Feelings vs. Emotions: 6 Reasons Why it Can be Helpful to Differentiate Them [2021]

In this article:

  • Introducing Emotions & Feelings
  • Emotions
  • Feelings (aka sensations)
  • Considering socio-cultural impact
  • Why paying attention to both is important
  • 6 reasons why differentiating them can be helpful
Feelings Vs Emotions

It may seem like a matter of semantics–feelings . . . emotions–same, same. Yes, it’s true, we use both interchangeably at times, but it can be helpful to see them as separate for reasons I will discuss further on. Basically put, the difference is this: feelings can be differentiated as literal sensations that are felt in the body. Whereas emotions are specific labels that we give a familiar sensation or combination of sensations which we have learned mean a particular emotion.

It is important to note that there is a lot out there which flip flops this explanation.  The common understanding is that emotions happen first as a chemical reaction and the feelings then emerge as we identify what’s happening for us.  The mechanisms are the same here, but as a somatic therapist, I think it is actually more appropriate to think of feelings as literal sensations (which are initiated by a chemical response to a stimuli) and emotions as the labeling of these stimuli.

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Emotions, Universal and Otherwise

It is generally understood that there are 6 universal emotions.  They include happiness, sadness, fear, disgust, anger, and surprise. This is obviously not a comprehensive list of emotions.  These are just considered the primary emotions that are not culturally bound.  This is not to say that they are expressed in the same way across culture and in fact can look very different depending on family upbringing, ethnicity, race, gender, and overall cultural norms and expectations. 

The emotions wheel, developed by Dr. Gloria Willcox, can be a helpful resource when looking for more nuanced words to describe emotions.

The Emotions Wheel By Best Therapies

Emotions often initially involve the feelings or sensations that arise in the body. Next comes our categorical naming or labeling of these sensations with an emotion word that we’ve learned to connect to the feelings. Finally we often then experience subsequent ideas, concepts, and judgements of the emotion we are experiencing which can become a part of how we experience an emotion. 

Woman Feeling Tensed

Feelings and Sensation Words

As I mentioned above, feelings or sensations are often conflated with emotions, but they are actually the initial que that there is an emotion arising. For example, I sometimes ask my clients things like, how do you know you were angry?  What did it feel like in your body? Where do you usually feel your anxiety?  Is there any place in your body that does not feel guilty? What does that place feel like?

Sensation Words

Feelings of course don’t dissipate after we have identified the emotion.  They are a part of it and can shift and change as an emotion is allowed to be expressed, shared, and moved through. This is a part of the value of emotion focused work; those uncomfortable sensations can change!

The purpose of those sensations, after all, is to get our attention. They are there to tell us something. 

It can be helpful when exploring and communicating sensations to work with a list of sensation words.

Woman Showing Her Angry Emotions

The Importance of Emotions, Feelings and Sociocultural Identities

There is a lot of messaging that comes our way throughout our lives about emotions, feelings, and what it means to pay attention to the expression and needs of our bodies. These messages are different based on our race, gender, socio-economic status, education, size etc. 

For example, cis white men or people who are socialized as male are often given the messaging that expressing emotions is a sign of weakness or of being too “feminine”.  

Anger is the one emotion that is considered “masculine”.  Conversely, a cis man of color, may internalize the idea that he cannot even express anger in fear that this will set him up to be criminalized, or pathologized. 

Meanwhile, cis women or people who have been socialized as female may have a very hard time with expressing anger.  There are racial stereotypes that impact this as well.

Female Expressing Her Anger

Why Do I Need to Acknowledge Feelings and Emotions?

In my clinical opinion, if we don’t learn to locate and acknowledge feelings and allow for our authentic emotions to be communicated within ourselves and in relationship, that ignored feeling in our bodies can cause dis-ease. At the very least, they will come out sideways and in a passive-aggressive way which can cause harm to the people we care about and to ourselves. At worst, they can actually lead to chronic ailments and a diminished immune system which can lead to all types of issues. Repressing emotions can leave us feeling disconnected, confused, depressed, and/or anxious.

Confused, Depressed, and Anxious Man

Some people fear that once they let a difficult emotion in, they will feel that way forever; or they cut the emotion off because they don’t like the actions or behaviors that typically go along with that feeling or emotion.  I have heard it said that emotions “just want to live their little lives.”  Emotions come and they go.  So do feelings.  Once they are really felt and acknowledged, they will change and shift.  They are not made to stay forever. 

Woman Feeling Loneliness

Think of it this way: E=energy so E-motions are energy in motion.  They want and need to move!  The trick is to uncouple the potentially harmful, destructive, or counterproductive actions and behaviors from the feelings in the body. Anger does not need to yell and throw things.  Sadness does not need to completely break down and cry until it hurts.

Sadness completely broke down The Tree

This means that the work is then in finding ways to tolerate uncomfortable or even painful feelings in the body so that we are not driven to enact less than desirable behaviors in order to move the discomfort or to displace it (meaning take it out on someone else).  It can be done!  This change can happen and it can allow for more room to be with your own experience in a way that you are actually needing. 

Different Mindset Of Different People

6 Reasons Why Differentiating Feelings and Emotions Can be Helpful

  1. You may have a feeling come up and struggle to name what the emotion is.  This is a moment when sticking with sensation words could help to define what’s happening for you and eventually lead to defining the emotion. 
  2. It can be helpful, at times, to stick just with emotion words for clarity of communication as we all have a context for what it means to be sad, for example.  In contrast we may have different ideas about feeling tingly in our chest. 
  3. Naming an emotion you are experiencing takes vulnerability which can support interpersonal connection and build empathy and understanding in relationship. 
  4. Identifying and staying with the sensations before labeling them with an emotion can leave room for the experience. This way, we get a chance to feel what we feel without judgement or ideas about certain emotions that can inhibit the process and can even serve to shut it down. 
  5. Naming the emotion can create a container around intense feelings that may feel overwhelming.  Defining your experience in this way can help to get space from the felt sensations but still support processing and self understanding. 
  6. Focusing on feelings and sensations without categorizing them into an emotion can present opportunities to express yourself with more flexibility and nuance rather than act out old patterns connected to specific emotions.  

 

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Conclusion

In the end, both feelings and emotions are so integral to self understanding, clear and effective communication, and building compassion and empathy for self and others. It can feel like scary work to be in touch with this part of yourself, but it is so worth it.  Understanding your own feelings, sensations, and emotional landscape can change many aspects of your life.

6 Responses

  1. This was really helpful and so clearly articulated. I have a hard time identifying the sensations in my body tied to feelings and emotions. I will definitely refer back to this sensation list.

    1. Hi Abby, Thanks so much for your feedback! The sensation lists can be so helpful as it is not a common part of our culture to practice describing our inner sensations!

  2. What a profound piece of writing! This provides such a clear breakdown of both separating feelings and emotions as well as, weaving them. The ability to self track and explore the sensation prior to categorizing it and placing it somewhere gives yourself the opportunity to experience the feelings leading up to identifying the emotion.
    All so important! Such a great read!

  3. I am deeply moved by your ability to translate this in a way that feels accessible. As some one who does not do well with Western education I felt like I could take this in. Thank you for your sharing of this medicine! I am proud of you!

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