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Feeling emotional? The difference between feelings and emotions

May 20, 2022 - 14 min read


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Feelings vs. emotions: what’s the difference?

Feelings, emotions, and your mental health

4 tips for managing your feelings and emotions

The bottom line

Some days, it would be easier to be a robot.

They’re smart, have superhuman strength, and don’t have to deal with the messiness of human emotions. But robots, for all of their brilliance, miss out on the beautiful parts of life — including the mess. Instead of abandoning our emotions, we must live harmoniously with them. 

And to do that, we have to understand how emotions and feelings work.

Scientists and philosophers have tried to understand how the mind works for hundreds of years. And with the rise of neuroscience and advanced psychology, we’ve come a long way.

We now know there’s a difference between feelings and emotions — and they affect our behavior differently, too. Understanding them can improve your relationships alongside your mental and emotional health.

Here’s how to understand emotions and feelings and some tips for managing them.


Feelings vs. emotions: what’s the difference?

People often conflate feelings and emotions, and it’s easy to understand why. Feelings can’t exist without emotions, whereas emotions primarily exist independently. Let’s dive in to understand them better.

What are emotions?

Emotions are natural to all humans, regardless of culture. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio theorized that they originate in the amygdala limbic system — one of the brain's cortices that determines human reactions to stimuli. This brain activity affects our human behavior, and emotional responses, and can even cause physical sensations (also known as a somatic response).

For example, if we encounter a dangerous animal in the wild, only one emotion makes sense: Fear. This is a primal, genetic emotion. Fear increases our heart rate, tells us that a situation is unsafe, and demands that we do something about it.

We might choose to run away or coordinate an attack on the predator, but either way, fear is what drives us to act.

There are eight of these primal, negative or positive emotions that all humans experience. They have many synonyms, but here are the basics of our emotional wheel

    1. Joy occurs when we experience something exciting and positive
    2. Sadness occurs when we experience a loss
    3. Anger drives us to act when we’re betrayed
    4. Fear  is our response to danger
    5. Happiness appears when we feel safe and cared for
    6. Disgust is our response to unpleasant things
    7. Trust is our admiration and acceptance of others
    8. Anticipation is anything from interest to curiosity and awareness

Some therapists use a tool called the emotion wheel to help clients pinpoint how they feel. There are a few different versions, but the basic one identifies 8 core emotions.

Why do we have emotions?

Emotions dictate our response to most stimuli, whether that determines what’s important or harmful to us. Without our emotions, we’d have terrible social skills, poor instincts, and no ability to behave appropriately in difficult situations.

Dealing with unconscious emotions

The thing with emotions is they’re always present, even if we’re not aware of them. Suppressing or ignoring them can lead to toxic behaviors and poor mental health, which is why psychotherapists have their clients identify their emotions; once they do, they can break out of those toxic cycles and address those emotions head-on.


Understanding your emotional state is critical to succeeding in your personal life and workplace. It will improve your emotional intelligence and decision-making and help you find emotional balance.

Working with a BetterUp coach can help develop the skills you need to keep you grounded, communicate your emotions, and improve your mental fitness.

What are feelings?

Feelings are related to basic emotions, but they play a different role in our lives. Here’s how both work together to shape your experiences.

1. Feelings are more specific than emotions

While there are six universal emotions, human beings can experience them differently. For example, we might experience “anger” through feelings of aggression, vengefulness, or resentfulness. These are different expressions of that core emotion. They’re more specific than simply saying, “I’m angry.”

2. Feelings are our learned response to an emotional trigger

Even though everyone is capable of joy and fear, every person will have a different experience of emotion. Our learned and unconscious mental associations will determine this subjective experience.

Let’s say you have arachnophobia. At some point in your life, because of a negative experience, you learned that you should respond to spiders with horror.

But here’s the thing. That feeling of horror is just one way to experience fear. There are other ways of responding to that emotion. Someone might feel thrilled when they’re afraid, so even though you both fear the spider, you’ll react differently.

3. Feelings are conscious experiences of sometimes unconscious emotions — often because of trauma

Feelings can manifest as conscious thoughts of unconscious negative emotions.

Some adults grow resentful of their parents, but there could be many underlying emotions to that feeling; as a child, you may have experienced fear due to parental abuse or been angry because of your parents’ divorce.

These traumatic emotions can be invisible to us for a long time. And, unless we identify them, our feelings can fester and damage our mental health. 

If you think this is the case for you, we recommend seeing a therapist or mental health professional to work through traumatic experiences.

4. Your environment can influence your feelings

Our family, social circles, faith, and culture determine how we respond to certain emotions. 

For example, social circles that promote toxic masculinity may cause men to express emotions in unhealthy ways. In these environments, they’re often shamed for expressing feelings related to sadness (e.g. “boys don’t cry! Why don’t you man up?”).

This kind of conditioning teaches men to express this emotion through rage, substance abuse, or eating disorders. These are unhealthy responses to an otherwise healthy emotion. 

Religion and culture can also influence how we process death and bereavement. In the United States, holding a wake, funeral, memorial, and post-funeral service is common — traditions that are heavily influenced by Catholicism. It’s usually a somber affair.

In South Africa, however, some mourners have a slightly different approach. They still experience grief and sadness, but quickly move to an “after tears” party. These celebrations focus on comforting surviving relatives and remembering the deceased with affection. 

Both cultures experience feelings of grief and sadness, but choose to approach them in different ways.

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Feelings, emotions, and your mental health

Navigating your inner world can be overwhelming. Feelings and emotions are messy, and it isn’t easy to see how they influence your behavior.

But, if left unmanaged, they can have serious effects. People with unacknowledged emotions and traumas can develop substance abuse disorders, anxiety, and depression, among other mental health challenges. They may also express their emotions in unhealthy ways, hurting the people around them.

At the office, this could mean narcissistic behavior like taking credit for someone else’s work, but it might come out as frequent spontaneous crying at home.

If your behavior hurts you or other people, it might be time to seek professional help.

4 tips for managing your feelings and emotions

Short of professional help, there are many things you can do at home to manage your feelings and emotions. Here are four things you can try:

1. Acknowledge your emotions — don’t suppress them

Emotions are a natural part of life. Repressing them will only lead to problems down the road. They can cause even cause issues to your physical state of being, like:

Try to name what you’re feeling. Sometimes that’s all it takes to reduce their power over you. Plus, if you can identify your feelings, you can take action to mitigate them.


2. Accept your emotions

“Accepting” and “acknowledging” aren’t the same thing. It’s one thing to name your emotions; it’s another to allow them to exist within you. If you can accept that emotions will always play a part in your life, you can work towards being comfortable with them.

3. Breathe

When experiencing intense emotions, our minds race in every direction. Slow, deep breaths help bring us back to reality. 

Part of this has to do with biology. When you breathe slowly, it reminds your brain that you aren’t in danger. How could you be? If you were, you’d likely be running away, full of adrenaline and out of breath. Breathing reminds us that we’re, in fact, safe.

Breathing also helps redirect your attention. It focuses your mind on your body rather than your emotions.


4. Learn how and when to express yourself

Our emotions need release, one way or another. It’s your job to find healthy ways for that to happen. You might need to cry if you’re sad or scream into a pillow if you’re angry, but the point is to avoid directing your emotions at others.


The bottom line

Suppressing your feelings and emotions is like swimming against the tide. Doing so will only leave you out of breath, and tired, and put you in danger of drowning. It’s easier to go with the flow. Let the emotions run through you — the good and the bad.

A peak can’t exist without a valley, and knowing why feelings are important will help you accept them. 

Emotional regulation can be difficult. That’s why it’s important to develop your coping skills now — before your feelings become overwhelming.

BetterUp can help. Through confidential one-on-one sessions, our coaches will help you understand your feelings, set clear boundaries, and discover the value of intentional self-care. You can’t avoid emotional moments — and they add spice to life.

But, with the right tools, you can process them in a healthy way.

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Published May 20, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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