Neuropsychologist Paul Brown posits three categories of emotion that drive how we react to the world around us. Understanding our emotions is the first step to making more effective choices: when we know what we’re feeling and why, we can identify the core factors that are driving our decisions.
Five survival emotions: fear, anger, disgust, shame, sadness. These are the core survival feelings that relate to our basic fight, flight or freeze responses.
One ‘potentiator’ emotion: surprise or startle; an activator which opens the gateway to any of our other emotional states.
Two attachment emotions: Love and trust, or excitement and joy. Our survival emotions may elicit strong repellant forces, but it’s the attachment emotions which have the pull factor towards something we want to achieve, experience, or be part of.
Transactional Analysis theory describes a category of “cover-up feelings”: the things we externally express or say that we’re feeling because it’s socially unacceptable to express what our true feelings are. In Western cultures boys are often conditioned not to express fear, so they cover this up with a more socially acceptable emotion like anger. (Not always, of course, but often.) Similarly, girls are often conditioned not to express anger, while sadness is more permissable. As children grow into adults, these cover-ups can become so conditioned that we can lose touch with the underlying feelings that are the natural reactions we’re experiencing.
Much of the psychological work in coaching is learning to recognize when we’re covering up our natural emotions with something else so that we can instead get in touch with what we really want. Learning to accept all our emotions, even the ones we’ve been taught not to show, is an empowering part of acknowledging our full selves. We don’t have to be entirely in the grip of the emotion, as we so often find ourselves when we push an undesirable emotion away. Instead, we can use the power of that emotion to tell us something powerful about ourselves. And this is what coaching truly is about: discovering something that enables us to make more effective decisions about who we are and what we want.
Next time you have a strong emotion, ask yourself: if I wasn’t feeling this, what might I be feeling instead? What is this emotion telling me?