Is it a feeling or is it an emotion?

I know I’m supposed to be posting about hatred right now, but there’s a distinction that needs to be established before we can really go into any depth with a big, meaty, potentially dangerous emotion like hatred.

Photo of cat hating the water
Okay, it’s hatred. Now what?

I call hatred one of the “raging rapids” emotions, because if you don’t know what hatred is about or how to work with it, you can easily get caught up in its rapids, pulled under, and dashed against the rocks!

The trick in dealing with big, powerful, or troubling emotional states is to understand that there should be cognitively moderated pauses between having an emotion, feeling it, and expressing it. With hatred, those cognitive pauses need to be looooooong because you can really hurt yourself and other people if you’re unskilled with your hatred — or if you don’t even know that you’re feeling hatred in the first place.

But before those cognitive pauses can occur, you have to understand the difference between an emotion and a feeling.

Emotions, feelings, and the difference between them

Someone asked me about the difference between an emotion and a feeling last month, and my answer was that emotion is a noun, and feeling is a verb. I didn’t really understand why the distinction was important, but I’ve been thinking about it a great deal.  I really wondered what the confusion was about — I mean, you have an emotion, you feel it, it’s identified, bing.  Right? Then, because you know what emotion it is, you know exactly how to work with it. Right? Why, it’s so simple, a child could … oh. Thud.

I realize that it’s not so simple for most people.

So I went back to the books, and after re-reading Antonio Damasio’s books (Descartes’ Error, The Feeling of What Happens, and Looking for Spinoza), some sociology of emotion (How Emotions Work by Jack Katz) and some neurology of emotion (The Emotional Brain by Joseph LeDoux and On Being Certain by Robert Burton), I finally figured out what’s up.

It’s the difference between having and knowing

An emotion is a physiological experience (or state of awareness) that gives you information about the world, and a feeling is your conscious awareness of the emotion itself.  I hadn’t really understood why the distinction was such a big deal, because I don’t experience a huge gap between emotion and feeling. I mean, if there’s an emotion going on, I feel it. Bing.

But this isn’t true for everyone.  Many people are honestly unaware that they’re having an emotion. For them, the emotion and the consciousness of it are not strongly connected, and they don’t even realize that they’re fearful, or angry, or depressed. Their emotional state has to become so persistent that it drags them into a severe mood (or is pointed out by someone else), and then they can realize, “Oh, I guess I’ve been really sad about my mom, or afraid about money, or angry about work.”

For many people, there’s a disconnect between emotion and feeling; there’s no consciousness of the emotion at all. They have the emotion, but they don’t know about it. The emotion is certainly there, and their behavior displays the emotion (to others at least), but they aren’t feeling it properly.

Maybe they need a chart to show them what emotions look like! Thank goodness the Department of Lolcatz has provided us with one!

Photo of cat emotions

But srsly, I hypothesize in my book that this disconnect between emotions and feelings stems from the constant, repetitive, and relentlessly anti-emotion training we get, where emotions are allegedly the opposite of rationality (wrong), the opposite of spirituality (wrong), and the center of all the world’s problems (wrong [ish]). I think people aren’t aware of their emotions because they’ve been trained since birth to repress, suppress, ignore, demonize, and avoid them.

This training isn’t helping anyone. It makes you emotionally unaware and emotionally chaotic — because an unfelt emotion can carom around inside you like a hyperactive pinball.  Luckily, if you can feel your emotions, you can become more aware and more intelligent about them. And contrary to the rotten training we get about emotions, feeling and knowing your emotions can actually help you relieve them.

Feeling, naming, and knowing

Mathew Lieberman at UCLA has done some interesting research on emotion recognition, and apparently, if you can name a troubling emotion, you can immediately calm yourself and your brain down. Lieberman’s research is showing us that there is a healthy link between having emotions, feeling emotions, and cognitively identifying emotions.

In the book, I write about using your verbal and cognitive abilities to identify, articulate, and support your emotions, and I’ve noticed in decades of practice and teaching that this does three things:

1) It helps you learn to feel and identify your emotions, which helps you calm and focus yourself;

2) It helps you understand when, why, and how your emotions arise so that you become more emotionally aware, and;

3) It recruits your verbal skills to support and consult with the emotion so that you can learn from it and take constructive, emotionally appropriate action.

In The Language of Emotions, you use your rational, verbal skills to support your emotional awareness, and that’s a huge leap away from the old, tired “emotions are the opposite of rationality” drivel.

Emotions certainly are not the opposite of rationality. Emotions are physiological signalers of what’s going on in your world.  Emotions are simply data; you are the interpreter of those data, and how you interpret and work with your emotions determines whether the outcome is rational or not.

Current neuroscience is showing us how vital emotions are to our thought and decision-making processes. If we can learn to feel emotions intelligently, we can widen the boundaries of our intelligence so that emotions and rationality are partners instead of combatants.  It’s vital to know how to feel, name, and understand emotions, especially when the emotions are big, uncomfortable, or dangerous.


Let’s look at the simplest healthy pathway from emotion to action (these are simplified, clearly, and there’s a great deal more complexity involved when emotional illnesses are present, but these broad strokes are worth understanding):

Emotion → Feeling → Naming → Acting on the information the emotion provides

Let’s put sadness into this flowchart.  It would go like this: I have an emotion; I feel that it is sadness; I name the sadness; and I take the action my sadness requires (which might be sighing, slowing down, letting go of tension, or crying, among many other sadness-based actions).

But wait! I didn’t include the situations and stimuli that evoke emotions; let’s not leave those out. Emotional stimuli can be anything that evokes an emotion, including your own thoughts. Emotions tell you that something is up, and that something can include your own thoughts.

Notice that I’m using the word evoke here. Emotions are not created out of thin air, and they’re not created by your thoughts; emotions have evolved over millions of years to help you understand and respond to the world. Emotions exist within your brain and body, and they are evoked by specific stimuli.

Emotionally evocative stimulus → Emotion → Feeling → Naming → Acting on the information the emotion provides

But wait again! You may misperceive the stimulus! For instance, you may see a coiled up rope and experience fear as if you’re seeing a snake. Or, if your emotion is evoked by your thoughts, you can misperceive reality. Your thoughts might not be right, especially if you don’t regularly stop to question them. If you act on an emotion that was evoked by stimuli that aren’t valid, you might do something misguided or careless.

Stimuli can also be unrelated to emotion, yet evoke an emotion anyway. For instance, if your heart rate or your adrenaline rise, your body may respond as if a fearful stimulus is present. Similarly, if you are smiling or frowning, your body may respond as if you are happy or angry. Emotions give you information that something is going on, but it’s up to you to figure out what that something might be.

That’s why I inserted a step that allows you to identify the stimulus and (hopefully) figure out what’s really occurring.

Emotionally evocative stimulus → Emotion → Feeling → Naming → Questioning the emotion → Acting on the information the emotion provides OR deciding not to act because the stimulus is invalid

I know this seems like a long pathway, but you can actually do it in a split second once you get your empathic skills under you. It’s not hard. It’s actually much harder in the long run to sleepwalk through your life, being pushed around by emotions you can’t identify or understand.

So an emotion does this: It gives you information about an emotionally relevant stimulus. It tells you what you’ve perceived and what you’re experiencing. Your job as the partner of your emotions is to feel the emotion, name it, ask the correct questions, and act in a way that is both emotional and rational. I’m saying it’s doable.

Why, it’s so simple, a child can …

Okay, I won’t go that far, but when you know how to feel your emotions, the process becomes easy (and fun, and enlightening) once you get the hang of it! More importantly, when you know how to feel your emotions, your big, intense, and potentially dangerous emotions become less toxic, and so do you.  Cool!

28 Responses

  1. Bob Keteyian
    | Reply

    Great post. Your construction/deconstruction is very helpful. As you suggest, all of this happens in a split second so it’s hard to identify the details. But they are there and available. Thanks.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hi Bob – I bopped over to your site. Very interesting book! The communication styles you work with; they’re based on Howard Gardner’s seven intelligences?

  2. Terre Spencer
    | Reply

    May I chime in? I have been using the word “feeling” as a noun for the energies arising from the body that become emotions, so changing that to “sensation:”

    Sensations (formerly known to me as feelings) are body-birthed energies that become emotions with related consciousness. Moods are a possession by undifferentiated feelings, energies stuck from our emotional apathy and ignorance. If we fail to relate to the feelings as they make themselves known as emotions, alá The Language of Emotions, or we remain imprisioned by moods.

    One of my greatest frustrations is the misinformation about emotions, such as: “thoughts cause emotions, change the thought(s) and you change the emotions…” ARRRRGH!

    Please keep up the very important work you are doing, Karla. Any chance you would consider doing workshops on the East Coast? Like starting with Atlanta? As a culture we so desperately need to learn to identify and work with emotions.


    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hi Terre,

      I like your distinctions, and yes, feelings, sensations, emotions, they were all interchangeable to me, or they were until that person asked me about the difference!

      You wrote that emotions are body-birthed, and it makes me remember how much trouble I had with transcendent work as I grew up. Everyone around me was trying to have out-of-body experiences, and I was like, “Wait, don’t we live in bodies? Don’t you think it would be a good idea to understand them instead of always running away?” Just a thought! Hah.

      I’m doing a week-long workshop on the East Coast in October — at Kripalu. But I don’t currently have other plans. Thanks for your support, however!

  3. Terre Spencer
    | Reply

    Hi Karla,

    I do not know how I can be at Kripalu in October, but I am looking into how I can do that. A week of working with emotions under your tutelage in such a peaceful retreat looks like a RLE (Required Life Experience) to me.

    My anger always let me know that it started in my ribs cage and exploded up and out when “helpful suggestions” were made to put it all behind me and “pray/meditate” myself into forgiveness. Alice Miller has quite a bit in her work about the damage of imposing false forgiveness before the feelings have actually been worked through.

    I am crossing my fingers that I can attend in October.


    • Karla
      | Reply

      Terre, they’ve got scholarships at Kripalu. Check into it!

  4. Katrina
    | Reply

    I’m a bit like Terre, in that I use “feelings” as a synonym for emotions and for physical sensations. I often “feel” something — as physical sensations and/or emotions — long before I can put it into words.

    I’ve learned to trust this; call it “intuition,” call it “instinct,” call it “a gut feeling,” call it what you will … it’s rarely wrong. Three times in my life, I’ve had a strong negative reaction upon meeting someone (colloquially, I say that I “hated someone on sight” … but I mean “hate” in a different way than the way you define it in your book, Karla). The first two times, the men in question nearly destroyed the organizations that had hired them; the third time, the young man turned out to have a lot of insecurities — and physical problems; the combination of those two created the “odd vibe” that made me dislike him at first. (I get along with him fine now.)

    I also, on rare occasion, have a very strong positive reaction to someone upon first meeting them. My acting coach is a prime example; I somehow knew, from the very beginning, that he was sincere, honest, authentic, and could be trusted … and he is; he’s now my closest, most trusted friend.

    I was in a party once where I quickly started to feel as if some invisible slime was sliding down my arms; I finally had to excuse myself from the party early, because I was so uncomfortable. I realized it was because the people there were very inauthentic — the “energy” they were giving off registered with me on a physical level as that “slimy” feeling (sensation).

    I’ve always had this unusually high sensitivity to the “energy” of people, locations, and situations around me (not surprisingly, I identify strongly as an HSP — HIghly Sensitive Person — in Elaine Aron’s books). As I said, I’ve learned to trust it: My body “knows” — before my brain does — what the truth is. I can’t always explain to someone else — or even myself — what’s going on … but I usually understand, on an intuitive, non-verbal level, what the message is. It may take me hours or days or weeks or even months or years before I can put the message into words — but when I “feel” something (through sensations or feelings), I’ve learned to “act first; analyze later.”

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thanks Katrina, I also have tremendous spidey senses where people are concerned, and I realize that it formed the basis of my career as a psychic. Now that I understand the emotional nature of what I was doing, I’m really looking deeply into research on emotion, cognition, and neurology.

      I’d love to be able to organize all these data into a cohesive approach to our natural human ability to figure each other out … because right now, it almost always falls into the realm of the paranormal or the supernatural, and I don’t think that’s helpful any longer.

      But grrrr! I can’t find the research program I need. Still searching.

  5. Steven Horne
    | Reply

    Hi Karla,

    Thanks for delving into this subject because it’s been something I’ve puzzled over, too. I also like what Terre had to say. I see the three aspects of our nature (body, mind and spirit/emotion) as being represented by the three chambers of the body (the head area, the chest cavity and the abdominal cavity). The emotional/spiritual area I call the world of the heart and see it centered in the chest cavity.

    In short, I see the heart as a bridge between body and mind (i.e., the mind/body connection). I have used the idea that a feeling is a message arising from the body to the mind and an emotion as a movement of energy flowing from the mind into the body (into action).

    However, I can see that sensation would be a better word to describe the feelings that are the body trying to communicate with the brain. So, we have feelings of pain, discomfort, tension, etc. which arise when the body is communicating it is having a problem.

    I like your idea that feeling is being aware of emotion and sensation and that not feeling is being disconnected from them. Also, I wanted to share with you a book you might like to read. It’s called The Secret Teachings of Plants: The Intelligence of the Heart in the direct perception of nature. The author, Stephen Harrod Buhner cites research showing that the heart “thinks” in electromagnetic waves that permeate the body and broadcast into the environment and that the heart also picks up electromagnetic waves generated by other hearts (and even plants) and decodes this “information” for the brain through emotions and feelings. This may be a scientific explanation for empathy.

    Just wanted to share as I’ve been delving into understanding this world of feelings for nearly 25 years and agree with you that we aren’t educated about our emotions, just told to deny, repress or control them.


  6. michelle emanuel
    | Reply

    hello karla,
    what are your thoughts on a Course in Miracles? they believe that all of this is “not real” and that this is somehow an illusion and so the more weight we give our emotions and feelings, the more REAL we are making this.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hi Michelle,

      I never found the CoM to be very compelling, though a lot of people swear by it. I don’t agree with the idea that the real world is an illusion, or that emotions are problems in and of themselves.

      In fact, neurology is showing pretty clearly that a lack of emotions can be disastrous to the health and social functioning of humans and other primates. We need our emotions; our social and intellectual intelligences require emotions, and emotions form a significant part of our capacity to learn and make decisions.

      Rather than fight a losing battle with emotions — as if there is something wrong with them — my focus is to accept reality as it is, understand emotions as they are, and utilize the human skill of empathy to get as smart about emotions as is humanly possible.

      When you pay clear, empathic attention to emotions, you can discover the most amazing things about yourself, other people, and human nature. Emotions totally rock!

  7. Michael
    | Reply

    Thank You Karla for your integrity around this issue,your a inspiration for this 21st century male,YEPEE!!!!!!!!!!

  8. Terre Spencer
    | Reply

    Oh Karla, it is so good to read your words about CoM. I thought myself spiritually inept for years after reading that in the late 70’s/early 80’s. . .I did not find the world illusory either. When I stub my toe, it bloody hurts!

    A CoM consistently mis-applies spiritual truths to psychological issues, which Robert Johnson identifies as a mis-appropriation of levels. If you would like I can locate his exact work on that issue. I think it is on the “Slender Threads” DVD.

  9. Steven Horne
    | Reply

    I was trying to read through a Course in Miracles once and it was talking about the illusionary nature of pain. I had a pain in my neck at the time that was on the verge of giving me a headache. I tried seeing the pain as “not real” and the more I thought of it as an illusion, the more it hurt!

    Then, I did what my own inner spiritual guidance had taught me to do and I laid down, breathed deeply and felt my way into the pain, trying to tune into the pain rather than make it go away. A clear understanding of what was causing the pain came to my mind, which actually caused the pain to diminish and when I followed through with fixing what I realized was the cause (which was emotional by-the-way) it went away.

    This is the same thing I’ve learned about emotions and about our body. The teaching that everything comes from our “head” and our “thoughts” is wrong. We also have a body and a emotional world, which are co-equal partners with the mind. When I try to ignore my feelings, they become more intense, when I try to tune-into and acknowledge them, I find wisdom and am able to transform them into a positive in my life.

  10. Juha Kardo
    | Reply

    Thank you for the great post! This helped me a ton with understanding the difference between emotions and feelings.

  11. jen
    | Reply

    What is love for you Karla, on the emotion-feeling-sensation path? I am wondering…

  12. Ilann
    | Reply

    Great explanation. Very helpful. Thank you!

  13. Endie
    | Reply

    Great explanation. Especially about how society has trained us to suppress our emotions to the point where we don’t even know what it is we’re feeling. Then if you try to discuss feelings you must ‘be into all that new age stuff’. It’s such a simple thing that most of us are finding so hard.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Yes, emotions tend to be given the short shrift in every tradition and area — even in psychology! I called my book The Language of Emotions because so many people essentially don’t have an emotional vocabulary! No wonder people struggle so!

  14. Michaela Patel
    | Reply

    I can be emotional, meaning my energetic equilibrium has been disturbed – like you say Karla, that something is up. For me that is a signal to my curiosity to further understand it as my emotional calm (inner peace) on my emotional barometer has been disturbed. By engaging my mind to further unravel how I feel, it helps me to investigate what caused this disruption – which thoughts. This way any unconscious stimuli/beliefs can be brought to light. I understood that unpleasant emotional states simply relate to false, unpleasant beliefs, behind my negative thoughts about myself and others.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hi Michaela!

      In this work, we don’t use the concepts of positive and negative, and we don’t treat the emotions as signs of trouble. It’s a very unusual approach, to be sure. We see emotions as specific aspects of intelligence and healing that arise when trouble is already present. So they don’t arise as a sign of imbalance; they arise because of it, and they bring the specific intelligence needed to help people understand what has occurred.

      These two posts might help to describe the difference:

      The Myth of Positive Emotions
      The Myth of Negative Emotions

  15. Lindsay
    | Reply

    I am a middle school counselor. I came across this post while seeking clarification on the differences between feelings and emotions. After reading your blog, I feel that I have a greater understanding, but I would like to make sure I am accurate in my explanation to students.
    Would it be correct to say:
    an emotion is a response our body has to stimuli, while a feeling is when our mind is aware of this emotion we are experiencing and our mind has its own response to the emotion, thus our feeling. We might not be aware of our emotions, but we are generally aware of our feelings.

    For further clarification, would you consider emotions something that can be controlled? Or just feelings?

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Lindsay, this is close!

      The first part about emotion is correct, but the part about feeling, in my model, isn’t.

      Feeling is simply one’s capacity to sense emotion (or any sensation). It is the verb to the emotion’s noun. Many people call emotions feelings, so the confusion stems from our language use.

      In the research, this capacity for feeling is called Empathic Accuracy. People can have emotions but not feel them properly, so they therefore miss the intelligence the emotions bring. They would be inaccurate emotionally.

      The concept of control is not something I work with in regard to either feelings or emotions. If we look at the emotions as a cognitive ecosystem, each contributing a specific type of knowledge, skill, energy, and awareness, then controlling them is counterproductive. Understanding them, working with them, listening to them, learning from them, and learning how to apply their knowledge to our lives is the work!

  16. Janette
    | Reply

    Hi Karla,
    Thank you so much for the information. This is my first time on the site because I am taking a graduate class in Conflict Resolution. Emotional flooding occurs every time when it triggers emotional evocative stimuli, usually by my sister. I need to get a handle over this process. I become so emotional by what she is saying during conflict because she launches verbal attacks I can’t seem to grab hold of what I am feeling at that time. I usually use avoidance as my choice of conflict management which really doesn’t sound much like management. We haven’t spoken in 1 year now.


    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Hello Janette. This sound more like emotional abuse than conflict, and it sounds as if mediation would be more effective than you trying to go at it alone.

      Also, family therapy, if not for both of you together, at least for you so that you can talk things through with someone and get some support!

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