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drawing of body plus story equals emotion

❝World don't stop just because I'm in a bad mood.❞ -NF, "Change"

It's an Olympic year, which usually means we're going to see reporters asking athletes how nervous they were when they were competing. Often, the answer the athletes give is that they weren't nervous but were actually excited.

Emotions are interesting. They seem intuitive - like we should know what they are. And yet, when pressed, many of us don't really know what emotions are or what role they play in our lives.


You are a human. Thus, you experience the human condition. The human condition is what it means to be a human.

drawing of humans

Part of being human is experiencing emotions.

This is important. On the surface, many believe that making good decisions is about removing emotion from the decision-making process.

But that goes against our natural wiring. Emotions serve a purpose, so insead of avoiding emotion, we should strive to understand what emotions are and what their purpose is.

drawing of humans have emotions


Imagine navigating life like being a captain on a sailboat. There are various aspects of the sailboat that represent different aspects of your life. The water you're sailing in represents various areas of your life. The steering wheel (or helm) represents your values and direction. Any leaking of the boat represents your weaknesses. The sails represent your strengths. The weather represents uncontrollable life events. Other boats represent your relationships. And your destination represents your purpose or goals.

This can be an interesting way to view life because it helps us identify various aspects of living. It helps us parse out what we're going through to better understand our experience.

There's one aspect I haven't yet talked about, which is the compass. The compass is information about what's going on. It helps us navigate with complete information.

The compass represents our emotions. They act as a guide to give us information about what's going on.

drawing of emotions as a compass

The Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire measures your level of mindfulness among five interrelated components. These components are observing, describing, acting with awareness, nonjudgment of inner experiences, and not reactivity to inner experiences. They can be helpful in gaining an understanding of the areas of mindfulness in which you may want to focus.


Neuroscientist, author, and emotion researcher Lisa Feldman Barrett argues that emotions aren't something that happen to us. In How Emotions Are Made, she informs us that emotions are predictions about what your body needs to do based on past experience. Emotions are constructed in the moment.

For example, if our bodies sense we might be in danger, our pupils might dilate so we can see any potential threat more clearly. Our hands might get cold as blood recirculates to areas of the body that will be needed to either fight or run. We might breathe faster to anticipate physical activity.

All this is based on what you've experienced in the past, as a prediction of what we may experience in the near future.

Emotions start in the body. They are physiology.

drawing of physilogy


Our brains are meaning-making machines. We are uncomfortable with uncertainty. Thus, we find patterns, even when there is no pattern. We create cause-and-effect stories, even when there is no cause or effect.

And we create narratives. When we feel something in the body, we tell ourselves a story about it.

In other words, we put a story around the physiology.

drawing of story around physiology

Imagine feeling butterflies in your stomach. Maybe your breathing gets faster and shallower.

What does that mean?

Well, it means nothing yet because those butterflies are nothing but sensations in the body. Without context, we don't know anything.

But we're uncomfortable with not knowing, so we create a story based on the context.

drawing of story around butterflies in your stomach

Remember the reporters asking Olympians if they were nervous? They ask that because they would be nervous if they were about to compete in front of the world. The reporters with little or no experience competing at that level would craft a scary story around those feelings.

Thus, they get nervous.

drawing of nervous reaction to the feeling of butterflies

The athletes, though, have been there before. They like it. This is what they live for!

The same sensations with a fun story around them become excitement.

The physiology of nervousness and excitement are the same. The only difference is the story.

drawing of excited reaction to the feeling of butterflies

You don't have to ignore your emotions. They are an important part of being a human. At the same time, you don't have to identify with your emotions, either. They are just information.

Pay attention to the raw data of your emotions and see if you can identify the story you're telling yourself. That story might not be accurate.

Maybe you'll be able to tell yourself a better story!

You get one life; live intentionally.


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Boniwell, Ilona: Positive Psychology in a Nutshell Delucca, Gina & Jamie Goldstein: Positive Psychology in Practice

Emmons, Robert: THANKS! Emmons, Robert: Gratitude Works! Feldman Barrett, Lisa: How Emotions Are Made

Feldman Barrett, Lisa: Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain Gilbert, Daniel: Stumbling on Happiness Gillihan, Seth: Mindful Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Hefferon, Kate & Ilona Boniwell: Positive Psychology Ivtzan, Itai, Tim Lomas, Kate Hefferon & Piers Worth: Second Wave Positive Psychology Emotional Intelligence Masterclass Reivich, Karen & Andrew Shatte: The Resilience Factor



About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFA, CFP, FBS, CFT-I, CIPM is a speaker, writer, and coach specializing in financial psychology, meaning and valued living, resilience, and mindfulness.


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