Can You Sort Out Your Feelings?

Image by Circe Denyer

For as long as people have been having feelings, they’ve tried to understand them by sorting them out and classifying them. It works for trees. Any field guide to trees will tell you that the blue spruce in front of you is a conifer and, as such, has a lot in common with pines. Can a field guide to feelings classify feelings? Could it tell me if envy is related to shame?

Personal classification systems
You probably already have your own systems for classifying feelings. You sort them out all kinds of ways:

  • The most significant feeling about a situation versus the minor feelings
  • The good feelings versus the bad feelings
  • Feelings you enjoy versus feelings you hate
  • Feelings you can talk about versus the ones you can’t
  • Feelings you believe are real versus those you believe are fake
  • Initial feelings versus your feelings about your feelings
  • Strong feelings versus weak feelings
  • Feelings that are very compelling versus feelings you can easily ignore
  • Feelings you allow yourself to have versus the feelings you’d rather banish from your psyche

All those personal, ad hoc classification systems can help you sort out your feelings. Let’s say I won a race. I might have a bunch of feelings at the finish line. I could be proud, exhausted, angry at some slight, or sympathetic towards the losers. The feeling of pride best describes my feelings. But to me, pride is in the list of bad feelings because it’s one of the seven deadly sins. Yet I enjoy feeling proud. I’m careful not to show my pride because I think it’s bad. I believe pride is a real feeling, though, whereas the humility I show when I’m feeling proud, is a fake feeling. Pride comes first when someone praises my accomplishments, followed by a false humility and shame for feeling proud. So, shame is a feeling I feel about the feeling of pride. Pride is one of my weaker feelings, it lets shame push it around, although I’m ambivalent about banishing pride from my psyche. On one hand it leads to shame, on the other hand, I like it too much.

When I look at how I classify pride, I can see I have a lot of work to do. No one would begrudge me feeling proud for winning a race as long as I don’t take it all the way into arrogance; so, I probably don’t need to feel shame for feeling proud. You might have different feelings you need to work on. Maybe the way you feel about weakness has been your undoing. Whenever you feel weak, you turn to anger the same way I present a false humility when I feel proud. That’s what can happen when you believe it’s better to show anger than weakness. Weakness is a feeling you’d rather not have. That might be fine until you start to get in trouble because of your anger. It might not be necessary if you can learn to accept some inevitable weakness.

Your personal classification systems for feelings will reveal a lot about you and the inner workings of your mind, but is there a classification system that works for everyone, no matter what their culture and personal history? The simple answer is no. Psychologists can’t even agree on a set of basic feelings. Feelings are too fuzzy.

The word feeling itself is fuzzy. Everyone knows what a feeling is, until they’re asked to give a definition, then it’s hard to tell the difference between a feeling, a sensation, and an expression; never mind that other confounding term, emotion. The boundary between one feeling and another is also fuzzy. The difference between love and hate seem clear, but what are the boundaries between hate, dislike, and contempt? Why is it possible to both love and hate the same person at the same time? Is hating someone you love the same kind of hate as you have for someone you don’t?

When I researched many of the classification systems psychologists have devised for feelings, I read everyone from Descartes and William James to Paul Ekman, Robert Pluchik, and Shaver, Schwartz, Kirson, and O’Connor. They’re all fuzzy, too. They all start by trying to name the few basic feelings, from which all the rest are derived. No two agree on what they believe the basic feelings are, and I don’t agree with any of them. Everyone misses something. I won’t go over everything they said because it’ll make your eyes glaze over, as did mine.

I was ready to abandon all effort at a system for categorizing feelings when I found another method right in plain sight. No one has seemed to think of this. In my view, the basic feelings from which all others are derived come from instinctual behaviors without which life is not possible: fight, flight, freeze, flop, feed, and affiliate. (I really wanted there to be synonym of affiliation that started with F, but the only ones I could find only describe a particular type of affiliating. I needed a more general term.)

These instinctual behaviors correspond to six feelings we could consider basic. Fight is felt as rage, flight is felt as fear, freeze as startle, flop as exhaustion, feed as joy, and affiliation as love. The six basic are then adapted into different genres that better fit the circumstance the feeling arises in. The genres are further adapted into the specific individual feeling states, like this:

Instinctual BehaviorBasic FeelingFamiliesIndividual Feelings
FightRageFrustratedIrritated, aggravated, annoyed, grouchy, grumpy, vexed, or agitated
AngryNagging, resentful, hostile, contempt, spiteful, vengeful, bitter, outrage, wrathful, furious, or ferocious
DisgustContempt, loathing, scornful, or hateful
ProtectiveJealous, possessive, or suspicious
EnvyCovetous or begrudging
FlightFearAnxietyDoubt, disgust, concern, misgiving, mistrust, nervous, uncertain, or unease
PanicFright or terror
WorryTense, uneasy, apprehensive, distressed, or dread
CompelledHunger, urge, craving, or the need to pee
FreezeStartleShocked, surprised, jolted, astonished, confounded, confused, disconcerted, uncertain, overwhelmed, stunned, or perplexed
FlopExhaustionFatigueCollapsed, debilitated, spent, fatigued, sleepy, or tired
HurtPain, agony, aching, anguish, battered, burned, suffering, or wounded
SadResigned, depressed, despair, hopeless, gloomy, glum, unhappy, woe, misery, melancholy, guilt, regret, or remorse
FeedJoyAmusedEnjoyment, gladness, delight, happiness, jolliness, joviality, or gaiety
ExcitedEnthusiasm, zeal, thrill, elation, jubilation, euphoria, or exhilaration
CaptivatedEnraptured or engrossed
ProudTriumphant, or honored
EagerHopeful, assured, expectant, or sanguine
FulfilledBliss, satisfaction, reprieved, comforted, mollified, or delivered
AffiliationLoveCordialCooperative, friendly, amiable, attentive, sympathetic, helpful, receptive, dependent, or welcoming
AttractedLiking, fondness, tenderness, compassion, caring, or adoration
DesireLust, passion, infatuation, craving, or obsession
LongingLonely, lonesome, alienated, isolated, desolate, homesick, or heartache
HumiliationEmbarrassment, shame, guilt, disgrace, dishonor, mortification, or ridiculous

Let’s start with fight and the feeling of rage.

The fight or flight response is an instinctual physiological reaction to anything perceived as a threat. It activates the sympathetic nervous system and triggers an acute stress response that prepares the body to fight or flee. This will keep you alive if you’re hiking and come across a bear. As soon as you see the bear, you’ll assess the situation and determine what you should do. If it were me, I’d run; but if I was cornered, I’d fight. The acute stress response prepares you to do either.

If you choose fight, you’re essentially selecting a script that we call the feeling of rage. When you were a baby, all you had to fight with was your rage. If you woke up feeling hungry and no one came to feed you, you might cry plaintively at first, but it would soon turn to rage at your neglect. As you got older, you found that rage was costly. It’s tiring, for starters, and it often results in negative consequences. It pays to differentiate between situations that call for full blown rage, something in the genre of anger, versus those situations where a variety of annoyance will do. When the fight is against something inside you, the feeling is in the disgust genre. When there’s an element of protectiveness, you feel jealousy and the like. When you perceive an inequity, you can get envious. Each feeling from this long list suggests a slightly different script of how to think about the situation and how to behave. Having a lot of ways to rage helps you select the right one.

If you run from a threat, you’re choosing to take flight. You’ll call the feeling fear. Just as with rage, you’ll want to differentiate between types of things to be fearful of, so you’re not running all the time. The scariest things result in the genre of panic. Anxiety would describe fears that are a little less imminent. Since it’s essential to get a good jump on something fearful, you’ll develop the genre of anticipatory feelings. When you have a feeling that overcomes inaction, you’ll have a feeling in the genre of compulsion.  

The freeze function is an interesting suspension of the sympathetic nervous system. If you come across a bear in the woods, you could run from the bear, fight it, or play dead. Playing dead would be freeze. So would the moment when you first see the bear and are assessing the situation. At that time, it makes sense to not commit yourself to either fight or flight because it would be hard to reverse either option. You could call the feeling shocked, surprised, jolted, astonished, startled, confounded, confused, disconcerted, uncertain, overwhelmed, stunned, or perplexed. I chose to call the basic, grandpappy of all the frozen feelings startle because infants have a startle reflex in response to a loud noise. The basic emotion begins there and later differentiates into the others according to the source of the uncertainty and intensity of your response.

Whether you chose to fight or flee, sooner or later, you’ll flop, if the bear doesn’t eat you first. You’ll call that feeling exhaustion. This is when you’ve expended all your energy and must give up. Flopping can be a survival strategy if the rest it gives allows you to run some more when the bear catches up. Depending on degree, exhaustion differentiates into types of fatigue. If you’re injured, flopping keeps you from damaging it more. You’ll call that feeling a type of hurt. If the damage is not to your body, but to a relationship, you’ll give that feeling a name from the sad genre.

When you’re feeding, life is good. For starters, you’re probably not being chased by a bear when you’re feeding; but also, you’ve got something to eat. You feel pleasure from eating and anything like it. You feast your eyes on a beautiful scene. You take in lovely music. A child learns to distinguish between degrees of pleasure: everything from the genre of amusement to excitement to modes of captivation. When someone praises you, you eat it up and feel a form of pride. When you anticipate fulfillment, you already have a pleasurable feeling. You feel some sort of eagerness. There are varieties of fulfillment when you have taken your fill.

At last, we come to affiliation. Our superpower, as humans, is our ability to affiliate, to cooperate so we can accomplish things together that we never would alone. If there were enough of us, we might band together to bring down that bear, but we also affiliate to heal sickness, to grow, prepare, and distribute food, to raise children, and to make those babies in the first place. The most basic feeling of affiliation is love, but you have learned to differentiate between all the genres of love, ranging from cordiality to attraction to desire. Then there’s the feelings that tell you to find people to affiliate with, some type of longing.

In my view, affiliation is the need that takes the basic feelings and shapes them into a more refined form. You learn to modify your rage, so you don’t alienate the people you depend on. You modulate your fears, so you don’t come across as a kook or scare everyone half to death. You think of other names for exhaustion, so you get the right kind of help. You share your joys by crafting new ways to describe them. You express your love in terms that won’t give folks the creeps. If you didn’t have other people to affiliate with, you wouldn’t need to differentiate your feelings.

Affiliation has a set of tools by which it shapes the feelings into its final form: feelings associated with humiliation. They’re the sanctions that enforce cooperation. If I go to the zoo and see a bear and respond with anything like rage, fear, or even surprise, I’ll be a laughingstock. If I make a federal case of a hangnail, you’ll roll your eyes. If I show delight when I come across a pile of dog shit and dig right in, you’ll get my head examined. If I lust after my child, you’ll call the cops.

Where does the fuzziness come in?
I’ll have to admit, my model is still fuzzy; but I can explain why.One source of fuzziness is what I call metaphorical feelings. Metaphorical feelings are still real feelings, but they’re being used as metaphors. When my friend dies, I say I feel hurt; but I’m not hurt in the same way I’m hurt when I touch a hot stove. I’m using physical pain as a metaphor for the intensity of my grief. Grief is a feeling that is frequently expressed in metaphors because it’s such a multifaceted feeling. I put it in with exhaustion, but you could make a case that it belongs with rage, fear, startle, or love.

There are many other examples of metaphorical feelings which defeat any attempt to keep feeling in their categories. Feelings are feline things, they don’t like to be put in boxes. There’s no end to the creativity with which people can describe their inner lives. So, no, feelings can’t be classified as easily as trees; but you can learn a lot about them when you try.

Published by Keith R Wilson

I'm a licensed mental health counselor and certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor in private practice with more than 30 years experience. My newest book is The Road to Reconciliation: A Comprehensive Guide to Peace When Relationships Go Bad. I recently published a workbook connected to it titled, How to Make an Apology You’ll Never Have to Make Again. I also have another self help book, Constructive Conflict: Building Something Good Out of All Those Arguments. I’ve also published two novels, a satire of the mental health field: Fate’s Janitors: Mopping Up Madness at a Mental Health Clinic, and Intersections , which takes readers on a road trip with a suicidal therapist. If you prefer your reading in easily digestible bits, with or without with pictures, I have created a Twitter account @theshrinkslinks. MyFacebook page is called Keith R Wilson – Author.

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