What Are Emotions?


Recently, I was asked by several organizations and churches to do some work with their staff on the topic of EQ or Emotional Intelligence. Not only was I impressed that these organizations were requesting this kind of training, I was also excited about the opportunity to do some research and develop 4-5 sessions on the topic.

What started as a deep dive into EQ sent me to a much more basic question; "What are Emotions?" This is not an easy question to answer but it is essential if you are going to grow in EQ; which everyone can.

In his groundbreaking book, Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More than IQ (1995), Daniel Goleman defines emotions this way:

All emotions are, in essence, impulses to act, the instant plans for handling life that evolution has instilled in us. The very root of the word emotion is motere, the Latin verb “to move,” plus the prefix “e-” to connote “move away,” suggesting that a tendency to act is implicit in every emotion (p.6)
A word about what I refer to under the rubric emotion, a term whose precise meaning psychologists and philosophers have quibbled over for more than a century. In its most literal sense, The Oxford English Dictionary defines emotion as “any agitation or disturbance of mind, feeling, passion: any vehement or excited mental state.” I take emotion to refer to a feeling and its distinctive thoughts, psychological and biological states, and range of propensities to act. There are hundreds of emotions, along with their blends, variations, mutations, and nuances. Indeed, there are many more subtleties of emotion than we have words for (p.289).

In other words, emotions are what propel us into action. They are a vital part of what it means to be human. Without emotion, we would cease to act. While Goleman says that the nuances of emotions are endless, there are a variety of "families" of emotions that we are able to identify. Here are 10:

1. Anger: fury, outrage, resentment, wrath, exasperation, indignation, vexation, acrimony, animosity, annoyance, irritability, hostility, and, perhaps at the extreme, pathological hatred and violence.
2. Sadness: grief, sorrow, cheerlessness, gloom, melancholy, self-pity, loneliness, dejection, despair, and, when pathological, severe depression.
3. Fear: anxiety, apprehension, nervousness, concern, consternation, misgiving, wariness, qualm, edginess, dread, fright, terror (phobia and panic).
4. Enjoyment: happiness, joy, relief, contentment, bliss, delight, amusement, pride, sensual pleasure, thrill, rapture, gratification, satisfaction, euphoria, whimsy, ecstasy (mania).
5. Love: acceptance, friendliness, trust, kindness, affinity, devotion, adoration, infatuation, agape.
6. Surprise: shock, astonishment, amazement, wonder.
7. Disgust: contempt, disdain, scorn, abhorrence, aversion, distaste, revulsion.
8. Shame: guilt, embarrassment, chagrin, remorse, humiliation, regret, mortification, and contrition.
9. Inadequacy: helpless, inferior, powerless, incompetent, useless, inept, mediocre.
10. Confusion: distracted, rattled, baffled, bewildered, mystified, flustered, perplexed, jarred, puzzled, jolted.

According to research, in order to grow in EQ, you have to be able to identify and name emotions when you experience them. As you do this, you are more able to empathize with the emotions of others.

Scripture is a book that is very much at home with emotions. The Psalms are the most obvious place to look for them. You will see most if not all of the 10 listed above. All of them can be expressed in helpful and wise ways or unhelpful and unwise ways. They can be expressed in such a way that builds others up or tears someone down. The challenge is managing them wisely. That is a key aspect of EQ.

How are you doing with identifying emotions in your life? Perhaps you could be more mindful of them as you go throughout your day. As you do, take moments to record your emotions and identify them as carefully as possible. This is a very important aspect of growing in wisdom and grace.

Copyright © 2018 Timothy S. Lane


Tim Lane

Dr. Timothy S. Lane is the President of the Institute for Pastoral Care and has a counseling practice in Fayetteville, GA. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), having been ordained in 1991 and a member of Metro-Atlanta Presbytery. Tim has authored Living Without Worry: How to Replace Anxiety with Peace, and co-authored How People Change and Relationships: A Mess Worth Making. He has written several mini-books including PTSD, Forgiving Others, Sex Before Marriage, Family Feuds, Conflict, and Freedom From Guilt.

He has experience in both campus ministry (University of Georgia, 1984-1987) and pastoral ministry where he served as a pastor in Clemson, SC from 1991 until 2001. Beginning in 2001 until 2013, he served as a counselor and faculty at a counseling organization  in Philadelphia, PA. Beginning in 2007, he served as its Executive Director until 2013.

In 2014, Tim and his family re-located to his home state, Georgia, where he formed the non profit ministry the Institute for Pastoral Care. His primary desire and commitment is to help pastors and leaders create or improve their ability to care for the people who attend their churches. For more information about this aspect of Tim's work, please visit the section of this site for the Institute for Pastoral Care. He continues to write, speak and travel both nationally and internationally. Tim is adjunct professor of practical theology at several seminaries where he teaches about pastoral care in the local church.