Feelings and emotions sound like the same thing, but they aren't. Ancient philosophers and contemporary scientists distinguish the two. Yet confusing the two often causes suffering. To see why let's discuss two strategies of responding to negative feelings.
Some ignore or hide the way they feel. Imagine someone who bottles everything up. They seek to be a cold iron fortress, never disturbed by pain or anxiety. They are largely successful and have an emotionally muted existence. But occasionally, their protective wall breaks. You can call this person the repressive.
Then imagine someone for whom every feeling determines their reality. The sensation feeds thoughts like "I am not loved," "the world is unjust and unfair," and "nothing works." When they feel happy, then the world is colored in a much brighter fashion. Thoughts like "I am loved," "the world is beautiful," and "everything works out" fill their day. This person is at the mercy of their feelings. You can call this person the rollercoaster.
These two people are making the same kind of mistake: confusing feelings and emotions.
Given that we use the two words interchangeably, this may be surprising. But the ancient philosophy of Stoicism and modern sciences distinguish them, unlocking a way to avoid becoming either the repressive or the rollercoaster.
The distinction falls out of the realization that our emotional experience is deeply tied to our judgments. It's not just what one feels, but what one thinks that colors our experience. Hence, psychotherapists moved away from analyzing subconscious motives and towards discussing their patient's thought patterns and beliefs. They adopted the cognitive model of emotion. This model predicts that our beliefs shape our emotions. But this is an insight that one can have without the tools and experience of modern psychotherapy. As Roman statesmen, orator, and philosopher Cicero noted:
The mere fact that men endure the same pain more easily when they voluntarily undergo it for the sake of their country than when they suffer it for some lesser cause, shows that the intensity of the pain depends on the state of mind of the sufferer, not on its own intrinsic nature.
In other words, there are feelings and emotions. A feeling, absent a judgment, is a mere sensation. It is only when we judge a pain, whether we judge it unbearable or worth it, that we experience a full-blown emotion. Seneca, the Stoic philosopher, politician, and playwright, describes the idea as:
A man thinks himself injured, wants to be revenged, and then — being dissuaded for some reason — he quickly calms down again. I don't call this anger, but a mental impulse yielding to reason. Anger is that which overleaps reason and carries it away.
The mental impulse or feeling are the sensations in the body. The judgment about whether what is going on is ultimately good or bad; this is emotion.
Hence the Stoic slogan:
Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things.
With the cognitive model of emotion, psychotherapy and Stoicism align. In fact, Stoics' influence on psychotherapy has is well documented. The founders were inspired and influenced by the ancient Greek and Roman philosophy.
Recent work from cognitive science confirms this view. Our emotional responses are not necessarily results of events; rather they are interpretations. There's no single thing "sadness" that is reliably triggered by events in the world. Instead, "sadness" is constructed from our experience. What it is, differs from person to person, from culture to culture.
According to this constructed theory of emotion, emotions are concepts. They are groupings of past experiences, the current state of the world, and the state of one's body. The last bit is surprising but key. Emotions play a role in energy management, and to do this, they need to be responsive to the state of the body.
As behavioral scientist Nick Chater states:
It is our interpretation of the state of our own body that makes us interpret the very same jumbled thoughts as desperate, hopeful or quietly resigned.
Existential dread or rapturous joy may have more to do with the mundanity of managing our body than anything else!
As an example, imagine feelings of warmth rush to one's face. One could interpret it as anger, embarrassment, or affection. We may be more likely to interpret the sensation as anger if we're in a spat, more likely to be embarrassment after saying something awkward, and more likely to experience pride while watching a loved one succeed. Potentially, the sensation may have nothing to do with emotion and more to do with what we eat!
What we think matters. Emotions aren't fated responses to the world. Instead, judgments and experience shape what they are. When asked how much control people have other their emotions, Lisa Feldman Barret, one of the pioneers of the constructed theory of emotion, states:
Your brain is able to take bits and pieces of past experience and combine them in new ways. Think of it like this: if you have a set of general ingredients in your kitchen, you can combine them in novel ways to make new recipes that you've never made before.
In other words, by thinking through our judgments and past experiences, we can control how we respond to the world. So, the Stoic theory of emotion receives support from popular views in contemporary research. There are some differences, of course. The constructed theory of emotion utilizes advances from philosophy, probability, and neuroscience that the Stoics could not access. Further, Stoics may have overemphasized the degree to which we have control over our emotions. Yet the fundamental insight remains: emotions are, in part, the product of reason and judgment.
Now we can return to the repressive and the rollercoaster.
The mistake from the repressive is to treat negative feelings as intrinsically harmful. They do this because they believe that negative feelings are problematic - in other words, they have already constructed the judgments necessary for experiencing negative emotions. The repressive has not taken Epictetus' maxim to heart. By shrinking away from negative feelings, they are affirming the idea that negative feelings are disturbing. This underrates the role that our judgment plays. Further, it ignores the space for simply accepting how we feel.
This strategy has two high costs. First, it encourages avoiding short term discomfort. Sacrificing living according to one's values for the sake of immediate comfort is not a recipe for success. It's optimizing for remorse rather than happiness. Second, the strategy of the repressive also risks ignoring useful information from one's feelings. Feelings and sensations are data, either about the world or the state of one's body - and we become disconnected from them at our peril.
The mistake of the rollercoaster is to treat negative feelings as reality. They move too quickly from feeling to emotion, allowing feelings to dictate their reason. While the repressive life may be emotionally muted, the life of the rollercoaster is out of control. This person is too quick to adopt extreme judgments about the world. Any stress means disaster, while any benefit is a sign of ultimate success. Reality is more complicated.
By handing over the reins, the rollercoaster will make worse decisions than they would otherwise. As Seneca details in On Anger, this is especially apparent in the case of anger and fury, where outbursts can result in irrevocable mistakes. But it can also arrive in more pleasant sensations, as many failed partnerships and marriages show.
Instead of bottling up one's feelings or handing them the keys, the aim is to lives in line with our values. Treat feelings as information. Negative feelings have their roles and uses. They do not always need to be repressed. Do not be blind to one's feelings if something feels off judge, and act appropriately even if it's difficult to explain. Be cognizant of not leaping too quickly from a feeling to an emotion. Not every mental impulse should overleap reason. When appropriate, reframe the sensations of butterflies in the stomach into excitement instead of anxiousness, warmth into love instead of anger. Avoid the mistakes of the rollercoaster and the repressive.