Devoted Harry Potter fans should recognize this quote. Admittedly, I had to look up the book (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), probably because it’s so long that I only read it 7 or 8 times. To summarize, Hermione is berating Harry and Ron for not understanding the very complicated feelings of Harry’s current girlfriend, Cho, whose former boyfriend was murdered by Voldemort.
It popped into my head while I was running today, and I actually started laughing, which should tell you how freaking slow this run was. Remembering Hermione’s “emotional range of a teaspoon” rant led me down a rabbit hole of emotion-related thoughts, and not only because theories of emotions was last week’s topic in DP Psych. At the recommendation of a high school English teacher who later became a colleague, I was 18 when I took the Myers-Briggs and found it to be both accurate and revealing. I’m considering taking it again because I recently heard an NPR podcast about how personality changes over time. Have a look or listen here.
All week I’ve been thinking about the theories of emotion that we study in class. We focused on two, the two-factor theory and the cognitive appraisal theory. In the past, I’ve also taught opponent-process, James-Lange, and Cannon-Bard. (I’ll leave the Googling to you for the last three.)
The two-factor theory states that there is a stimulus (thing that happens), which leads to some kind of physiological arousal (e.g. heart beating faster, palms sweating), which leads to a cognitive labeling of the situation (e.g. “This is amazing and making me happy!”), and concludes with the experience of emotion (e.g. joy). The following is a really useful image:
On the other hand, the cognitive appraisal theory suggests that we experience emotions as a result two types of appraisal, primary and secondary. As you are experiencing an event, you make a judgement about it. Then there is physiological arousal and you experience the emotion, simultaneously. Primary appraisal refers to the significance of the situation, which will impact an individual’s response, and secondary appraisal refers to how an individual feels he or she can cope with consequences, again impacting response.
While all people experience emotions differently, there are common threads to emotions that people identify as either positive or negative. To introduce this topic in class, I had my students choose a particular emotion, either negative or positive, and describe what the brain and body are doing as they experience this emotion. For example, negative emotions (e.g. stress, fear, anger) elicited responses like: sweaty palms, red face, jittery, jumpy, full of energy, argumentative, yelling, dizzy. My students described positive emotions emotions as being: giggly, affectionate, hugging, childlike, optimistic, free, eager, open. Some overlap, we also some common threads in our groups of examples.
On a personal level, I believe that I feel emotions a lot more intensely than most people. My English teacher identified this after my reaction to a reading of Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” in class and subsequently suggested the Myers-Briggs. My mum tells stories of my temper tantrums as a kid, some of which I remember. She talks about dragging me up the stairs while I screamed and cried about really nothing, throwing me in the bath to calm me down. I bit a lot of pillows, but my parents only taught me that after noticing bruises on my arms. But I have also woken myself from dreams due to literally laughing out loud. I have done cartwheels down schools hallways (both as a student and as a teacher). I feel the need to hug everyone around me and restrain myself only because that’s not socially acceptable. The first time I was in a serious relationship my heart beat faster than normal for days, I lost my appetite, I couldn’t sit still, I couldn’t sleep. Someone once called the range of emotions I feel simultaneously “exhausting.” It can be.
A lot of people feel really intense emotions, and maybe the above is more normal than I think it is. Regardless, I almost always act on my emotions, positive or negative, and that’s been a problem.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to act and react more quietly, at least to the eyes and ears of others. I keep myself almost constantly busy when I’m upset to avoid ruminating because I know how riled up I will be if I let myself do that. A small change, for example, was journaling only once I’d calmed down rather than while I was upset. That can take hours. Sometimes it takes days. By the same token, emotions that are already strong like excitement and passion leave me full of jittery energy for days at a time. These days are usually very productive, despite loss of sleep that comes from said nervous energy, because if I’m moving I can stop thinking.
I have found myself muting my emotions when interacting with others. I’m probably feeling a lot more than I admit I’m feeling, whether those emotions are positive or negative. Maybe this comes from social cues about how much people are supposed to feel at once. Maybe those social cues are inaccurate and, like much of what we do, simply a social norm. And maybe others do sense that I’m not disclosing everything I could be. A friend and colleague in Malaysia describes me as guarded and he was right. Additionally, I wonder if my feelings last for longer than those of other people do. I have also found, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post (What?! Two posts in two days?!) that holding in all of those emotions has been a problem. And I do feel better when I let them out. This, I know, is normal.
What I don’t know is which theory of emotion sounds the most plausible to me. My students struggled with this, too. All are supported with empirical evidence, and therefore disputed based on other empirical evidence. Under some circumstances, I expect I act first and think later (e.g. the time the transmission blew on our boat full of passengers and we were floating in the middle of a river and needed someone on the only dock in that entire section of the river to help us with a line – definitely acted first and panicked later) Under others, however, I react based on how I think I’m feeling (e.g. being chased by lots of dogs while running in Malaysia – terror like I’ve never felt and then running faster than I’ve ever run).
If I’m totally off the mark on this, please let me know! Few feelings? Many feelings? No feelings? Feelings with no names? Comments always welcome.
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