What is an emotion

Ever feel like emotions are just a tangled mess of confusion and annoyance? You’re not alone. But hold on tight because here’s the game-changer: there’s a definition of emotions that’s about to unravel the mystery of the human condition for you. Ready for a perspective shift? Let’s dive in!


What is an emotion

Dr. Leslie Greenberg, a distinguished research professor emeritus at York University in Canada and a developer of emotion-focused therapy, lays it all out in an easy-to-understand way.  

He generally describes it as an action tendency, indicating a predisposition to act in a certain way

We are born with an innate emotional system. It’s your built-in, natural way of feeling and expressing emotions. It’s like your emotional software that comes pre-installed. We can experience anger, sadness, fear, and joy early on. Emotions are not only individual experiences but also serve as a communication system in social environments. 

Emotions can prompt a wide range of actions, and the specific actions depend on the emotion’s nature and the situation’s context. For example, fear may prompt actions like running away or approaching cautiously, anger expressing frustration, setting boundaries and happiness, engaging in social activities, and expressing joy.

Emotion serves as a primary meaning system, providing information about how to react to a given situation. It conveys a sense of orientation and guides us in responding to diverse situations.

Emotions prompt immediate actions and influence more complex behaviors and decision-making processes. Additionally, we may express and cope with emotions differently based on cultural, personal, and situational factors. 

Emotions are adaptive responses that guide us in navigating our environment and relationships.

Adaptive and maladaptive emotions

An adaptive emotion is a primary emotion that serves a functional purpose in guiding our responses to our environment. These emotions are considered beneficial for survival, providing essential information and orientation in various situations. Adaptive emotions help us react appropriately to stimuli, contributing to our well-being.

In contrast, maladaptive emotions, often stemming from trauma or negative experiences, may no longer serve a functional purpose and can be detrimental to our mental health. Let’s explore examples of both adaptive and maladaptive emotions.

Example 1: A person walks alone in a dimly lit area and hears footsteps behind them. The person’s body prepares for a quick response, such as increasing heart rate and heightened awareness. Fear in this context is adaptive, signaling a potential threat and preparing the individual to take precautionary measures like walking faster, finding a well-lit area, or being alert to their surroundings.

Example 2: Someone receives constructive feedback at work, suggesting areas for improvement. The person reacts with intense anger, becoming defensive and argumentative. While anger can be a normal response to feedback, the intensity and defensive reaction in this situation are disproportionate. It hinders constructive dialogue and collaboration, making it a maladaptive emotional reaction.

These examples illustrate how emotions can be adaptive or maladaptive based on the context and the appropriateness of the emotional response to the situation. Adaptive emotions help individuals navigate challenges effectively, while maladaptive emotions can hinder well-being and social interactions.

Emotions often operate unconsciously, guiding decisions and actions before conscious awareness. The brain’s rapid processing of emotional stimuli leads to automatic reactions.

Emotions are dynamic and fluid, continually influencing and being influenced by experiences. They are not fixed entities but responsive elements that adapt to changing circumstances.

Primary and secondary emotions

Dr. Leslie Greenberg also describes emotions as primary and secondary.

Primary emotions are described as the first and immediate emotional responses that individuals feel in reaction to a given situation. These emotions are the initial, instinctual reactions that provide information about how to react to a situation. They are often considered more straightforward and fundamental.

Secondary emotions are emotions that come after the primary emotions. They are characterized as reactions to the primary emotions and can be more complex.

Dr. Greenberg highlights that secondary emotions often involve cognitive processes and may not be the first emotional response to a situation. They can arise as individuals reflect on or interpret their initial emotional reactions.

Example: Imagine a person receiving unexpected news of success in their career. The immediate emotional response might be joy or happiness. In this scenario, joy is considered a primary emotion. Using the same scenario, let’s say the person, despite feeling joy initially, starts to feel a sense of guilt because their success might have overshadowed a colleague’s efforts. Here, guilt is a secondary emotion, as it arises as a reaction to the primary emotion of joy.

Dr. Greenberg emphasizes that while primary emotions are generally adaptive and provide valuable information, secondary emotions can sometimes obscure what is happening. 

He also notes that emotions are not static and can evolve based on life experiences. For example, reactions to current situations may be influenced by past traumatic experiences.

Understanding the distinction between primary and secondary emotions is essential for effective emotional processing and regulation, particularly in therapeutic approaches such as emotion-focused therapy.