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  • Karen O'Moore

Emotions and feelings in Relationships 1. The difference between emotions and feelings.


Over the next three months I am going to be exploring emotions and feelings and in particular how they relate to and affect ourselves individually and the relationships we have: the way we deal with our emotions and feelings has a significant impact, both good and bad on the nature of intimacy within the relationship.

I am going to start by asking a question:

Do you know the difference between emotions and feelings?

We tend to use the terms interchangeably, but what actually are the differences between emotions and feelings. One difference is that feelings can be a physical sensation: hot, cold, pain, pleasure emotions on the other hand are entirely internal “mind-stuff”- Many branches of science state that emotions are often caused by the release of hormones and neurotransmitters (dopamine, noradrenaline, serotonin, oxytocin, cortisol and the like), which then convert this emotion into feelings.

Another difference, and it relates to the first, is that feelings occur in the present and subside when the trigger is removed: for example if you feel pain, that pain vanishes when the source of pain is removed. In a similar fashion fear that subsides when the source of fear is removed is a feeling . Emotions are different, they reside in the past and may represent feelings we have not adequately expressed, so a constant (or repeated occurrence of) state of fear which may last years with no specific trigger represents an emotional experience.

To begin to understand how our emotions work it may be beneficial to look at the way our mind works. Harville Hendrix in his book “Getting The Love You Want” gives a simplified but effective breakdown of the brain functions. It is divided into three sections:

1) The brain stem (or reptilian brain) located at the base of the skull and which is concerned with reproduction, self-preservation and vital activities (breathing and circulation etc). 2) The limbic system which flares from the brain stem and generates vivid emotions and 3) The cerebral cortex which is the site of most cognitive functions and which is conscious and in contact with daily surroundings, it is essentially what we consider to be “us”. Harville calls this the “new brain” and the first two components the “old brain” (or the unconscious). The old brain is a hardwired component and is responsible for most automatic reactions and is primarily concerned with self-preservation. It has no direct contact with the outside world but exchanges and interprets information from the new brain. There is no finesse to the old brain either, all information is placed into general categories: Nurture, Be Nurtured by, Have sex with, Run Away, Submit to, Attack. Finally the old brain does not have a sense of linear time: Past, Present or Future. Everything experienced still exists and that includes unexpressed feelings, it also goes a long way to understanding how we experience emotions like fear and how such emotions can be totally out of proportion to the events that triggered them: It is the way the old brain interprets, perceives and responds to what information is being gathered by the cerebral cortex and fits it into it’s relevant category as if the original experience is still happening and then expresses that original unexpressed feeling as an emotional experience. Our emotions therefore exist in a subjective but complex inter-relationship with our memory, experiences, conditioning and beliefs. While this facility is in fact very useful (eating tainted food once, the emotional memory enables you to avoid doing so again), they may also lead to great difficulties and serious consequences within our relationships.

Diana and Michael Richardson explore the nature of emotions and feelings within relationships in their book “Tantric Love, Feeling vs. Emotion”. They also mention that the overwhelming emotional reaction to a slight provocation is a sign you are in an emotional experience. Additionally the move into an emotional state is usually quite obvious and happens very quickly, almost like flicking a switch. According to the Richardson’s, unexpressed feelings remain as tensions within the body awaiting a suitable trigger so that they may be re-activated in the form of Toxic emotions (The term toxic here referring to the effect that emotions have on ourselves, our loved ones and our relationships). The relationship becomes a war zone of emotion and the feeling of love is gradually worn away. In addition to the large devastating displays of emotion, we may unconsciously leak emotion in the form of constant nagging, complaining, trivial arguing, defensiveness and irritability or we may be in a state of low grade emotion where we have a sense of subtle disconnection on a permanent basis leading to ruminating, withdrawal, blaming and resentment.

While not attempting to give medical advice or diagnosis, I am going to summarise the Richardson’s “Indicators of an emotional Experience” or the “symptoms of emotion” that commonly were reported when people were asked “what does and emotional experience feel like?”:

  • The sensation of separation or disconnection from the other person (this may last for hours and days). Blaming the other person for the situation and unhappiness.

  • Using terminology such as “You Always” or “You Never”. Becoming withdrawn and closed. Body contracts, frozen or numbed out with narrow cloudy vision, exhaustion, low energy, wishing to sleep.

  • Being protective and defensive and experience abandonment, rejection, loneliness or a sense of being incomplete.

  • Feeling self-righteous, always right. Feeling misunderstood or taken for granted.

  • Feeling the need to argue, discuss, fight and challenge the other

  • An active mind, with many negative thoughts and doubts. There are recurring themes and experiences helplessness, feelings of victimisation. There is a sense of hopelessness and depression about life.

  • Feeling tense and prickly and the other cannot do anything right. Trying to change the other person and acting in revenge: trying to hurt them.

  • Reacting from ego and pride. Reacting unconsciously or knowing the reaction is related to an incident or experience in the past.

These are here to give you an indication that when these symptoms are present you may very well be in an emotional experience and are by no means exhaustive.

It will of course come as no great surprise to learn that when acting from feelings and expressing the feelings in the present moment the inner experiences were almost the diametrically opposite to the experience of emotion: Connection and closeness, being able to acknowledge and express deeper feelings, using” I” statements, being open expanded and alive, positive and refreshed. Feeling accepted, complete, understood, appreciated, spontaneous, empowered, loving, trusting, relaxed, accepting, conscious and present. All of these were given as indicators of feeling experiences.

It is important to understand though that emotions are not intrinsically wrong and that we all have them. I certainly do, I can be dramatically arm-wavingly emotional. It is important to be aware of our emotions, to make the unconscious, conscious and in next month’s intimacy coaches hand-book we will be exploring the causes of emotion and the importance of being aware of our emotions.


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