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Feature Article: What Emotions are Trying to Tell Us
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Marty L. Cooper, MFT

(415) 937-1620


4831 Geary Blvd.

San Francisco, CA 94118





January 2015                Vol. 7, Issue 1  

Greetings and Happy New Year!  I hope your holidays went well, or you survived them, or both. 

For this first 2015 newsletter, I've written a sort of glossary (or "taxonomy" of the 7 Categorical Emotions:  anger, sadness, fear, disgust, contempt, joy, and surprise.  As complex as emotion is, there are these universal experiences that it behooves us to be able to identify, understand, and listen to, because each has its own message and request of us.  If we don't hear them, or refuse to listen respectfully, things can go pretty wrong.

For the first time, I've recorded an 11 minute audio reading of the article, for anyone who might prefer to hear it rather than read it.  You can find the link, and download, here (listed as #2). 

So that's the article.  In the next section down, there's also a couple of interesting links you might want to check out, one of which is an expanded version of my October article ("Void vs. Emptiness") which is up at the Psyched in SF Blog.
Best wishes,


Some Interesting Links

"Understanding Depression:  Void vs. Emptiness"--this is an expanded version of my October newsletter article, over at the Psyched in SF Blog.  Click here.

"Mindfulness" (60 Minutes)--Anderson Cooper explores mindfulness.  A nice intro to mindfulness, but more so, remarkable how much this 2500 year old practice has come into the mainstream.  Click here.

"Depression Quest"--For any of you who remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books, this is an online, updated addition to that genre, focusing on depression and the consequence of different choices.  A compassionate and basically right on depiction of the felt-sense of depression and the path of healing.  Click here.
What Emotions are Trying to Tell Us

(Audio version, click here, or here to download.)


While emotions are not at all simple experiences (as Dan Siegel makes clear in his book, "The Developing Mind"), there is a class of emotion which are universal, cross-cultural, and definable in ways that most of us will quickly understand. These are called the "categorical emotions", and are generally listed as: anger, sadness, fear, disgust, contempt, joy (happiness), and surprise. (Varying theorists would make this list slightly differently, but we'll go with this one.)


Each of these emotions are distinguished by the thoughts, sensations, and the behavioral "pushes" that they engender, and each are distinct reactions to our own subjective experiences. Or another way of putting it is, each of these emotions are trying to tell us something about how our deeper self is seeing things, and what that deeper self needs from us from moment to moment.


So, below is a short "taxonomy", you could say, of what the message, or signal, is that each categorical emotion is trying to send us.


The 7 Categorical Emotions


Anger: This emotion is signaling that, "My sense of self is being violated," and the injunction, in terms of action, is to, "Stop the violation!" It is registering an unwelcome contact with our boundary of self (how our self is defined) and telling us to respond. It is about defending our "I".


However, the definition of this "I" can be broad and nuanced. My body is usually closely aligned with self, such that violation of it is violation of me. But if, say, in some sci-fi future we had bodies that could be swapped out for new ones, then we'll be less likely to identify our "self" with these bodies, and therefore violation of them will not trigger anger, anymore than someone attacking a random log in a forest.


Anger is about the "I", which can be defined in many ways: through our beliefs, our relationships ("My wife"), our idea of our self, objects we own, etc.. The point with anger, though, is not exactly what defines our self, but that what we call "anger" is a signal to our conscious mind that our "self" (however defined) is being experienced as violated. Meaning, the boundary of our self has been penetrated or engaged in a way we haven't agreed to.


The response, then, that anger is calling for is a pushing out or back on that which is violating. Whether the violation is accurately assessed or not is irrelevant; the point is that subjectively it feels true, and therefore signals us with anger. Our job, then, is to consciously check out the situation, see if there is a violation, and respond appropriately. (Ideally, of course. If we've been taught that anger is wrong, it can be a lot of work reclaiming anger's protective function.)


Sadness: This emotion is the subjective registration of loss: something we are attached to is gone, is unable to be attached to. Sadness signals this has happened-"We have lost something important"-and its injunction is to grieve, i.e., to allow the emotional process of de-attaching from whatever is lost. (I like to define grief as, "The emotional process of letting go of that which is already gone.") Whether or not we try to reattach sometime later, sadness itself registers the loss.           


As with anger, what exactly we are attached to-a person, a political idea, a particular way of seeing ourselves, an experience-is not the point. Sadness notifies us that a particular thing that we've been attached to is no longer available, and calls us to let go of that attachment.


Now, we can feel emotions together, or in clusters-for instance, when a friend unexpectedly criticizes us, we can both feel anger for the attack on our self, as well as sadness around the idea of our friendship being lost-but each one signals the conscious mind that the deeper mind is having a particular experience. Whether actually the event happened-loss, violation-is not so much the point as that a deep part of us has experienced it as happening.


Fear: This emotion tells us we're registering danger: something is threatening our safety or survival. There are degrees of fear matching degrees of threat, but all point to an experience of something being dangerous. With "Something feels unsafe" being the message, the injunction is to respond by reestablishing a sense of safety-"Do something so we can feel safe!"           


Our deeper self has a part which is constantly scanning our experience (the "incoming data") for signals of danger, and when it registers something that matches what we know or have learned is unsafe, we feel fear. It could be vague anxiety, or full blown terror, but it comes from the same signal: "Something is unsafe!" Again, it's not that the registration of danger is accurate-with trauma, for instance, fear can be vastly overgeneralized such that just living engenders fear-it's that the fear-tracking part of us thinks there is something dangerous.


Our job is to learn to respect the signal, and to respond to its needs (in this case, safety) directly and consciously. Which, of course, is easier said than done, but it's important to know the terrain clearly, which is what holding these emotions as particular signals, of both experience and need, allows us to do.


Disgust: This emotion is the signal for when "We are in contact with something that we should not be!" and the injunction for response is, essentially, "Get it away!"           


I once, somehow, had food with metal shavings in it. I was eating away merrily, and then, within a second, the "disgust monitor" tasted the rancid iron, and there went my breakfast.


Unlike fear, which sees something external as endangering, disgust registers that something is already in contact with us (or more viscerally, inside us) that should not be there, and that if it stays there, something damaging will happen to us. Hence, like my breakfast, as quickly as you can get it out.


But this is not only at the body level. We can be disgusted by contact with (registration of, having in our awareness) that which is inherently wrong. This could be a political belief, or a piece of art, or a different behavior/perspective than ours (think of homophobia being often linked with disgust). But if disgust is arising, then our deeper self is registering this contact with "wrongness" and wants us to get it away, to stop contact, in order to feel "right" again. Whether something is actually wrong (even at the body level) is a question for consideration, but as with the other emotions, the signal function of disgust is that we are having the experience of "contact with wrongness".


Contempt: This emotion arises from (again, the subjective) experience that, "We are in contact with a lesser thing which is toxic to be connected to," and enjoins us to, "Get away from it, or push it away."           


You can compare and contrast the experiences and messages of each of these emotions, as here: we don't experience contempt when we've lost a cherished object (we feel sad), but we do when we are in contact with a person whose beliefs are registered as toxically wrong. Contempt is what we name this experience that what we value and believe is in contact with something that is debased or degraded, and therefore, should be pushed away, or away from, in some way or another.


This emotion is primarily about values, and the ranking of those values such that some are not just unworthy, but wrong (as defined by us). Contempt acts to signal this and to trigger a pushing away from that which is less valuable. It's a tricky emotion to work with, but as usual, it requires mindfulness and reflection to keep from simply reacting out of contempt, as if the registration of lesser value and worth were just simply the truth.


Joy/Happiness: This emotion signals that we're having an experience of "well being," that what we (subjectively) are registering as happening matches our needs for safety, and "rightness".   Joy can be light to intense, but regardless, it is signaling a state in which our particular conditions for "well being" are met. The injunction for action, such as they are, is basically, "Enjoy this!"

There's no common definition for what engenders the feeling of joy from person to person, although there's general themes (such as feeling positively connected to our group). As with all these emotions, it's not about the specific content, the exact thing that is causing us to feel joyful (or scared, or angry, or contemptuous, etc.). The message that comes in the form of joy is that, however we define the conditions of well-being, they are being met, and hey, let's try to enjoy it.


Surprise: This is the signal that our system has registered something "out of the ordinary" that needs attention. It's perhaps the simplest of the categorical emotions, akin to a flinch response at the body level. It's asking us to look at the novel stimuli and assess whether anything needs to be done, but nothing beyond that. And the response, the orienting to the "novelty," is virtually automatic.


But it's important to put surprise in this neutral sense-"something unrecognized has happened"-to separate it out from fear. Some of us have learned, through traumatic situations, that what is unfamiliar is by definition dangerous (or disgusting, or contemptuous, etc.), but surprise does not inherently point to something negative. It's just a signal of a novel event.




So this is a "taxonomy" of the categorical emotions, to perhaps help you as a guide to what the different emotions are, and what they (and the deeper parts of ourselves that are generating them) trying to tell us, and trying to get us to do.


It's important to know these differentiations because it allows us to more precisely both assess how accurate the emotional signals are (maybe a person is reminding us of a past event, and we're feeling fear about that event even though the person is not threatening), and what we need to do in order to address the experience (maybe the person actually is threatening, and we need to run in order to restore a sense of safety). Confusing the emotions with each other, or suppressing them wholesale ("Don't be scared! Don't be scared!"), keeps us from acting and responding when we actually need to, which inevitably causes one form of pain or another. So, knowing this "taxonomy" allows us to listen more respectfully to our emotional self and respond more accurately and quickly. Which is all for the good.



My Book is Available:

Anxiety and Depression:  42 Essays on Overcoming the Wild Moods

My book,

Anxiety and Depression:  42 Essays on Overcoming the Wild Moods (2011), is for sale as a paperback or Kindle.


It is a collection of short essays, focusing on the challenge of managing, and ultimately, uprooting depression and anxiety.  You can find a few sample articles here, and can purchase the book on Amazon here.

Archive of Past Newsletters
     All past issues of Tame Your Mood can be found here.
Audio Recordings
     Various audio recordings can be found here.
About Marty

I am a San Francisco psychotherapist who helps individuals struggling with anxiety and depression to not only manage theseMarty L. Cooper, MFT "wild moods," but eventually learn how to overcome them.  I work comprehensively with mental, emotional, bodily, and spiritual dimensions of anxiety and depression, all of which are necessary to overcome the chronic quality of anxiety and depression.

If you are interested in exploring working together in psychotherapy, please contact me at:


(415) 937-1620,