What are Emotions?

Emotion = ENERGY in MOTION

On one level, emotions are energies (physiological activity) that move throughout the body. Emotions tell us about our environment and signal to us when and how to act. Emotions are both necessary to our survival and determine the quality of every single experience we have.

Based on the research of Dr Paul Ekman 6 basic or ‘primary’ emotions have been identified. These primary emotions are observable in infants and across cultures (Ekman, 1992).

There are 6 primary emotions:

  • FEAR






These 6 emotions form the foundation for other more complex emotions, such as: guilt, excitement, anticipation, frustration, irritation, interest, boredom, jealousy, ennui and so on.

  • SHAME has also been thought of as a primary emotion, although it does not appear in infants but develops later on in childhood.

Each primary emotion is a specific SIGNAL for a specific kind of BEHAVIOUR

FEAR signals DANGER and drives ESCAPE behaviour

ANGER signals THREAT and drives DEFENSIVE behaviour

HAPPINESS signals PLEASURE/GOALS and drives SEEKING behaviour

SADNESS signals LOSS and drives GRIEF AND SUPPORT SEEKING behaviour

CURIOSITY signals the UNKNOWN and drives EXPLORATION behaviour

DISGUST signals something TOXIC and drives AVOIDANCE or PURGING behaviour


The Emotional System

The emotional system refers to the relationship between our feelings (physiology felt in the body), our cognitions (the interpretation of these feelings), and the resultant action. The purpose of the emotional system is to guide us to meet our needs. We have three basic human needs: SAFETY, LOVE, and SELF-ESTEEM. When these needs are met we experience a sense wellbeing. To put another way, to achieve a sense of wellbeing we need to feel:

1. Free from danger,

2. Connected to other people, and

3. Good about ourselves.  

A perceived threat to one or more of these needs triggers an uncomfortable emotion. This emotion drives us to protect and restore that need. Once the need is restored, the emotion subsides and we are left with a feeling of satisfaction.

Take the following example:

Our employer reprimands us in front of our colleagues and we feel angry. In an attempt to restore our self-esteem we confront our employer and tell them that it was not okay for them to reprimand us in front of other people. We are lucky and our employer acknowledges their mistake and apologises. Our feeling of anger subsides and we are left with a sense of satisfaction.

On the other hand, rather than feeling angry, we may feel embarrassed or sad when our employer reprimands us in front of our colleagues. Instead of confronting our employer, we go and speak with a trusted work-friend about the incident. Our work-friend provides us with understanding, support and compassion. Receiving compassion from our colleague helps to restore a sense of self-esteem and connection to others, our embarrassment subsides leaving us with a sense of relief.  

Damage to the Emotional System

Starting from birth we learn how to interact with the world through our emotional system. We cry when we are scared, we reach for our primary caregiver when we feel sad and need comfort, and we curiously explore a new toy or object. If our emotional expressions are attended to in a consistent and appropriate way, we learn to trust our emotions, other people, and the world around us. However, if while growing-up our emotions are ignored or responded to inappropriately then we may learn to distrust our emotions and feel unable to get our needs met.

There are many experiences that can disrupt the development of a healthy emotional system, such as:

  • Emotional, physical or sexual abuse

  • Physical or emotional neglect

  • The loss or death of a parent or caregiver

  • The death of a sibling, friend or other close person

  • School bullying or ostracism

  • Frequent re-location

  • Personal illness or hospitalisation

  • Parental illness (including mental illness) or hospitalisation

  • Strong sibling favouritism or rivalry

  • Pressure to compete and/or achieve

  • Family or community rejection due to gender identity or sexual identity

Even in adulthood, our emotional system can be disrupted by certain experiences, such as:

  • Trauma including physical or sexual assault

  • The death of a significant other, such as a partner or child

  • Domestic violence or partner abuse

  • Workplace bullying

  • Discrimination, such as sexism and racism

  • Illness or severe injury

  • Disability

  • Marital breakdown or infidelity

  • Unemployment or poverty

  • War or social conflict

  • Torture

  • False imprisonment

Problems in the development of the emotional system can lead to all kinds of emotional difficulties and disorders, including:

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

  • Addiction

  • Eating disorders

  • Poor body image

  • Attachment and relationship problems

  • Anger problems

  • Personality disorders

  • Low self-esteem

  • Post-Traumatic Stress and Complex Post-Traumatic Stress disorders

Emotion Focused Therapy (EFT)

Of course most therapeutic approaches provide space to talk about emotions. However, EFT is distinct in that it works directly with the emotional system to facilitate deep changes in feeling and experience. EFT facilitates change through the emotional system in three key ways:

  1. Increasing emotional awareness

  2. Increasing emotional regulation

  3. Transforming emotions (Dr Leslie Greenberg, 2004)

Increasing emotional awareness is a necessary first step in EFT. Many people are largely unaware of their emotions and lack the language to articulate what they are feeling. Many people complain of vague feelings of ‘stress’ or ‘upset’ without being able to identify the particular emotional components of what they feel. As such, many people struggle to identify the causes behind much of what they are feeling.

Increasing emotional regulation is fundamental to facilitating emotional change. We feel many emotions throughout the day, some more intense than others. When emotions become too intense, such as panic or rage, we become overwhelmed, are unable to think clearly, and lose control of our behaviour. On the other hand, emotions can become dulled or numbed to the point that we can no longer feel them. This emotional numbing is a key aspect of the state of depression. Emotional regulation refers to the skill or ability to keep our emotions within a certain range of intensity, not too high and not too low. When we can regulate our emotions we can access them in a safe way and learn what they are trying to tell us.

Transforming emotion refers to working with the adaptive potential of our emotional system so that we can change unhelpful emotional states and feel better within ourselves. In EFT, clients are guided to attend to their emotions in different ways. This focused attending reveals to clients new and more adaptive aspects of their emotional system. Clients are then guided to use these new aspects of their emotional system to heal or resolve unhelpful emotional states.


Ekman, P. (1992). An Argument for Basic Emotions. Cognition and Emotion, 6(3/4), 169 - 200.

Greenberg, L. S. (2004). Emotion Focused Therapy. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy. 11, p.p. 3 - 16.