A “common sense” theory of emotion views emotional reactions in interpersonal situations as a physiological reaction “caused” by something another person did.  This idea is captured in a statement such as “You made me so angry when you stood me up!”  Further, such emotional experiences are described as “normal”.   In other words, someone stands me up that “causes” me to be angry (hurt, anxious, pissed, annoyed, irritated, etc. etc.), which is a “normal” reaction to being stood up.  What follows is usually some reactive action (yelling, not speaking to the person, retaliating in some way) that is justified by the “normal” reaction of being angry at being stood up.  Implicit in this “common sense” theory of emotion is a very widely held view that emotions are distinct states with corresponding distinct brain states, e.g. there is a set of “anger neurons that are trigged when your co-worker does something that annoys you.

There is a growing body of research carried out by Lisa Feldman Barrett and her colleagues at the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory at Northwestern University that offer us a new way to look at emotions.   According to this new approach, emotions, even the basic ones like fear, anger, sadness, happiness and disgust, are not distinct entities inside us.  Overall, Feldman Barrett’s research found that no brain region is dedicated to any single emotion.  Furthermore, every supposed emotional brain region is also activated during non-emotional thoughts and perceptions.

This research challenges the view that we can easily and neatly distinguish between emotion and thought and the idea that our emotions are “things” in our brain.  Feldman Barrett challenges the idea that there are unique biological “fingerprints” of each psychologically identifiable emotion that can be identified from your facial muscle movements, your body changes, and your brain’s electrical signals.ID-100122588

Emotions like “anger”, “happiness”, and “fear” refer to diverse biological states that vary depending upon the context or situation in which they occur.   For Feldman Barrett, “When you’re angry with your co-worker, sometimes your heart rate will increase, other times it will decrease and still other times it will stay the same.  You might scowl or you might smile as you plot your revenge.  You might shout or be silent. Variation is the norm.”

Given this approach, how do we understand our emotional reactions?  How can we understand what context means when it comes to understanding and managing our emotions?  How do we assess the context in which our emotions occur so that we can better understand and manage them?  There are two ways to think about context: (1) the current situation we are in, and (2) our own history, the historical context.

Your emotional reactions need to be understood in terms of your own unique history.  Generally speaking, the way we react emotionally and understand our emotions evolve in the context of our relationships with our early caregivers and how they respond to us.  Every child needs every-day sustaining help, needs comfort and reassurance, and the experience of cognitive mastery.

Early fear and anxiety are related to the growing awareness that we have little control over whether and how others provide the things we need to survive and flourish.  Anger likely develops because others will not or do not respond well to our need for help, love and reassurance, and mastery of our world.  Anger at the unwillingness or inability of our caregivers to provide for us also challenges the child’s sense of omnipotence, i.e. the fundamental wish or belief that he/she is entitled to have all its wants fulfilled on demand.  Of course, all emotions begin in very rudimentary, ill-defined form and become more refined over time with maturation and the changing nature of these caretaking relationships and our relationships with others.

ID-100290105The best way to understand your emotions-in-context such as anger, fear, and the catch-all hurt is to is to know that you are reacting personally to the interpersonal situation.  Taking something personally means that your own personal history is being played out in the current interpersonal situation.  It means that whatever is going on in the current situation, it is being experienced in terms of your own long history of others going all the way to childhood.  Thinking of emotions (particularly anger, fear, and hurt) as emotions-in-context tells us to be cautious about how are interpreting the current situation.  The current situation is not the same as past situations but it can feel the same.

Taking something personally happens when you portray what the other person is doing only in terms of how you experience it.  How you experience someone else’s actions, while important to you, is not the only way to describe other’s actions. 

Some examples:

  • “I am angry because you are not doing your fair share of the work.”
  • “I can’t believe you are ignoring me like that.”
  • “My opinion doesn’t count; You treat me like a second-class citizen in this relationship.”
  • “You spend so much money on things that are not important; you’re so selfish.
  • “You always want to have sex.…you’re a sex addict.”

In each of these statements, the items in bold are you portraying or characterizing another person’s action.  This is your experience of the situation, taken without talking to the other person about how he/she sees the situation.  Others rarely, if ever, experience their own actions in the same way that you are characterize it.  That sense of “unfairness” in the example above is your personal experience of the situation.  The feeling of being “ignored”, etc. is significant for you on a personal level.

Let’s use “feeling ignored” as an example of how we can be affected by earlier childhood experience.  To understand the experience of “being ignored” we have to think about a child’s experience of not being paid attention to in a way he wants, which is a description of what is happening to the child.

Let’s imagine a child in the following situation with his dad:  One Sunday his dad is enjoying reading the newspaper, preoccupied with what he wants to do.  His son approaches and interrupts him asking him to play a game with him; he wants some attention from his dad who is usually very attentive.  The dad is doing something he really enjoys and responds to the boy with a sharp tone, “Can’t you see I’m busy? Don’t bother me.”   This is not abuse, it’s an adult being interested in something he wants to do and failing to appreciate how his child experiences his words and deeds.

Children cannot be objective about themselves to know that they are okay even if they are in trouble or don’t get what they need or want.  They cannot evaluate how they are doing in the world separately from how they think others see them, particularly their parents.  This inability to think objectively about oneself is a characteristic of the nature of childhood cognition.

The boy in the example experiences his father’s lack of acknowledgement of his wish as if father is saying something is wrong with him.   It is as if the child said to himself, “If there weren’t something wrong with me or what I want, it would have been attended to.”  The child is thinking personally; it must be about him as a person.   Of course, father, like lots of parents, forgot how children think and therefore, failed to realize how his child is experiencing the interaction with him (father).  Over time with repeated experiences like this the child can develop a generalized experience of “not being good enough”, not being worthy.

By the way, responding appropriately to children does not mean either immediate or even delayed gratification of their requests.  It does mean openly acknowledging the want and that it is important.  This acknowledgement of the child’s wants supports his own feeling of being valued and important, i.e. being “enough” as a human being. To not be attended to, to not have what you want acknowledged, is to be “ignored” and it is personal to a child!

These kinds of incidences happen to children all the time.  Over time, as children we experience anxiety, fear, anger in such events and our mind and body prepare us to protect ourselves from the threat of what we experience as something wanting in ourselves; it is as if some “fatal flaw” has been exposed to others such that they will reject, humiliate, avoid, criticize, ridicule, and/or harm us.  Over time we conjure up defenses against such flaws and our body prepares us for “fight or flight”.

Over time you will develop a ‘quick response system’ that will include making a quick ‘interpretation’ of the situation that will be based more on your own history than on the current situation.  That is, you will ‘characterize’ the other person’s action in terms of what it means to you personally.

In the example, “I am angry because you are not doing your fair share of the work.”, you are characterizing the others behavior as “unfair”.  This is your experience of the situation, taken without talking to your co-worker about how he/she sees the situation.  As noted, others rarely experience their own actions in the same way that you characterize it.  That sense of “unfairness” in the example above is your personal experience of the situation; it is not an objective assessment of the situation.  It is up to you to examine what about ‘fairness/unfairness’ is significant for you on a personal level.

Now that you get it, i.e. “I am angry because you are not doing your fair share of the work.” indicates your personal experience of a situation, what is the alternative?

Given that you recognize your personal take on the situation, and have given yourself time to reflect, you are in a position to assess the way in with the situation is problematic for you.  In the situation presented, you may see that your co-worker is not doing all the work assigned to him/her, is not completing work assigned, is doing other than assigned work.  The problem is that this affects the work other others, including you, in the office.  All of these assessments are descriptions of what may be occurring that are creating a problem for you at the work situation.  All of these descriptions pose ways to address the work problem.  Such descriptions of problems open that way for negotiation.  It may not always work out; negotiation may not be possible because the other person reacts, does not want to negotiate work tasks, or is not accessible.  You may have to go some other route, e.g. speak to a manager, go to human resources, decide to move on etc.

Here are the takeaways from this post:

  • Emotions are not “things” in your brain; there is no such thing as “anger neurons”
  • What you feel depends on your own history with others and the current situation
  • Recognize your personal take on the situation
  • Learn to describe not characterize
  • Once you can describe the situation, you can define the problem
  • Make your best effort to discuss the problem


Barrett, L. F.  “What Emotions Are (And Aren’t)”.   New York Times, Sunday, January 17, 2016.

Barrett, L.  (2006). Are Emotions Natural Kinds? Perspectives in Psychological Science.  Vol.1(1) 28-58

Barrett, L.  (2006). Solving the Emotion Paradox: Categorization and the Experience of Emotion.  Personality and Social Psychology Review.  Vol 10 (1) 20-46.

Nussbaum, Martha (2003). Upheavals of Thought.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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