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The 5 Basic Emotions Explained!

Updated: Mar 28

One of the most common reasons that someone pursues therapy is to better understand and handle their emotions. A lot of adults are surprised by the revelation that, while they know their emotions on an intellectual level (i.e. they can name several emotions), they often struggle to identify their own emotions in the moment and know what to do with that information.

Many of us can tend to overgeneralize that we feel “good” or “bad” and not get much more specific than that. The issue is, our emotions provide us A LOT of awesome, useful information about what is going on in our lives and we miss out on that when we do not label our emotions correctly. We stay “stuck” in emotions when we have not learned this information!

If you identify as someone who doesn’t know their own emotional experience well, starting with the basics is the best way to begin the learning process. We have 5 basic emotions- they vary in intensity and in their subcategories there can be a wide range of other emotional descriptors (i.e. Anger can range from irritation to rage).

In time, the more specific we can be about our emotions, typically the better. BUT we can ALWAYS revert to the 5 basic emotions if we are confused about our experience.

*** Of note, we cannot shut down any 1 of the 5 basic emotions without shutting down our emotional experience entirely. Our emotions are a total package deal. What I mean by this is that there is no feeling of joy without the feeling of sadness- they absolutely coexist and if we attempt to numb ourselves to sadness, we also numb ourselves to joy.

ALL OF OUR EMOTIONS ARE GOOD! That said, some are comfortable (i.e. Joy) and some are uncomfortable (i.e. Guilt). They are ALL attempting to help us in our lives and guide us back to joy if we allow their message to be received and utilized. Many people associate certain emotions with behaviors and avoid those emotions because of those associations.

For example, some people associate being angry with yelling, hitting, threatening, etc. Anger is not yelling, hitting, and threatening- those are maladaptive behaviors that someone who is feeling angry may use. Anger itself is not bad- yelling, hitting, and threatening are bad behaviors that poorly recognized and utilized anger may result in.

Recognizing that all of our emotions are good and WELCOMING them is key to emotion regulation. ***

Below, I am going to list the 5 basic emotions and some of the useful information they may be guiding you to recognize in your life. This list is not exhaustive.

1) ANGER- Anger is your #1 signal that a boundary of yours has been violated! Something is happening in your life that you do not like and do not condone. Anger is a very protective emotion and is attempting to keep you safe.

It is also a very activating emotion and may feel very physical in your body. You can harness that energy by putting it towards action in the form of setting or re-establishing your boundary for your own protection and self-respect.

2) SADNESS- While all our emotions connect us to others, sadness is particularly good at providing us connection, comfort, and assistance from others- BUT ONLY IF WE ALLOW IT TO BE SHARED. Sadness often attempts to help us recognize a loss, and think about what we want in life, and is overall a very cathartic emotion for processing grief and loss.

Sadness is a very self-validating emotion as well- when we have lost something important, it absolutely makes sense that we are sad- to deny that reality adds salt to a wound.

3) GUILT- Guilt is an awesome emotion to recognize and use when it is justified. Unfortunately, a lot of us struggle with unjustified guilt. We must first assess that question: Do I deserve to feel guilty for something I have done?

For example, if we feel guilty for setting a boundary with a loved one in a compassionate and fair way, that very well may be an example of unjustified guilt. If we feel guilty for ditching a friend at the last minute for other plans that sounded more enticing, that is likely important and justified guilt to feel.

Guilt helps us “stay in the tribe”- feeling justified guilt helps us behave with others in a way that keeps us a part of important relationships and groups. Guilt also comes up for us when we have acted outside of our VALUES system- it is signaling to us that we need to get back on track with our values, which is critical to overall happiness!

Going back to the example of ditching a friend, that guilt may be activated because one of your values is to be responsible or considerate. Guilt is urging you to take responsibility with your friend and to be more considerate of others in the future.

4) FEAR- Fear is an evolutionary emotion designed to also keep us safe. Similar to guilt, we have to check in with whether our fear is justified or unjustified (ie. Is there an actual danger we are facing). Justified fear can be signaling to us to slow down, better assess and plan a situation out, get out of danger’s way, or ask for help or comfort from others.

5) JOY- Joy is our last basic emotion! As some of you all may have noticed, it is the only “positive” emotion in this list… but I challenge you to remember that all our emotions are GOOD!

Joy tells us that we like our life the way it is in that moment and signals to us things, people, and aspects of ourselves that we appreciate. We may notice what is meaningful to us, aspects that we want to increase in our life, and/or what we want to work consciously to keep around!

Joy is a respite emotion that helps us recharge for the inevitable challenges in life. We often don’t notice when we are joyful- we tend to notice when life is hard, and then go on “autopilot” when things are going well. Working to notice and reap the information associated with joy is so important!

I hope this brief overview has been helpful and provided a window into how all our emotions can be good and helpful, even if they are uncomfortable. If you are interested in working more on your emotional recognition, I do recommend pursuing therapy to personalize this information to yourself and make it even more useful!

Kelly Birkhold, LCSW (providing individual, couples, and family therapy)

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