How do you feel? What are you feeling? Why do you feel it? Whose emotion are you experiencing? The answers to these questions may be more complex than we at first imagine. I’ll try to explain some of the reasons why. Firstly, I could respond to the first and second questions above with something like, ‘I feel happy’ or ‘I feel sad’. These are labels we use to express certain types or categories of experience.
I say categories because, on the face of it, happy or sad are only general descriptions. For instance, how happy is happy? What does being happy feel like? How is happy different to, say, joyful or content? We may use other words to express nuance or increase accuracy. For example, ‘I feel very happy’ expresses a level of intensity. ‘I feel generally happy’ says something about continuity of experience.
We notice immediately how we are constrained by language, by limited words to express subtle shades of emotional experience. In principle, the wider range of words we have available to us, the better we should be able to articulate what we feel. In this sense, we are using language descriptively, to distinguish between emotional states. It’s as if the emotion simply is, and we try to find the best word to label it.
It's nevertheless tricky using words to describe and differentiate emotions in this way. After all, an emotion isn't an object with fixed shape, depth or form. It's a phenomenon, not a thing. It's a feeling, a felt experience, a sense of something that we experience deeply, psychologically and physically. It's often a shifting state, hard to pin down, hard to grasp hold of and yet nevertheless powerfully present and impacting.
Social constructionists suggest that language not only expresses how we feel, but shapes it too. In other words, how I distinguish between different emotional experiences is governed by language. Since language is culturally constructed (that is, it is inherited, used and evolves in human environments) how I feel is to some degree culturally determined. Culture shapes how I experience personal emotion.
From an early age, we observe how others respond to experience. We copy their reactions and find ourselves culturally expected to respond, or inhibited from responding, in certain ways. So to some extent, how I react to an experience is a learned, conditioned response. It feels instinctive, ‘simply how I feel’, but it could be described as a personal and social experience. It’s about me, but not just about me.
Which leads to the final question. Whose emotion am I feeling? We tune into others’ emotional states, often subconsciously. We may pick up unexpressed feelings from another and experience them as if our own. We may pick up a feeling from a group, a community, and carry it as if it’s our own. In this sense, the boundary between what I’m feeling and what others are feeling is permeable and blurred.
So what am I feeling? It depends on the language available to me, the categories I have learned to assign to emotional experiences, the ways I have learned to feel and respond. Why am I feeling it? It's a partly personal and partly social response to psychological, physiological, social or environmental stimuli. Whose emotion am I feeling? It's my own, but sometimes it's not only my own. Complicated? Hmm. How are you feeling?
Nick Wright is a coach and consultant, specialising in reflective practice.