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A Basic Skill We Should Have Learned as Kids

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The phrase “Don’t get emotional” implies that we normally aren’t.

Most of our news headlines can be interpreted as emotional responses gone overboard, becoming crime, scandal, corruption, greed, and bad policy.

The fact that these reactions are newsworthy seems to reinforce the idea that emotions are sporadic and exceptional, little whirlwinds that appear around significant events, making the odd day or week wonderful or awful.

But if you pay attention to your emotions as you read these headlines, it becomes obvious that even in our most mundane moments — reading the paper on a Monday morning — we are always feeling some way or another. Even a casual glance at a newspaper will begin to stir up familiar feelings like fear, amazement, disgust, admiration or annoyance. We’re never really in “neutral.”

We’re living through emotional reactions all day long, even to events as tiny as hearing a text message arrive, or noticing a fly in the room. Our emotions aren’t always overwhelming us, but they are always affecting us, coloring our perceptions and opinions about ourselves and our world.

This is the “fish in water” effect at work — because we are immersed in our emotions’ effects every moment of our lives, we tend to talk about them only when they’re exceptionally strong.

Even when it’s not obvious, though, emotions are the force behind almost everything we do. They’re the only reason our experiences matter at all. If every event triggered the same emotion, it wouldn’t matter to us whether we got out of bed or not, whether we were sick or healthy, or whether we thrived or starved. All of our values and morals, all of the meaning we perceive in life, stem from our knowledge that there are some very different ways a person can feel. 

Wandering in dark places without a map

What might be surprising is that there aren’t that many basic emotions, and that virtually all of us have experienced every one of them, many times. Each one has fairly predictable effects on us, and these effects are responsible for a huge proportion of our quality of life: whether we live a life of confidence or worry, whether we’re good with people or bad with people, or whether we believe the world is a good place or a vile place.

Yet we don’t make much of a point of understanding and adjusting for our emotional states. We even overlook the simple fact that we’re always in the middle of one, however subtle.

For example, if you’re aware that fear is prominent in you right now, you can remind yourself that the future is likely going to be easier than it currently seems, regardless of how strongly you might feel your impending doom. If you’re aware that anger is prominent, you can remind yourself that when you feel this way you tend to be highly critical of others, that you’re temporarily unable to experience gratitude, and that you may be taking your friends and supporters for granted.

Even a child could be taught this concept: that when we’re sad, for example, it’s hard to remember that the world itself hasn’t become a sad place, even though that’s exactly what it feels like. We’re just being visited by some feelings that make it seem that way.

Think of what a help it would be for any kid to understand — not just to be told, but to really understand — that the reason they want to say mean things to another student is because they’re feeling temporarily angry towards them, and not because the other student necessarily deserves to have mean things said to them.

Strong feelings pass, but while they’re here, they color and warp our vision, sometimes severely. So much hinges on this simple fact, and its implications, that it should be as fundamental a part of our education as learning language.

And it’s not that complicated. There aren’t that many different emotions, and we can learn their properties rather quickly if we make a habit of paying attention. Essentially, we spend our whole lives navigating a limited patch of emotional terrain, which contains magnificent peaks and well-known pitfalls, yet we don’t bother making use of a map. We have a sense of whether or not we want to be where we are, but we don’t think much about the name of the region, how we got to it, and what we know about it.

In the 1980s, psychologist Robert Plutchik identified 8 basic emotions, and expressed their basic relationships in a wheel:


He then expanded the wheel to show the emotions at different levels of intensity, and some of their combinations.


I don’t think it’s a perfect map, and there are some well-known criticisms. Anticipation and surprise do seem like direct opposites, but fear and anger don’t. Pride should probably also have a place somewhere.

What’s most valuable about it, however, isn’t the relationship between the emotions, but the fact that it gives us a small and reasonably complete list of them. If we could know, at least sometimes, roughly where we are in this well-trodden territory, we could mitigate a lot of the distorting and self-defeating effects our emotions have on us, just by remembering what those effects tend to be.

There are, as in a color wheel, infinite shades and tints. While you’re watching a whale swim beneath your tour boat, you might be feeling amazement, but also a tinge of apprehension. These shades bring a lot of richness to life. We aren’t simply stuck in one of eight emotional parking stalls at any given time.

But the point is that we are always somewhere in the realm of well-known human emotions, and that it can be extremely helpful to know where. Which general region, at least. Each region is hospitable to certain qualities, and hostile to others. In the region of anger, for example, compassion might have a hard time being present at all, but alertness is given a boost.

Look for the lens too

When we can identify the most prominent emotion right now, we’re less likely to project that emotion’s characteristics on the situation itself, or on the world at large. If you’re feeling annoyed, but not really aware of it, other people might appear more insensitive and apathetic than they usually do, and you might blame them for that, even though it’s you who changed, not them.

Most of this adjusting amounts to simply knowing which emotion is happening, and what each one usually does to your experience. The more often you reflect on your current state, the more you learn their tendencies.

When anger is present, I tend to get cynical. I become preoccupied with the apparent selfishness of others, and my mind is looking for reasons to condemn them. I become hyper-vigilant about my beliefs and it becomes almost impossible to consider new viewpoints.

When sadness is present, I tend to see adversity as more permanent than it really is. It seems like the world itself is what’s sad. I downplay my freedom to alter the circumstances, and sometimes I forget that I have any freedom at all. Gratitude seems impossible, even when I know what I should feel grateful for.

When fear is present, I tend to get preoccupied with the potential downsides of every upcoming event. I exaggerate the chances of failure, to the point where I forget that success is even a real possibility. My mind tends to look for excuses to hesitate instead of acting.

Emotions really do work like sets of spectacles. Your “fear goggles” might sharpen and magnify images of future trouble and pain, while images of future joy and relief become faint, or don’t appear at all. Your “admiration goggles” might give a particular person and their ideas a blinding glow, and obscure the appearance of their faults.

It is a huge help to know which lens you’re seeing the world through, at any given moment. This way you can know, intellectually, what you’re not seeing, and what’s being exaggerated. If you recognize fear, you can remind yourself to reconsider the rewarding side of doing the thing you’re afraid of. If you recognize ecstasy, you can remind yourself that the feeling is temporary, and that the thing you’re ecstatic about might not be worth basing your whole life around.

What I’m advocating for is the learning and teaching of a kind of basic emotional literacy. What do these eight or ten basic emotions do to us? Which one is prominent, and what do you need to be reminding yourself of right now?

Human emotions have a defining effect on the quality of our lives, and the kind of world we live in. A little bit of insight of this kind goes a long way, and applies to almost everything we do. If I had known in high school how to identify and respond to annoyance and apprehension, for example, I probably would have gotten better grades in Math, and English, and Phys Ed, and everything else.


Photo by Parker Knight. Graphics derived from public domain work by Machine Elf 1735
Sandra Pawula, Always Well Within May 31, 2015 at 11:03 pm

Absolutely! The world would be so different if we learned – as children – how to understand and relate to our emotions like clouds passing by in the sky. We don’t have to jump onto the cloud. But most people are not aware of this.

It’s not too late though! We can learn this now and also apply the excellent logical antidotes you offer in this article.

Burak June 1, 2015 at 3:21 am

This was really good David, thanks for capturing it.

Roland June 1, 2015 at 3:45 am

Hello David,
I think you are absolutely right. A lot of us crazy monkeys are absolute beginners when it comes to emotional balance. Best way to learn something yourself is to teach it, so I will forward this to all the young parents I know :).

Thank you for this thoughtful post and have a fine day!


Beth Larson June 1, 2015 at 3:54 am

Dear David, I enjoy your writing and find you are very insightful in a helpful way. Where do you think depression, ennui, and apathy fit into this wheel? Thanks.

Beth Larson

David Cain June 1, 2015 at 8:53 am

Ennui is often used as a synonym for boredom. I would call it an emotion. Apathy is used in a lot of ways. It can refer to apathy to a particular thing, or it can be a general worldview. Depression is not an emotion, but it’s a disorder that affects emotional patterns.

Vilx- June 1, 2015 at 3:59 am

Nice article! I’ve come to the same conclusion myself for some time now. :) Btw – where does nostalgia fit in?

Anyways, here’s a fun fact: I also have some emotions that don’t fall into any of classification at all. :)

They’re pretty rare, actually, and they work more like emotional flashbacks (memories) to a time when I was a little kid (preschool or first grades). I don’t get them anymore, except when a memory like that is triggered by the right state of mind & environment. I can’t even recall them at will. But I know that at that early age my life consisted mostly of these emotions.

These emotions are… descriptive. They kinda describe an entire scene in and of themselves. They don’t make me do anything and they don’t make me feel good/bad. Perhaps just a bit nostalgic, since they are memories after all. There’s an emotion that describes a coniferous forest seen from a distance while taking a walk; there’s an emotion that describes a gray rainy day, seen from behind a window; there’s an emotion of sitting by the window awaiting guests to arrive to my birthday party; etc.

These aren’t pictures that I’m remembering – they are emotions, and the pictures only come afterwards. In fact, the pictures are mostly reconstructed from the emotion.

Has anyone else experienced something like that, or am I just crazy? :D

David Cain June 1, 2015 at 8:57 am

I know what you mean — my dreams seem to come with emotions unique to them, as do nostalgic experiences. You could think of them as shades of the more basic feelings. But they’re less relevant as far as emotional literacy goes because they don’t last very long and don’t really need to be compensated for.

Vilx- June 1, 2015 at 9:15 am

Yes, I know they don’t need to be accounted for much. It’s just a curiosity. :)

David Cain June 1, 2015 at 9:23 am

You might find this vsauce video on nostalgia interesting:


Andy June 1, 2015 at 4:29 am

Great article David. Really interesting and insightful. Totally agree that they should teach this stuff in school.

DiscoveredJoys June 1, 2015 at 4:33 am

In a very similar way scientists got people to map their bodily sensations against their induced emotions, in graphic form. See http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/12/131231094353.htm
They used 14 categories of emotions, including ‘Neutral’ and it is interesting to compare similar bodily sensations with differing emotion. I think we underestimate the link between the body and the mind.

David Cain June 1, 2015 at 8:59 am

Emotions are definitely bodily sensations. I usually think of emotions as some kind of interaction between thoughts and the body. Every time I look for what an emotion is doing to my body, it’s doing something.

Milind Bhagwat June 1, 2015 at 6:17 am

The emotion chart that accompanies the Sedona method seems to have a comprehensive set of emotions from apathy to peace. There is a scanned copy of the chart on this blog

David Cain June 2, 2015 at 8:34 am

Wow, they really break it down there. Emotions like “misunderstood” and “invincible.”

Melodie Elaine Estes June 1, 2015 at 8:14 am

What a thought provoking post. Very interesting. I never thought about this before but it is so true. The charts were very helpful. Great article!! Thank you.

David Cain June 2, 2015 at 8:35 am

Thanks Melodie

Free to Pursue June 1, 2015 at 9:09 am

I appreciate your suggestion to consider our emotions and respond accordingly in adjusting our personal filter. One difficulty with this is that the more intense it is, the more it is controlled by more primitive aspects of our psyche, which deeply affects our ability to be objective, at least in the moment (aka “lizard brain”).

I’ve found that self-reflection, meditation if you will, has helped me stay observant at higher emotional intensities (or perhaps has helped me not reach them in some cases?).

Note: In this day and age, especially in Western societies, envy and jealousy would certainly be good additions.

David Cain June 2, 2015 at 8:40 am

The “lizard brain” is really powerful, but that arguably makes those emotions (fear, etc) especially suited for this kind of reflection. Because there is such a big difference in our outlook between most moments and our overwhelmed moments, it’s hard to deny that we’re impaired. Intense fear makes certain qualities of normal life almost impossible, like optimism, gratitude, generosity… which is a dead giveaway that life is not what it looks like in those states.

Patrick Ryan June 1, 2015 at 10:10 am

Excellent article! When I was on my last year of writing Dictionary of Emotions: Words for Feelings, Moods, and Emotions I created an Emotion Journal (www.emotionjournal.com) to help me focus on events and the emotions associated with each event. I used Plutchik’s basic emotions to create a simple graph for identifying the emotions of each event. I have found that by expanding my emotional vocabulary and journaling about my emotional experience during life events I am better able to help my kids understand their experience through emotion awareness.

David Cain June 2, 2015 at 8:41 am

This looks cool, thanks Patrick.

mike June 1, 2015 at 10:55 am

Such a great contemplation! and so clearly articulated. Why is it we rarely find such a detailed post on this important and relative topic for us all?. This really helps (temporarily:) put things back into proper perspective for someone like me who stays buckled into an emotional rollercoaster.

David Cain June 2, 2015 at 8:46 am

I think our culture really overestimates the role of circumstances in our experience, because it’s useful in a lot of ways. Businesses want you to spend money to change your circumstances. Politicians want you to vote in new circumstances. News organizations want you to be obsessed with changing circumstances. There’s a lot for an individual to gain from making adjustments on their own end, but organizations often benefit from a reinforcing a perceived dependency on circumstances being a particular way.

Belladonna Took June 1, 2015 at 10:57 am

Dang, this is one of those posts (you write them quite often!) that makes me want a do-over. I want to go back and do-over raising my daughter, being a wife, just being human! Oh well, I guess I’ll have to be grateful for the years ahead … because yes, this is an important life lesson. (Regret and gratitude – two more petals for the chart.)

David Cain June 2, 2015 at 8:47 am

No do-overs!

Yen Kha June 1, 2015 at 11:28 am

Thank-you so much for sharing your insights and experiences with us! I’m going through a difficult time right now and this post is incredibly helpful in providing insight to my situation. There is so much of what you said that resonates and I just wanted to express my gratitude. Thank-you David.

David Cain June 2, 2015 at 8:48 am

I’m glad you can make use of it Yen.

John Norris June 1, 2015 at 11:53 am

Thanks David, you’re reminding me of Daniel Goleman’s book, Emotional Intelligence. And also Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication (NVC) – how to express our feelings and needs clearly in a non-threatening way.


David Cain June 2, 2015 at 8:49 am

I haven’t read EI, but NVC is great and it’s an extension of this basic idea of recognizing the role of emotional need in every conversation.

Dan T June 1, 2015 at 12:03 pm

It’s true our emotions affect how we view the world; what can’t be overlooked is how our world view can affect our emotions. We are not simply prisoners to emotions that occur as results from the outside world- we can direct our thoughts to help us feel any given emotion at any time. Thinking of a past first kiss might make you feel excited or happy while thinking of a lost loved one could bring you to tears, even though neither of these things are actually happening in the present. Learning how to direct your thoughts to influence your emotion is a powerful next step in controlling your actions.

David Cain June 2, 2015 at 8:51 am

Yes, there is a two-way relationship between emotions and circumstances, and that’s often how we get into trouble. We have an emotional reaction that leads to an action, that leads to conflict and more emotional reactions, and so on. I’m sure the same thing can work the other way: respond well to an emotion, act well, have a better emotional reaction, leading to a better action…

Tara Schiller June 1, 2015 at 12:56 pm

Great post. I agree that we should teach our children about emotions. how they behave, what to do with them. Hell, we need to teach ourselves these things. And above all, we need permission to experience our emotions in their fullness and not be afraid of what that means.

Thanks for sharing.

David Cain June 2, 2015 at 8:54 am

Permission to experience our emotions is really important, and I don’t think our culture is very accepting of certain emotions. Fear is something everyone experiences, but we associate it with an exceptional kind of weakness. Think of how absurd it is to say to someone “Don’t be sad!”

Michelle June 1, 2015 at 8:54 pm

Allow me to recommend Spinoza’s The Ethics, Part III, Concerning the Origin and Nature of the Emotions for further insight on this subject. His comprehensive and nuanced analysis of our myriad human emotions has yet to be surpassed in 400+ years.

David Cain June 2, 2015 at 8:55 am

I haven’t looked into Spinoza yet. Thanks for giving me a place to start Michelle.

Hamlet June 2, 2015 at 2:05 pm

Yup, and Spinoza is my favorite philosopher. From The Ethics: “An emotion, which is a passion, ceases to be a passion when one has a clear and distinct view of it.” A useful quote even in the depths of suffering in the Holocaust. Victor Frankl used this quote in his Man’s Search for Meaning.

Chris June 4, 2015 at 8:42 am

How dare you tell me that my emotional lens isn’t correct! :-P

It’s always amazing to think of the fact that everyone around me is also feeling some emotions at all times, and that they can’t even experience the same event with the same emotions. Just taking a look at a big sporting event and all of the hopes and dreams from both sides being fulfilled or crushed is a great example.

It’s just so hard to take a step back and look at the lens when we’re in the moment.

Jesse June 5, 2015 at 1:01 am

Very interesting. Fear and anger make sense to me as opposites, though. One of the things I learned through therapy was to feel triggers for overwhelming rage, which helped me slow down the rush of emotion, and identify other things I was feeling before rage took over. Usually it’s fear that’s the precursor to debilitating anger; in an attempt to not feel it, I’d flip over to anger. (Physically it would feel as if my whole body short-circuited!)

Liz June 13, 2015 at 6:47 pm

I agree. Anger feels powerful and purposeful, while fear feels powerless and uncertain. Even physically you can see the difference. Angry people get big and straight while fearful people shrink and curl up.

Anu June 17, 2015 at 12:06 pm

In addition about Anger & Fear –
Fear leads to anger.
Anger and fear are considered in many ways the same mind state, just in different forms.
Anger is the outflowing, expressive energized form and fear is the held in, frozen, imploding form.

Minikins June 9, 2015 at 2:21 pm

This is such a great way for a child to understand the variety of emotions we can experience. The key is in the abstraction. Most people understand emotion through experience, so seeing a representation of it in a diagram whilst not experiencing it is in itself a revelation especially to a child. The difficulty is that children might not have tHe sophisticated vocabulary so might need examples of some sort.
I have come across a tool in the science museum in London to identify emotions using pictures but I have to admit there is some cultural bias there. I think you need worked out examples or movies with sound to describe emotions rather than a two dimensional snapshot image. Emotions are often mixed and one might feel excitement and fear or loneliness and fear or sadness and love etc. The complexity of emotions is important to convey too and sometimes people do not sound or look like they are worried but what they say gives it away.

Emotional literacy is at least touched on in schools in England in the curriculum subject Personal and Relationship education or PRE. It’s more than I got at school but I think today’s children need more support in this as their opportunities for learning in the real world are much reduced today.

Literature and film including cartoons can really help kids learn about emotion. I think SpongeBob is great at this, I love his highly emotional displays which contrast to Patrick’s more limited repertoire.

Marcia Christen June 16, 2015 at 12:50 pm

Thank you for this! It’s very helpful. I love the color wheel and the awareness of feelings like a lens we temporarily put on. I really enjoyed when I was teaching Nonviolent Communication to grade school kids. They really got feelings and Needs and their connection. We had a great way to stay connected in the classroom. There’s even an NVC intensive retreat training this year for educators. See http://www.cnvc.org. I love teaching parents about this so kids can learn it too.

Sam Bull June 17, 2015 at 2:17 am

Dear David,
Good article – thank you! I particularly liked the wheel of emotions. I want to bring your attention to a program that my wife and I created to teach young adults who are in school, what school never taught them. We run a program called LEAPYEAR, which is accredited through Naropa University, and that is all about learning what we should have learned long before: emotional literacy, the basics of integrity (feeling feelings, telling the truth, keeping agreements, and expressing creativity.) The intent of this alternative first year of college is to reclaim our wholeness, find our purpose, and have a fighting chance of living a great and conscious life. We’ve been doing this since 1994 – Check out our website at: http://www.leapnow.org. Thanks for the great stuff you are putting out there! Sam Bull, Exec. Director, LEAPNOW: Transforming Education

Barry Kort June 17, 2015 at 4:24 pm

This kind of awareness is so fundamental that one can take it all the way to the National Science Foundation and to the TED Stage.

See, for example, “Cognition, Affect, and Learning” …


Viveca August 13, 2015 at 6:32 pm

Thanks for this post. I think this step of identifying our emotion is often shortcircuited and we go directly to action. I guess often this often a good strategy. When we see or hear something funny we laugh, and this action enhances the emotion further. No problem there. For intense emotions though , at least the negative ones, there really is a point in orienting yourself in this emotional landscape. Personally I have not realized this until recently. For instance, in an argument I often feel like running away, and I do in whatever sense I can (by actually storming out or becoming a victim). I’ve attempted to experiment a bit with myself in such situations and it seems that I reallly am illiterate in this context to the extent that I am unable to pinpoint the emotion better than ‘I am tired of this sh**t’, or ‘I hate this’. It’s quite amazing after a few decades of lifetime :) Probably it is in some cases advantageous to know beforehand what feelings are making you want to do what you want to do. At least I am getting tired of hearing myself saying ‘sorry, I don’t know what got in to me…’ …

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