Wright Foundation | May 11, 2017

How to Understand Your Emotions: What Am I Feeling & Why?

Fear. Hurt. Anger. Sadness. Joy. These core emotions are at the heart of our behavior. They drive us and they form the base of what we feel almost all the time.

Learning how to understand your emotions takes time, skill, and dedication to bringing out your best, most engaged self.


Even secondary emotions (like jealousy or guilt) are often based on some combination of those five core emotions.

So if we all feel them and we’ve all experienced them, why are so many of us so uncomfortable with fear, hurt, anger, sadness and joy? It can be hard to know how to understand your emotions, let alone deal with them and regulate them.

Emotions don’t have to be positive (and many aren’t) but they can be used to strengthen our positive outlook and our actions.

During our group classes and weekend retreats, we make it a policy that participants can shout out their emotions whenever they feel them. Yes, it feels awkward at first. (Believe me, I’m often speaking on stage and interrupting myself with “Fear!” or “Joy!”)

At first, participants usually wonder, Why on earth are they making us say our feelings out loud?? Is it just to make everyone else laugh or to make people think I have some sort of verbal tick?

No, of course not.

We do this exercise because the act of identifying our core emotions is at the core of transformational behavior. We cannot shift our beliefs and address our limiting mindsets if we don’t understand and fully allow ourselves to experience the emotions behind them.


Where Do Emotions Come From?

As babies and young children, we’re totally in touch with our emotional core. We know what we’re feeling…and it’s very transparent.

Think of a young child—their emotions are often raw, visceral, and obvious. Give a toddler candy and they experience joy! Take the candy away and they experience anger, hurt, or even fear.

Mothers of young infants know—babies can pick up on facial expressions and verbal tone right away. They are very intuitive when it comes to emotions because they’re just starting to grasp and understand them. They haven’t yet learned to “act” like adults.

In fact, in one Harvard study, mothers were given instructions to show no emotions or blankly stare at their baby for one minute. At first, the babies displayed confusion. They tried to mimic their mother’s face. They even smiled, laughed and cooed, trying to elicit a warm response from their mom. But quickly the babies sensed something was wrong and Mom’s lack of response caused them to experience fear. Unable to pick up on what Mom was communicating and feeling left them feeling very insecure and upset. Within just one minute or less, the babies in the study were all in full meltdown mode.

Then the researchers did the opposite. Mom was able to comfort the baby and the baby was quickly calmed and happy. As soon as mom could express emotion, the babies felt the connection and were sated.

Unfortunately, as we grow up, we learn to hold back our emotions. We learn that it’s not okay to be too emotional. How many of us have been told, “Don’t be so emotional” or “Don’t get so upset about it”?

This leads to the limiting belief that our emotions aren’t okay. That they’re too much. That we’re too much. That our emotions have made us hysterical or annoying. That we “need to calm down.”

You know what? Let it out!

It’s okay to feel! It’s okay to have emotions! Emotions are healthy and propel us forward. In fact, the Latin root of emotion is the same as motion and motivation—all meaning to move forward. Emotions spur us to action.

Researchers discovered that people who had tumors or damage to the emotional centers of their brain had trouble making even the simplest choices. What to eat? What to wear? Whether to turn left or right? They were paralyzed by the lack of a “gut instinct.” These choices—all choices—are fueled by our emotions.

At our very core, our emotions and emotional connections help us communicate and understand each other. Many of us have spent a lifetime trying to tamp down our emotions and limit our expression, while inside there’s this screaming baby who just wants to connect and understand.

Our emotions are at the heart of our truth. For others to see us for who we really are, we have to express our emotions and embrace them. We have to be real. That means it’s okay to say what we’re feeling. In fact, identifying and labeling our emotions can help us reach our authentic core. It gets us back to those feelings—hurt, anger, sadness, fear and joy.

Rational Thought and Emotion

Many of us think of emotion as the opposite of rationalism. Emotional people seem “flighty” or “flaky,” right? We think rational means stoic and deliberate. Really, the opposite is true.


Rather than being a mistake or leading us off-track, emotions are designed to keep us on track. Each emotion is evolutionarily dedicated to give the resources we need to contend with the very situation that evoked the emotion to begin with. How cool is that?
Neuroscience research shows that our emotions anticipate our needs and prepare us to act. As the arbiters of our pleasure-pain mechanism, emotions are designed to move us toward pleasure and away from unnecessary pain. For instance, fear warns us against the danger of an approaching saber-toothed tiger and triggers the body to respond appropriately—by running away. Anger lets us know that a given situation is violating our values or is wrong in some other way—a painful experience—and causes us to take action that leads to a more pleasurable outcome. And when these emotion-specific resources are unlocked, they are accompanied by a sense of energy and vitality, broader awareness, openness and a sense of well-being.
Emotions don’t “get in the way of” rational thinking—they are essential to rationality.”
–from Transformed! The Science of Spectacular Living


So the next time someone says “You’re too emotional” or “Why are you getting so upset?” Look them straight in the eye and thank them! They’re actually implying you are rational and in touch with your core emotions!

Drilling down to the core of what we’re feeling can help us learn to “up-regulate” or “down-regulate.” This is another way of saying that this process helps us “adjust our attitude.”

Order your copy of Transformed! today to learn other ways to use your emotional intelligence to achieve success. 

If we know we’re feeling fear, we can look at why we’re feeling it. What is causing the fear and is it propelling us forward or holding us back?

If we’re feeling sadness, we can discover where that sadness is coming from and how it might play into other secondary emotions like guilt, depression or frustration. By identifying the core emotions behind our feelings, we learn how to use them as a force for positive action.

Our emotions help us recognize what matters most to us. What ticks us off? What blisses us out? We can use that to drive us further toward our purpose and our happiness.

So go ahead—embrace your emotions! The next time you’re feeling fear or hurt or joy, blurt it out! Say, “I’m feeling joy!” or “I’m feeling fear!” and pat yourself on the back. Emotions are at the core of being a rational, developed human being!

For more on how you can learn to live your life fully and embrace all of your emotions, please visit the Wright Foundation. Join us on the path to living your best life.

Discover more of yourself and your emotions at the next More Life Training!

The Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential is a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Living performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.