Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Complete Guide to Understanding Your Emotions

Everything you need to know about why you feel the way you do.

Your emotions are crucial to your ability to adapt to the challenges of your daily life. When you feel good, you're able to shrug off even the most burdensome of tasks, but when you're miserable, you view even an enjoyable activity with a sense of gloom and doom.

Emotions also affect our relationships with others. If a friend tells you a tragic story and you react by snickering instead of looking sad or concerned, you'll seem rude and insensitive. On the other hand, if you frown when you should smile at your friend's jokes, you'll cause offense for different reasons.

Flying off the handle to a minor annoyance can make you seem hyper or even unbalanced. Conversely, if you react with undue glee to a relatively minor piece of good news, people will also question your maturity and stability. Babies are allowed to shriek with pleasure or howl with rage but as adults, we're expected to rein in the outward show of our feelings.

If you need more convincing about the role of emotions in our ability to succeed or fail in facing life's challenges, think about some of the famous people whose careers have been undone by the improper show of their feelings.

In the primary run-up to the 2004 presidential election, Howard Dean's candidacy ended virtually overnight after his "yaaahhhh" moment became an overnight Internet sensation. Edmund Muskie, in the 1972 primary season, committed a similar political gaffe in which he shed tears after winning the New Hampshire primary (though he claimed they were snowflakes shimmering in the morning light). Ironically, tears are all the rage in the post-2000 political world. Hillary Clinton wasn't considered sympathetic enough until her eyes misted over while answering a voter's question (again in New Hampshire!), but many pundits used this against her to question her sincerity. Then there's the sentimental carryings-on of House Republican leader John Boehner, whose tear ducts seem on constant overdrive.

These examples show not only that the outward display of inner feelings influences how we're regarded by others, but also that these emotional displays are heavily dependent on cultural norms. To be regarded as a well-adapted member of society, we need to adhere to those norms or risk condemnation or ridicule.

Psychologist Paul Ekman showed that there are six basic emotions that people of all cultures experience and recognize (happiness, sadness, surprise, anger, fear, and disgust). How and when we express these emotions differs radically by the norms of each of our cultures, the so-called display rules.

Our emotions affect not only the way others treat us but our inner sense of well-being. We tend to believe that whether we are experiencing positive or negative emotions reflects forces outside our control, blaming everything from our genes to the weather.

However, what many people do not realize is that emotions aren't strictly controlled by your body's physiology the way that reflexes are. You're not stuck for life with the emotional equipment programmed into your DNA.

To understand the way that you can control your emotions, we first have to take a slight detour through the early history of psychology. Views about what emotions are, and what causes them, have changed radically in the last 100 or so years.

To take this journey, who better to start with than William James, the founder of American psychology? According to James, and the closely related views of physiologist Carl Lange, your emotions are completely governed by your body's responses. In fact, they are the emotions.

Imagine you're being pursued by a bear. If you're like most of us, fear and panic will take over your entire being, causing your heart to race, your palms to get sweaty, and your stomach to turn somersaults. James and Lange equated these responses of your autonomic nervous system with the actual emotion of fear. According to their theory (known to intro psych students as the infamous "James-Lange Theory"), your bodily reaction doesn't follow the emotion, it is the emotion.

As James said, "Common sense says we lose our fortune, are sorry and weep; we meet a bear, are frightened and run; we are insulted by a rival, are angry and strike, afraid because we tremble… the more rational statement is that we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble" (Ellsworth, 1994, p. 222). Quite literally, when James and Lange talked about a "visceral" (or gut) emotional reaction, they meant it.

Many people found the James-Lange theory hard to accept. Common sense seems to work out just fine, despite James' assertion. Apart from the theory just "feeling" wrong (so to speak), it also failed to meet the test of scientific acceptability and was therefore eventually dropped as an explanation.

One very similar theory that appeared soon after the James-Lange foray into the field was that proposed by physiologist Walter Cannon; a view that is now known as the "Cannon-Bard" theory (reflecting his collaboration with a doctoral student named Philip Bard). This theory proposes that our emotions are regulated by the reaction of a small structure in the brain known as the thalamus. It's the thalamus that would sense, for example, the onrushing bear. This sensation simultaneously causes the visceral reactions in the body and the subjective experience in the brain.

The Cannon-Bard theory eventually became discredited too because it did not withstand experimental scrutiny. The thalamus may be involved in some emotional regulation, but it’s not the brain’s hot spot for our feelings. Instead, the amygdala seems to be the culprit when it comes to such emotions as fear, rage, and jealousy.

The idea that our emotions may be controllable started to emerge in the theory developed by Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer in the early 1960s. In their now classic psychology experiment, they led college students to believe that they were receiving a trial dose of a vitamin. In fact, the experimenters injected the students with epinephrine.

The students then watched a “confederate” (another student acting out experimental instructions) who became either angry or euphoric while completing a set of questionnaires. The students exposed to the angry confederate reported that they felt angry; those exposed to the euphoric confederate said they felt happy. The results showed that the combination of arousal (caused by epinephrine) and context (the confederate’s behavior) influenced the emotional state of the experimental subject.

To translate, the Schachter-Singer study implies that your emotions are influenced by what’s going on in the people around you and which emotions they’re expressing. Another term for this is “emotional contagion.” If you’ve ever felt moved to cry at the wedding of people you don’t know very well because everyone around you is weeping into their hankies, you know how these feelings can catch on. (Why we cry at weddings is another story.)

Your emotions don’t have to fall prey to those being expressed by the people around you, though. The cognitive revolution in emotion theory, led by University of Pennsylvania psychiatrist Aaron Beck, showed that our thoughts alone can produce our emotions.

Beck’s studies of depressed individuals led him to the discovery that dysfunctional attitudes and negatively-framed automatic thoughts are at the root of people’s feelings of sadness. A dysfunctional attitude is a way of viewing the world that focuses on the negative and unrealistic aspects of your experiences. A negatively-framed automatic thought is an unconscious belief that focuses on your weaknesses rather than your strengths. Together, dysfunctional attitudes and automatic thoughts create the “negative triad” consisting of a negative view of yourself, your world, and your future. The extensive research based on Beck’s theory has led to the acceptance of his cognitive-behavioral method of therapy as the premier treatment of depression.

Even if you’re not clinically depressed, you can borrow a page from Beck’s playbook to understand your emotions. For instance, sadness is caused by the belief that you’ve lost or will lose something important to you, anger is caused by the belief that someone has taken something away from you, and anxiety is based on the belief that something bad will happen to you. Unrealistically distorting your experiences produces these thoughts, which then lead to your negative emotions.

Rational-emotive psychologist Albert Ellis takes another approach to cognitive theory, accounting more broadly for our tendencies to let our thoughts produce our own self-produced misery. Ellis believed that through “musturbation” we allow our emotions to be dominated by the “must’s”: “I must be successful,” “I must be loved,” “I must have what I want.” Ellis talked about the “A-B-C” model of emotion:

A: Activating event (a friend turns you down for dinner)

+ B: Belief (no one likes me)

= C: Consequence (sad mood, feelings of rejection)

To change the consequence (i.e. your emotion), you need to change your beliefs. To change your beliefs, you need to examine them. In this example, you can the belief that “no one likes me” by looking at the evidence for this belief. Why do you think that no one likes you? Does one person’s turning you down mean that no one likes you? Does this mean that no one will ever like you? Does it mean that you must have everyone like you? (This is “musturbation.”)

It’s through challenging your thoughts and beliefs about yourself that you can change your emotional reactions. Once you start to pick apart the illogical basis for your emotions, you can free yourself from being dominated by the maladaptive emotions of rage, jealousy, rejection, and dejection and instead boost your adaptive emotions of happiness, contentment, and joy.

Now that you’ve given your thoughts this readjustment, you’ve got one more job to do. According to the “facial feedback hypothesis” of emotion, the expression on your face can influence your emotional state. When you activate the muscles that control your facial expressions, you actually trigger internal changes that lead to the corresponding mood. If you frown, you’ll feel mad. If you turn the corners of your mouth down, you’ll feel sad. And if you turn the corners of your mouth up in a smile you’ll feel good. As the song says, to “make gray skies clear up,” just “put on a happy face!”

With this emotional repair kit, you’ll be able to make more than the gray skies clear up. You don’t have to be held hostage to your gut, your thalamus, or even your amygdala. Focus on the thoughts that precede your emotions and you’ll find that you can control your mood. And remember to smile!

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2012


Ellsworth, P.C. (1994) William James and emotion: Is a century of fame worth a century of misunderstanding? Psychological Review, 101, 222-229.

More from Susan Krauss Whitbourne PhD, ABPP
More from Psychology Today