culture. You don’t have to speak the same language to know what a smile means.

How many basic, universal emotions are there? If you ask Google then you get a slew of answers: 4, 5, 8, 10, 15, and more. Rather than think too hard about how and why to choose which specific set of emotions to be my foundation, I’m going off of aesthetic and rolling with the beautiful symmetry of Robert Plutchik’s 8 Basic Emotions, which he grouped into pairs of opposites:

  • Joy – Sadness
  • Anger – Fear
  • Trust – Distrust
  • Surprise – Anticipation

Robert Plutchik’s visualization of the 8 basic emotions, their variants, and their derivatives.

I enjoy that his model is like a color wheel, not just because it’s nice to look at, but because color is an apt metaphor for emotions. Just like colors have compliments/opposites, so do the 8 basic emotions. Colors can be darker or lighter, and similarly emotions can be intense or mild. Different colors can mix to create a new color, just as emotions can be blended and modified to create more complex emotions.

Looking at this Color-Wheel-Emotion-Flower, you’ll see that the 8 basic emotions are located just outside the center circle, in the center ring, at the base of the petals.

The darker colors inside the center circle are more intense versions of the primary emotions. Rage instead of anger, terror instead of fear, grief instead of sadness, etc.

When you look at the rings outside of the 8 basic emotions (the center and outer sections of the petals), the color is lighter and the emotion is less intense. Annoyance instead of anger, apprehension instead of fear, pensiveness instead if sadness, etc.

There are emotions listed in the white space between the petals. These represent the blending of emotions. For example, when anger and disgust mix, you experience contempt.

When we start to examine emotions (even in a model that might not be able to explain the multitude of complex emotions we experience) then we can begin to identify what may have triggered a particular emotion, how we mentally and physically express it, what behaviors we display in response to it, etc. We begin to understand that all emotions stemming from a particular primary emotion are not expressed in the same way and they don’t merit the same response. For example, annoyance and rage are different intensities of anger, but each one is felt, expressed, and responded to very differently.

Tools and Resources

Psychology Today is my go-to resource for understanding anything to do with mental health, and that includes emotional intelligence. It is full of articles and studies posted by professionals. They also have the Psychology Today Emotional Intelligence Test which evaluates aspects of your emotional intelligence and gives suggestions on how to improve. It takes about 45 minutes to complete.

MindTools’ Emotional Intelligence Quiz has 15 questions used to rank your emotional intelligence. You’re given a score, information on evaluating your score, and seeing where you might improve.

Universe of Emotions (the website) is a graphic map that helps us visualize emotional relationships. It shows a correspondence between the cosmic universe and the world of human emotions. “As a metaphor, the structures from the universe are applied to the emotions that identify human beings and define us as unique and endlessly evolving characters. While the essence of the content has a scientific foundation, in this work we make use of some devices both metaphorical and artistic.”

Universe of Emotions (the app) is a different project than the previous one. This contains a ‘universe’ of more than 2,000 emotions. It helps to build emotional awareness and distinguish between various emotions.

The Atlas of Emotions is a beautiful interactive website that was developed at the request of the Dalai Lama. He asked his longtime friend and renowned emotion scientist Dr. Paul Ekman to create “a map of our emotions to develop a calm mind.” Ekman and his daughter, Eve Ekman (another emotion researcher) built this site which focuses on the 5 emotions of anger, fear, disgust, sadness, and enjoyment. The Timeline page shows what happens for each emotion, from trigger to response; Experience shows how each emotion is expressed at various intensity levels; Response shows what actions happen at each intensity of each emotion; and, Strategies shows how to counteract the different emotional states by giving antidotes for each impediment.

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