Emotions Are Everything

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It is a cliche that therapists ask the question, “How does that make you feel?” However, one thing I have learned about human motivation after 10 ½ years in the counseling field is that feelings, or rather emotions, are everything. You may be familiar with the behavioral psychology concepts of positive and negative reinforcement, but that is just surface level stuff. The internal mood states experienced by individuals are what really drive behavior and preferences.

That may sound simplistic, sentimental, perhaps even anti-intellectual. Nothing could be further from the truth. Emotions are powerful. Before the cognitive processing abilities of your frontal lobes were developed, before you were able to encode memories using language to assign meaning, you were experiencing the world emotionally, deep within the limbic system of your growing brain. Emotions were shaping your concepts of the world before you even knew you were distinct from the world.

People do things that create or result in positive mood changes. Now, a behavior itself might not be “positive” in and of itself according to certain standards or perspectives, but the individual subjectively experiences the mood change as desirable. When you listen to your favorite music, watch your favorite movie, or eat your favorite food, you experience a mood change. When I drink a cup of coffee, lay in a hammock, or hug my children, I experience positive mood change. The physical markers of this involve surges in neurotransmitters and other physiological responses.

Now, William Glasser observed that while we can directly control our thoughts (cognition) and actions (behavior), we do not have direct control over our emotions or physiology. But we do have indirect control. If somebody is experiencing a negative mood state and finds a way to experience a positive mood change, the reinforcing of that behavior will be magnified. The more powerful the mood change, the more the behavior will be reinforced. A teenager seeing their favorite band in concert and belting along with their favorite songs is experiencing a powerful mood change. A gambling addict pulling the lever of a slot machine experiences a powerful mood change. These are emotional highs.

Of course, other factors such as worldview, core beliefs, core values, temperament, and genetics mediate what we experience as “positive” or “desirable.” An identical behavior will result in “positive” mood change for one person and “negative” mood change in another. For example, somebody may light up a cigarette and feel rebellious, satisfied, cool, connected, and/or energized. If it were me, I would feel unsatisfied, contaminated, unhealthy, and seedy. People who overeat feel full, nurtured, and safe when they indulge in food. People who restrict themselves from food may feel powerful, in control, and confident.

Abandon your simple ‘mad, sad, glad, scared’ list of feeling words and go deep. If you want to start to understand your own behavior better, start to analyze the exact emotions you experience when you engage in that behavior. For example, when I listen to my favorite music, the songs that really do it for me, I tend to feel a combination of mournful, sensuous, validated, and powerful. Get a thesaurus if you need so that you can accurately identify the specific feelings involved in your mood changes.