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What Do Your Emotions Mean?

Feelings do not have identical meanings for everyone.

We used to think that emotional responses and feelings had the same meaning for each of us. We believed emotions came from specific places or parts of our brains. We believed we all had the same emotion because the same part of our brain was activated in each of us. Now we understand that emotions come from several brain areas that work together.

We also know that the intricacy of our feelings depends on what we learned as children. Early in life, we are instructed in our families as to how to internally experience as well as externally display our feelings. My colleague, Homer B. Martin, M.D., and I studied the nuances of people’s emotions for a combined 80 years in people who we counseled in long-term psychotherapy. We found surprising differences.

We found vastly different interpretations and displays of emotions and feelings among people. People learned these practices in early childhood by a process we call “emotional conditioning.” These distinct meanings of feelings lead to difficulties in our communications. They cause us to misinterpret what others and we feel. Commonly, we project our feelings onto others. We also accept others’ emotions as our own. I’ll explain how this works by giving examples of nine different emotional responses: crying, good humor, anger, grief, love and affection, erotic attraction, aggression, generosity, and assertiveness.


When we see a person crying, we often believe that the person is sad. If we are empathetic, we feel empathy for them. Some of us are hyper-saddened by the misfortunes of friends, family, and even people with whom we have no connection. We become frustrated by our own inability to address the problems of others. We over-empathize and want to fix the sad person’s problems. As a result, we cry too because we over-empathize.

Thought Catalogue/Unsplash
Source: Thought Catalogue/Unsplash

Other people who cry are not sad at all. Such people may cry when they are angry or inconvenienced. They feel self-pity. For example, such a person may see an ill family member in need of support and comfort. He or she may cry copious tears. But when we question closely we may find he is angry and jealous that his ill relative is getting all the attention and he is getting less attention than usual. Thus, this person cries for himself out of anger, rage, and jealousy.

Good Humor

We stereotype good humor as an ability some people have to stay happy and cheerful under any circumstance.

Some of us use humor to entertain others who are sad, angry, or belligerent. We try to improve others’ moods and get them out of their funk. In such use of humor, we may even ridicule ourselves to make the other person feel better, calm down or not make a scene.

Lidya Nada/Unsplash
Source: Lidya Nada/Unsplash

Others of us use humor and wit to maintain an appearance of unconcern when faced with a serious problem. We might express anxiety over an unexpected problem by laughing. This unconcern may strike others as inappropriate.

Some of us see the humor in unfortunate situations in which another person has misfortune or is a victim. Sometimes humor is displayed as aggression. When others complain about aggressive antagonism, they accuse the victim of being “overly sensitive” or “unable to take a joke.”


Sometimes we express anger in a rare single outburst. This may appear excessive and unreasonable to others. But, if we observed events leading up to the anger outburst, we might see the situation differently.

We might see the outburst as both reasonable and also restrained. Some of us restrain anger and hold it in for long periods. This can be true even if we are constantly provoked and abused. We may believe getting angry is unreasonable. But, when provoked, we all have our limits. So when we finally get angry, we are not having unreasonable anger. Others may wonder, what took us so long to get mad.

Icons8 Team/Unsplash
Source: Icons8 Team/Unsplash

Others of us get angry and explode with the slightest disappointment. The anger is excessive for the circumstance and is directed outward to others. We show poor self-control and intimidate our targets. Often, others overlook our excessive rage over a minuscule personal concern and forgive or rationalize our outbursts.


We think of grieving as a normal process. It comes out of anguish when someone has died or when some loss has taken place. Some of us grieve for the loss of a valued person and may question whether we did enough to help or rescue the person who died.

Others who experience death or loss grieve for themselves. We may even be angry with the deceased person for leaving us. We may feel victimized by the inconvenience of the loss. Actual sadness may be absent or less intense.

Affection and Love

Some of us display tremendous love and affection toward other people. We focus on their good traits, even when they may have few redeeming features. But, we can lack affection for ourselves and have little self-regard. We may be inclined to have a steadfast commitment toward those we admire or love, but not to ourselves.

Eric Froehling/Unsplash
Source: Eric Froehling/Unsplash

Others of us do not display much affection or love. We may only do so to ensure we get something in return, manipulating another person for our own self-interests. We may be fickle and transfer our love and affection from one person to another with great ease when it serves our interests to do so. We dissolve love relationships on a whim when we feel slighted or do not get what we want from others.

These different expressions of love are baffling, especially to those in dating relationships and in marriages.

Erotic Attraction

When we are erotically attracted to another person we likely assume they feel the same attraction as we do. This may not be so. There may be contradictory reasons for such erotic attractions. Some of us are anxiously attracted sensually to people with a desire to please them in an erotic way. We can be easily manipulated and controlled by others’ erotic desires. We may be taken advantage of sexually.

Others of us act seductively and demonstrate an erotic attraction to gratify ourselves sexually. We do not demonstrate much care for the other person in the erotically charged relationship. We just want our own erotic interests met. We can be sexually predatory.


Mostly, we abhor aggressive displays. We condemn them without a deeper look or question as to what created or caused the person to be aggressive. Some of us rarely are aggressive, even after repeated provocation. When we do blow up aggressively we feel guilty. We are upset with ourselves for our loss of control. We vow never to strike out again with such a blow-up. Actually, we explode due to pent-up feelings from prolonged maltreatment by another person.

Other people readily resort to aggressive tactics as second nature. Such people do not have guilt or remorse about their aggression toward others. They see nothing wrong with their behaviors and are inclined to repeat their aggression with little or no provocation. They resort to aggression to get their way with others. They are deterred from being aggressive only by people who are bigger bullies and who have superior physical strength.


Some of us are giving, supportive and generous with our time, efforts, financial support, and ideas. We may be so generous as to appear masochistic in being too giving. We do not expect gratitude for our generosity and may be quite uncomfortable with any thanks for our efforts. Others may easily exploit us.

Others of us are generous with gifts and entertain with exhibits of great fanfare. We make generous displays to manipulate others to suggest like treatment in return. We welcome others’ generous behaviors toward us. But our generosity carries an implied obligation of debt.


When we see a person being assertive—speaking up or taking action—we may assume he or she is quite confident or even courageous. But a closer look may give us a different picture. Some of us are assertive on behalf of others yet unassertive for our own needs and on our own behalf. Others may see us as being quite passive or cowardly and unable to defend ourselves. In being assertive for others we expose ourselves to extremely hazardous situations with little sense of self-preservation. We see ourselves as weak.

Some of us display haughtiness and intimidation of others through acting assertive. Our forceful attitude masquerades as confidence and courage. But it is a sham. If we are confronted with actual hardship our seeming assertiveness vanishes. We back off and lack resources for dealing with significant conflict, discord, or adversity. We like to act assertively only to bully others.

The reasons for these nine emotional responses can be distinct and can even be opposites. You can see how miscommunication results when we assume another person feels the same as we do and for the same reason.

To improve communication we need to question others to discover not only what they feel but also why they have that feeling. Be prepared to discover they emote differently than you do and that they have different explanations for their feelings.


“How the Brain Processes Emotions” by Heidi Moawad, MD, 5 June, 2017

“Overview of the 6 Major Theories of Emotion” by Kendra Cherry, 17 March, 2019

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