What's the Difference Between a Feeling and an Emotion?

Pain is a feeling but not an emotion.

Posted Dec 19, 2014

Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

[Article revised on 1 May 2020.]

Today, the emotions are so neglected that most people are oblivious to the deep currents that move them, hold them back, and lead them astray.

If I say, “I am grateful”, I could mean one of three things: that I am currently feeling grateful for something, that I am generally grateful for that thing, or that I am a grateful kind of person.

Similarly, if I say, “I am proud”, I could mean that I am currently feeling proud about something, that I am generally proud about that thing, or that I am a proud kind of person.

Let us call the first instance (currently feeling proud about something) an emotional experience, the second instance (being generally proud about that thing) an emotion or sentiment, and the third instance (being a proud kind of person), a trait.

It is very common to confuse or amalgamate these three instances, especially the first and the second. But whereas an emotional experience is brief and episodic, an emotion—which may or may not result from accreted emotional experiences—can endure for many years, and, in that time, predispose to a variety of emotional experiences, as well as thoughts, beliefs, desires, and actions.

For instance, love can give rise not only to amorous feelings, but also to joy, grief, rage, longing, and jealousy, among others. 

Similarly, it is very common to confuse emotions and feelings. An emotional experience, by virtue of being a conscious experience, is necessarily a feeling, as are physical sensations such as hunger or pain (although not all conscious experiences are also feelings, not, for example, believing or seeing, presumably because they lack a somatic or bodily dimension).

In contrast, an emotion, being in some sense latent, can only ever be felt, sensu stricto, through the emotional experiences that it gives rise to, even though it might also be discovered through its associated thoughts, beliefs, desires, and actions.

Despite these conscious and unconscious manifestations, emotions need not themselves be conscious, and some emotions, such as hating one’s mother or being in love with one’s best friend, might only be uncovered, let alone admitted, after several years in psychotherapy

If an emotion remains unconscious, this is often through repression or some other form of self-deception. Of course, self-deception can also take place at the level of an emotional experience if it is not acceptable or tolerable, for example, by misattributing the type or intensity of the emotional experience, or misattributing its object or cause. Thus, envy is often construed as indignation, and Schadenfreude (the pleasure derived from the misfortune of others) as sympathy. Fear of ghosts or ‘the dark’ is almost certainly fear of death, since people who have come to terms with death are hardly frightened of such things.

Beyond this, it could be argued that even the purest of emotions is inherently self-deceptive in that it lends weight in our experience to one thing, or some things, over others. In that much, emotions are not objective or neutral perceptions, but subjective ‘ways of seeing’ that reflect our needs and concerns.

Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.