Our Deep Dive Into Core Emotions

We’re taking a closer look at our basic emotions and where they come from (long read).


We’re taking a closer look at our basic emotions and where they come from (long read).

Doing things for our minds is great, but sometimes it’s nice to sit down (or walk) and check in with ourselves to see how we’re feeling. Emotions play a huge part of in how we perceive and react to the world, whether we’re aware of them or not, which is why we wanted to give you some food for thought today. Hopefully, parts of this blog will help you reflect on your relationship with these primary and secondary emotions and open new paths for growth. Fingers crossed! Let’s start with…


The original angry bird. (Photo by Skyler Ewing)

Anger makes a lot of people uncomfortable, but it’s important to note that it’s a fully valid, universal emotion. Unlike fear or joy, anger is a secondary emotion, which means that there’s usually a primary emotion behind it, like sadness or fear. It’s also one of the more noticeable emotions, which manifests in the body with great intensity, and all cultures can recognise various markers or anger being present. In order to look after our minds efficiently, we need to stop repressing anger and accept it as a part of our expression. Anger has been misunderstood for too long, and it’s time to learn how to use it to our advantage and wellbeing.

Being angry isn’t the same as being hostile, even though they’re both often equated. Human beings have evolved to separate this emotion from an actual attack, which surprisingly makes anger an extremely constructive emotion. It’s action, energy, it cuts through the red tape our minds build around issues and situations that bother us. Being angry can make us more assertive, honest, and bring us closer to our goals — but only when used wisely.

We’ve already mentioned that most people can easily notice when someone is angry, but recent studies have shown that people can even notice the emotion in us when we ourselves aren’t aware of it. This is one of the reasons why striving towards letting anger express itself is so important. Whether we want it or not, it will find a way to show itself and we can only be in control if we accept it.

Another myth about anger is that violence or revenge are expressions of it, but these are simple mismanaged consequences of an attempt to communicate through the emotion. This is an opportunity to get in touch with how we really feel, and how we handle anger often dictates the success of our relationships. There are always plenty of things that we can get angry about and refusing to feel this emotion is often even more harmful than letting it run free.

We shouldn’t be afraid of anger, because it’s a beautiful, passionate expression of being alive and wanting to say something. Explore it, express it, and use it constructively.




When you accidentally reveal your superpowers—embarrassing! (Photo by Thirdman)

Embarrassment is not an easy emotion to define, even though it’s universal. Experts describe it as a feeling of self-consciousness, caused by a disconnect between how what should happen in public versus what actually happens. We most likely get embarrassed when we believe that we’ve not lived up to what society asks of us, or when we’re on the receiving end of undesired attention. It’s a deeply personal emotion and what’s embarrassing to one person might not be embarrassing to another — this is why empathising with someone else’s embarrassment is often hard. Today, we’re here to say that you shouldn’t be embarrassed about being embarrassed. But you also shouldn’t let it run your life.

Experts believe that embarrassment likely evolved to keep social order in large groups. An embarrassed individual demonstrates to others that they regret their misbehaviour and that they’ll do better, which helped primitive societies separate remorseful members from truly bad eggs. Studies have shown that people who display embarrassment at their social transgressions are much more likely to be forgiven and liked. For our ancestors, it was a life-saving way to avoid being ostracised from the group. It’s still useful today, as you’re probably more likely to forgive someone if you believe they regret their mistakes.

This emotion is also different from shame; shame signals a disconnect between what we believe to be morally right versus what we’re doing, and is even more personal. We can be embarrassed by other people too when they don’t adhere to the same social rules that we do, and this is an important part of understanding why we get embarrassed. It’s about the difference between societal norms and what we see, and it’s good to keep that in mind.

Some people are naturally more prone to embarrassment than others. Remembering past mistakes and lingering on them can erode your sense of self, which is why embarrassment needs to be let go after it’s run its course. We’re all more than our mistakes, but the point of them is that they help us grow. Sure, your friends might want to remind you of that one embarrassing thing that happened years ago, but there’s no reason you should do the same. Everyone is afraid of embarrassment, which is why they like dwelling on others’ rather than their own. Smile, acknowledge that it was awful, and move on.


Precious and cautious. (Photo by cottonbro)

Fear is a one of the basic emotions, and it’s been essential for our survival since the dawn of humanity. It’s a vital response to either physical and emotional danger that has helped us survive and evolve through the ages. But fear can sometimes go too far; the most common examples of that are phobias, and almost everyone has one. Keeping fear in check is vital to good mental fitness, which is why we’re here today to demystify it.

It’s important to note that not every fear is automatic, or natural. Certain fears are instinctive, like fear of pain, which is deeply ingrained into our genetic memory. But other fears are learned, like when we become afraid of dogs after being bitten by one or afraid of an elevator after being stuck in one. There’s even a third category — things that we’re taught to be afraid of in school or by our parents, like strangers or busy roads. When we’re pestered by a fear that isn’t helpful, examining its origin can help us manage it and even overcome it.

Fear is an interesting emotion to study because of how it ‘behaves’ in our minds. If you’re afraid, it’s likely that the feeling will be amplified through a process called potentiation, and even harmless effects will seem scary. This is important to remember if you’re prone to getting scared easily, and tend to hold on to fear. When fear appears for a longer period of time (and it does like to linger) it turns into anxiety. Anxiety has many definitions, but for the purpose of this block we’ll define it as a prolonged response to a perceived danger, but doing nothing, ruminating on the threat.

The more imminent a threat is, the more active our response to it will be. If we see a predator, we’ll defend ourselves or run straight away. But if we’re worried about something that may happen in the future, it’s hard for our brain to cope and offer an efficient reaction, making us stuck with the fear and no obvious way to deal with it. This is why, for instance, people tend to change their eating habits after a health scare even when no new information is offered.

Fear is an emotion that must constantly be examined and reflected upon. Being aware of what makes us afraid is the best way to make sure that our fears don’t prevent us from living our best life.


Be the light at the end of your tunnel. (Photo by Movoyagee)

We experience loneliness when we feel that our relationships are less in quantity and quality than desired. This is a distressing sensation, but it’s vastly different from the feeling of being alone, which can actually be nice. In fact, alone time is something many of us need to recharge and reflect on our thoughts and lived experience, even if we like the people we spend our time with. But loneliness is an entirely different beast, one that can push us into depression or even shorten our life span. So here we are, trying to understand and control this core negative emotion — because one day, it might save your mind.

To an extent, loneliness has always been part of humanity. We know that one of the key traits that’s made us into such a prolific species was our ability to work together. Evolution favoured individuals with a strong desire to be part of a group which has left us craving the company of others, as well as being liked and understood. The downside of that, of course, is that when we feel like we don’t belong or that the connections aren’t authentic, our mind experiences the longing we know as loneliness.

The mechanics of loneliness cause you to imagine that everyone else but you has the relationships you want while you feel inadequately connected. Social media can make this worse, because it’s made to showcase the best and happiest moments, but that’s hard to keep in mind when all you see are people having the time of their lives. Unaddressed, lingering loneliness can trigger feelings of inadequacy and abandonment. We recommend you don’t let it get that far, because unlike what broody men in old movies suggest, there’s nothing cool about it.

Loneliness was not designed to be a wallowing emotion. It’s meant to encourage action, because within every lonely moment there’s a strong desire to connect and be understood, meant to get you off your couch and into the world to find your tribe. It can get you out of bad relationships and prompt you to make big changes in your life, like leaving a place that no longer makes you happy.


Enough with the stone-cold stoicism. (Photo by Denise Duplinski)

Just like fear, sadness is a core negative emotion. This means it’s natural, but our tendency to avoid it by almost any means is almost instinctive. We love telling others, especially children, to cheer up and suppress this emotion without asking ourselves whether there’s any value in it. Well, it turns out that sadness can be a real lifesaver — and we’ll explain more about that in a moment.

The first issue with sadness is that people mistake it with depression. This is bad for our perception of sadness, but it’s even worse for people who live with depression and have to listen to tips like ‘just cheer up’. Sadness is a natural response to pain, loss, or even a meaningful moment that reminds us of what’s important. Depression on the other hand, can come about without a simple explanation, and bring about feelings of numbness or lack of energy, and debunk the common myth that depression is just a prolonged experience of sadness.

A useful way of thinking about negative emotions is to ask ourselves how they might have served in our hunter/gatherer times. Sadness developed as a way to signal that we need help or comfort, and it’s still important for the same reasons. It’s vital for small children who can’t vocalise their distress, but because humans are pretty good at recognising facial expressions, it works for adults just as well. You can tell when a person is feeling down, and even share someone else’s sadness, which makes it a unique bonding experience that often deepens relationships.

Many therapists agree that humanity would be a lot happier if they learned how to be sad. Resisting it can create real issues with the way we experience the world and process the inevitable bad stuff in it. When children are told not to feel sad about things that should naturally make them feel that way, they can develop harmful coping mechanisms — like refusing to form relationships or not pursuing meaningful goals to avoid getting hurt. So it’s not just okay to feel sad, it’s essential.



Coriander: The world’s most divisive food. (Photo by Angela Roma)

There’s a whole science dedicating to the phenomenon liking and disliking things. And that’s great, because ‘like’ may turn to love, just like dislike can turn to hate — and the intensity of these emotions can make us do some crazy things. The mechanism of why some things please us and others don’t is fascinating and grounded in evolutionary psychology, which can explain a lot about why it’s so hard to be objective after we’ve already made up our minds about something. So let’s take a closer look.

One of the most interesting theories out there is that we dislike things because we’re omnivores. Humans have always had a broader choice of foods, so seeing another human consume something and not die made us want to try the same thing, which further evolved when the idea of prestige was introduced into society. We learned to like what the tribe leaders liked to gain approval, and thousands of years later, we still respond to influencer marketing in a similar fashion. Disliking things is almost the same, but with a pinch of fear mixed into it. Our brains like to make connections between things that have hurt us and things that remind us of that. So it’s not uncommon to, let’s say, dislike cats after you’ve been scratched a few times by just one feline aggressor.

Only some parts of our brain are neatly evolved, sophisticated, and capable of making decisions that correspond to our evolved societies. The rest of it is still screaming at us to eat more food and distrust people outside of our tightly knit tribe. Disliking something (or someone) and sharing that sentiment with others can create true feelings of camaraderie — just think about people who bond over disliking coriander. But you can easily imagine how this evolutionary response can turn sour when we align ourselves against a person or a group of people. Yikes.

Another thing to note about our brain is that it likes what is familiar. Once we learn to dislike something, we’re much less likely to give it another go; this is another echo of the old ‘berry taste bad-don’t try berry again’, which can lock us out of whole genres of literature, types of food, or activities. We’re not campaigning for you to try everything you’ve already tried and disliked, but retrying things after some time has passed is an easy way to surprise ourselves. After all, we live and evolve, and so do our tastes.


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