Deciphering Emotional Reaction When You Can’t Determine the Emotion


There was a great article in the most recent edition of Psychology Today Magazine (Rebecca Webber, “Odd Emotions,” January/February 2016 issue, Volume 49, No. 1, pp. 42–51, 77) about trying to identify emotions. In true sensationalist rag fashion, however, the lead-in promised a little more than the scientific studies and experts quoted in the article would have confirmed:


“By coming to grips with unnamed feelings—from the need to connect deeply with someone you’ve just met to the desire to know how things will turn out—we can master our interior life.”


Uh-huh. …”Master” our interior life. Maybe not quite.


But despite the pressure to become a jedi master of your emotional states premised by the editors, the article actually had several good points to make…


  • That scientists have been largely unsuccessful at pinpointing emotional centers and activators in the brain. Instead, empiric evidence indicates a complex combination of factors—both electrical and chemical—that occur at the cellular and inter-cellular level.


  • That just like how native Eskimos famously have over one-hundred words for “snow,” or how there can be a thousand variations of what a “cloudy day” looks or feels like, our emotions have gradients, variations, and timbres, and often combine, mix, and overlap several different emotions.


  • Emotions may have been reflexive and biologically adaptive or survivalist in our ancient past, but today they often arise out of the different kinds of stresses that are triggered by the environments we place ourselves within: relationships, careers, foreign or global travel excursions, etc.


  • Reïterating hoards of other scientific studies, the author identifies online participation, screen-time, and social media as a whole new facet of stress-inducing emotional generators. This is tied to the loss of the “subtleties of facial expression, body language,” and I would venture to say including things like animalistic pack disconnection, and live-personal “energy” interaction. The paradox of instantaneous [sometimes misinterpreted] communication conjuring disconnection and separation anxiety has led to a discernable increase in depression diagnoses, particularly among younger people prone to more screen time.


  • Just because the English language doesn’t have a word or term for a specific emotion or emotional reaction, doesn’t mean that other languages don’t have the linguistic capability. The author gives several examples, including the now ubiquitous German term “schadenfreude,” which has been widely adopted in English literature and definition (but only since the 1980s) because of its usefulness in identifying a human condition. The author also makes note of the un-namable emotional condition as being inspirational to one particular group of people: poets. Poetry has always been the realm where it has been the challenge of writers to entertain and create art based upon “certain experiences that language cannot describe.” People like poet John Koenig have even made it a mission to create new words to define previously indefinable human experiences. Koenig uses etymological resources both virtual and printed to create “mashups” or newly invented vocabulary to define obscure or odd emotions. The fact that his online site is so popular is a testament to the fact that the things he defines are recognizable—even if they’ve been previously indefinable. The point being, as he says, that, “Whatever you’re feeling right now has been felt been someone else out there.” Reässuring, I suppose.


Even knowing that it is normal to feel discombobulation at the indefinable and indiscernible emotions we sometimes feel, can bring us to a sense of relief. We’re not alone in our angst of indiscernibility.


So for instance when I have feelings of tremendous excitement and relief about coming “home” to my monastic community after a long period of reflective discernment, the contrary or conflicting or complex additional emotions of reservation, regret, shame, penitence, fear, disappointment, and who-knows-what other un-named feelings, are completely reasonable from a scientific standpoint. Each of these emotions wax or wane or become dominant at various junctures, or overlap, or become oppressive in the light of too much projection on my part. Purportedly, identifying, naming, and acknowledging those emotions gives me the empowerment to deal with them better, and affords me the opportunity to decide how I react to my environment or in response to my emotional state.



As tarot professional and psychologist Katrina Wynne has suggested, perhaps it is certain emotions that we refuse to acknowledge as being part of our personae that cause the trouble that might overwhelm our emotional psyches (and spur individuals to seek help from a psychotherapist, psychologist, or a life coach or a tarot reader). For instance in my personal case of returning to the monastic community, I might also be experiencing bitterness—which is not a trait that I normally like to ascribe to or see in myself. But if I can admit that I am capable of such an emotional response…that there is a sense of bitterness that I feel from a hetero-normative/homophobic society that made me feel unwelcome and displaced; or bitterness that the Capitalist-consumerist economic-meritocratic demands of my birth country are too overwhelming for my Catholic-socialist-psyche to endure…or ironically, that I am bitter about the necessity of having to renounce some of the possessions that I’ve accumulated in order to participate in a life of poverty…then I am one step on the path to right relationship when symptomatic to these emotions, I have found an alternative that is both accepting and communally affirming, and that from the vantage point of that place I am able to decry my rejection of the things that make me bitter—the things I feel are unhealthy from a Christian and a minority perspective—by embracing the joy and relief and nurturing sustenance of a community that affirms my better judgments and philosophies.


As Seth Gillihan, a clinical assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania is quoted in the article, the ability to label an emotion, “might not change the emotion, but it does allow us the possibility of choosing our response.”


Complex emotional crossovers


Our virtue can also be tested in the process of identifying and labeling our emotions. As with my bitterness in the example above, I might resist identifying that unsettled resentment, because I associate bitterness as distasteful or unvirtuous behavior. But there is “the strange comfort that comes from resigning [ourselves] to the painful or difficult action [of admitting our emotions] because [we] know it’s the right thing to do, like confessing a mistake to someone [we’ve] hurt.”


Another point made by the article is the social acceptability and cultural absorption of identification of previously indeterminable emotions. “Without a word [to describe the emotion], there [are] no normative rules for it…Once a concept has a name, all of a sudden there are cultural rules for when it’s OK to feel it.” As an example, before “schadenfreude” became a known emotional response, the act of “taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortune” was taboo. But labeling the feeling provided the American public with the recognition that it wasn’t a singular, autonomous response that individuals experienced. Naming and identifying the emotion allowed people to realize that others experienced it too, and that it might be a normal facet of the vast human psyche (albeit one that might need some self-reflective review perspective).


This, I think, is one reason it’s important to identify (and make known our distaste for) inequality and the resentments that it embroils. When politics obscure the causes and legislation that create inequality (sly tax breaks for the rich and for corporations; the de-regulation of banks that result in corruption, judicial decrees that classify corporations as individuals) the public is often flummoxed to define why their stress levels are dramatically increasing in response to greater fiscal strangulation. If the public cannot identify the causes and the emotional responses they are experiencing—which are actually the result of increased inequality and the rise of plutocracy—then people start to react defensively or brashly. In other words, the American public, as a whole, has no less need to be able to identify its emotional state and be able to label its feelings, than does an individual who is distressed by unidentified psychological torments. So… is “corporate or plutocratic advantageous schadenfreude” a thing?





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Posted in Psychology of Tarot, Reading for Virtue, Tarot Philosophy, Virtue Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , .

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