Ep #15: What Is a Feeling?

The key to reaching your goals is to stop trying to distract yourself from emotional experiences you’re not comfortable with. 

That’s much, much easier when you know what an emotion is.

Today we’re talking about what emotions are, why you love some and hate others, and why they’re far simpler than you think.


  • What emotions are
  • Why you enjoy some emotions and dislike others
  • That how much you enjoy an emotion isn’t related to how comfortable you are feeling it
  • How to increase your comfort with all your emotions by recognizing their similarities


Here are the explanations offered by some of my fellow coaches when I asked them for a variety of ways to visualize what feelings are in our bodies.

“THOUGHTS are the programming language used by the mind — it’s an object-oriented language with a high level of abstraction. To get the body to take action and execute the program, those thoughts need to be interpreted into lower-level instructions we call FEELINGS: they’re the low-level programming language of the body, much more closely mapped to processor instructions.”

– Clotilde Dusoulier, French life coach and former software engineer in Silicon Valley, changemavie.com

“Your brain is like a bartender. It’s gets an order for a feeling by a thought. He mixes up stuff and sends it out to your body. Feelings are a lot like drinks. Some go down smooth and you don’t feel much. Others are like a shot of fireball. Burns like hell. Depending on the “drink” your body reacts different.”

– Corinne Crabtree, No BS Weightloss for Women, pnp411.com

“A release of chemicals from your brain into your body.“

– Meredith Holley, lawyer and workplace cultural health consultant at Eris Conflict Resolution, www.ErisResolution.com

“My most recent podcast episode is all about “feeling” and labeling what you are feeling and the neuroscience of how effective that is. I talk about it as shown in fMRIs. We can measure emotions in real time by the signal in the amygdala. Naming that emotion engages the prefrontal cortex and literally just naming the emotion with words decreases the activity in the amygdala.

It’s just neuroscience. And you have the power within you to dampen any emotion by speaking about it or writing it. It’s all within you already. You just have to practice using it. And yes, the prefrontal cortex is thicker in those w lower amygdala reactivity.

Neuroplasticity. Magic for emotions.”

– Sunny Smith, Empowering Women Physicians, https://empoweringwomenphysicians.com/ (Episode #20)

“I use scanning the body to discover tension/contraction. Video: https://www.dropbox.com/s/xplms5v4hes70dp/emily-feelings.mp4?dl=0″

– Dex Randall, Burnout coach http://mini.dexrandall.com


  • Choose two emotions, one that you like and one you dislike. Observe the sensations each produces in your body. Notice how each is just made up of an arrangement of muscles and chemicals, and that they’re actually quite similar to each other.

Download this week’s Podcast Guide for a printable copy of this week’s exercise, deeper explanations of this episode’s main takeaways and printable quote cards to help you remember key lessons.



What Is a Feeling?

The key to reaching your goals is to stop trying to distract yourself from emotional experiences you’re not comfortable with. That’s much, much easier when you know what an emotion is.

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Welcome to Emotional Leadership, the podcast for high achieving leaders. Because healthier emotional lives means stronger leadership, thriving teams and much bigger results.

Hello! I am very excited to be here with you today. We are talking about “what is a feeling”. And I’m excited about this topic because feelings are something that we really learned to start talking about and understanding as some of our earliest words. But it’s not something we spend a lot of time understanding what it is.

We learn to identify a lot of our emotions. Some of us don’t learn that many of us are trying now. But we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what actually does the concept of feeling or emotion mean, and today that’s exactly what we’re going to do.

This is so important, because the key to reaching your goals is to stop trying to distract yourself. And, as we’ve learned in previous episodes, what we’re always distracting ourselves from is an emotional experience we don’t want in that moment. Usually these are emotional experiences we’re not comfortable with for some reason.

And it’s much, much easier to not distract yourself from that emotional experience when you actually know what’s happening inside your body and your brain and why.

We’re not going to go super deep into the neuroscience of how all of these things work today. My goal is actually just to give you a working model, or maybe several, that you can use to understand in practice what an emotion is, what it isn’t, and how it affects your body and your thinking, so that you can work more effectively with them.

The biggest thing I want you to walk away from today knowing is that emotions are a normal and a critical part of how our body functions. They’re actually part of our body and our brain and how those two portions interact.

Emotions come from our thoughts. We’ve talked about this in several previous episodes. They come from our conscious thoughts and our unconscious thoughts. And, understanding what they are and really internalizing that emotions can’t hurt us is important, so we don’t let our distaste for certain emotions take us off track from our goals, from who we want to be in the world, or from how we want to be living our lives.

The key to reaching your goals is to stop distracting yourself from emotional experiences you’re not comfortable with.

So let’s dive a little bit into where feelings come from.

And note, I’m going to use the words feeling and emotion interchangeably. I do that in most of my work. I think that many of us have learned slightly different definitions that they mean slightly different things. For the purposes of everything we’re talking about today, just assume that it’s two ways of talking about the same concept.

So our emotions come from our thoughts. They’re a normal part of how our body goes from understanding the stimulus and the world around us to processing it, to deciding how to interact with it – taking action – and producing all the results that we create in the world through our own interactions with it. Emotions are a normal and a critical part of how our body functions.

But a lot of us spend a lot of wasted energy and time trying to get rid of them.

Now, I know some of you might be wanting to question a little bit when I say that our emotions come from our thoughts. Because your experience might be that you notice you’re experiencing an emotion and then you have a lot of thoughts about it. Absolutely. I’m not disagreeing with that. We have hundreds of thousands of thoughts in our day. Many of those are about the world around us. But many of them are also about what’s going on in our head. So, what that means is that you had a thought. It created the original emotion. And now you have a lot more thoughts and a lot more emotions that are all your opinion about the fact that you experienced that original emotion.

Feelings play a really important role in our lives.

Our emotions are the prompt for all of our actions. This means if we want to take a different action than we’re taking right now, we need to change our thoughts about the topic so they’re producing a different feeling. We talked about that in Episode 11, Curiosity + Practicing New Thoughts.

Emotions are also the reasoning behind everything we want or don’t want in the world. Remember, that’s Episode 6, Validation + Everything You Want.

There are some emotions, we think about experiencing, and we want to experience them. And remember that our brain usually defaults to thinking that our circumstances, the events in the world around us, cause our feelings. So if we want this feeling, we want the things in the world we think will cause it for us.

Our don’t wants work the same way. Our brain follows some heuristic and decides it doesn’t want to feel an emotion. So it decides to avoid anything that might produce it.

For example, let’s say I’m thinking about giving someone feedback. And I’m imagining a scenario where they say the words “I can’t believe you said that. You’re really wrong about me.” I might imagine feeling uncomfortable or embarrassed or afraid, or self-doubt.

Now, we know I wouldn’t be feeling those things because of what the other person said. I’d be feeling them because of what I would be thinking at the time. But the nuance doesn’t really matter in this moment. Because in this moment, right now, when I’m imagining that future scenario, all my brain is certain of is that it does not want to feel uncomfortable or embarrassed or afraid or self-doubt. My brain in this moment, doesn’t care whether that would be created by the other person’s words or by my thoughts. It just knows that that is a possible outcome and it needs to keep me away from that possible outcome.

These don’t wants are a big reason why we distract ourselves.

Now, I know a lot of us think of emotions as big scary things outside of our control. What I want you to remember is that that’s not true. Our emotions come from our thoughts, and our thoughts are thoughts that we choose. Many of them are chosen by programming our brain has built up over time, but we get to choose to change that programming. It’s often not instantaneous, but it’s actually pretty fast in the overall scale of your life. So we really do have a lot of control over what our emotional life is like.

And we think of them as big and scary. And they don’t need to be. They’re really just arrangements of muscles and chemicals.

Or at least, that’s the description I’ve found very useful. But I also wanted to offer you a couple of other ways of thinking about what an emotion is. Because I want you to be able to reach the same point that I’ve been reaching over the last few months and the last few years of doing this work. Of realizing that there really aren’t any positive or negative emotions. There’s emotions, that we enjoy the experience of more than others. But there’s nothing wrong with any of them. And if you remember back to the episodes where we’ve talked about allowing emotions, and if you remember to Episode 4, when we talked about resisting emotions, as one of the other options. Resisting emotions is what happens so often when we think that there’s an emotion that is wrong, that we shouldn’t be experiencing, that this is a problem, that this is the arrangement of the muscles and chemicals in our body right now.

So as I said, thinking about emotions, as that arrangement of muscles and chemicals has helped me a lot. I want you to find a way of thinking about them that helps you also see them as neutral things that are happening, but that aren’t right or aren’t wrong. That don’t need to be gotten rid of. That don’t need to be fixed or solved. So I want to offer you a couple other ways of thinking about them as well.

One of my teachers Brooke Castillo describes emotions as a vibration in your body. Now, that works for a lot of her students. It never really worked for me, because I couldn’t see that vividly. I couldn’t understand it. And frankly, a vibration in my body still felt out of control. When I think of it as an arrangement of muscles and chemicals, it feels like a natural process. This is just what my body does. It’s in fact important to my survival, that it functions this way. But for some people, having an emotion be a vibration in their body, it really helps them get to that same place.

And when I was thinking about how Brooke and I describe it so differently, but we each have a version that works really well for us, I thought it would be interesting to ask some of my fellow coaches for other ways of visualizing what a feeling is to help you find the one that might work for you. Here’s some of my favorites.

Clotilde Dusoulier, French life coach and former software engineer in Silicon Valley, says “Thoughts are the programming language used by the mind. It’s an object oriented language with a high level of abstraction. To get the body to take action and execute the program those thoughts need to be interpreted into lower level instructions we call feelings. They’re the low level programming language of the body, much more closely mapped to processor instructions.” I love this explanation.

Corinne Crabtree, who runs the No BS Weightloss program says “Your brain is like a bartender. It gets an order for a feeling by a thought. He mixes up stuff and sends it out to your body. Feelings are a lot like drinks. Some go down smooth and you don’t feel much. Others are like a shot of fireball. Burns like hell. Depending on the drink, your body reacts different.” One thing I really like about that explanation is that many of us like cocktails that don’t always go down smoothly. And so when we think about our feelings, as some of them go down smooth, and some of them don’t. When we think about that in light of a cocktail, it actually makes it a lot easier to understand why ones that aren’t as smooth, aren’t as unnoticeable, might actually be desirable. It might be something we’d enjoy. Or at a minimum, it’s a way of thinking about that as not negative.

And finally, Sunny Smith, host of the Empowering Women Physicians podcast, recently released an episode where she talks about how just naming an emotion actually calms down your amygdala activity by engaging your prefrontal cortex. It’s Episode 20 of her podcast, and I’ll link to it from the full shownotes in case you want to go check out an episode that’s far more on the science side than what I’m talking about today.

What I really want you to take away from all of these explanations is that emotions are just part of how our body functions. They’re part of how we take things from idea to action. There’s a wide range of what they feel like in our bodies, but none of them are inherently better or worse than any of the others. And each one plays its own role in our lives.

I like to think about why my brain wants some emotions and doesn’t want others this way. It wants emotions that it thinks are mapped in some way to my survival, to my ability to pass on my genes. To all of the things in the motivational triad, right? Avoid pain, seek pleasure, expend minimum energy. And the ones that he doesn’t want are the ones where there’s some heuristic where my brain believes that that will decrease my chances of survival, decrease my ability to pass on my genes.

I break these down into three rough categories when I think about them, because I find these really useful for me.

The first is the first is physical cues to my survival. Now, my brain when it feels fear happens to trigger adrenaline. It kicks in throughout my body, and my body gets amped up. I find it a little bit harder to breathe at the same point that my heart is racing. I find that my muscles tense. And those are all danger signals. So I don’t like feeling fear, because fear is part of the response that my body uses to tell me that I might die.

Now, there’s lots of things I could be afraid of. And very, very few of them in my very modern, very safe life could actually lead to my death. But my limbic system, the lizard part of my brain, doesn’t know that all it sees is that I’m nervous or I’m anxious. And when I’m anxious, one of the things that I do is I hold my rib cage tight. Well when I hold my rib cage and I try to be still and not break anything in the world around me, right, anxiety makes me try to pause time so that I can figure out what thread I want to follow next. And when I’m pausing time like that, I literally hold my ribcage still. And when I’m doing that, it makes it harder for me to get full air into my lungs, and my body processes that as dangerous. Totally understandable.

So one of those three ways that I think of that my body categorizes emotions as positive or negative, has to do with how they play out in my body. Has to do with, do they remind me of feeling healthy and alive? Do they remind me of feeling in danger? Is my body functioning well and fully and openly and cleanly and freely when this emotion is being reflected in the muscles and chemicals of my body?

The second way, I think that my brain maps my emotional state at the time to my positive or negative chances of survival and how I’m feeling about those at the moment is through you can think of it as skills. So if I’m feeling so if I’m feeling self doubt I visualize that as my limbic system deciding that if I’m feeling self doubt, it might indicate that I’m lacking in an important skill for my survival.

Now, most of the skills that I use every day aren’t critical for my survival. I want you all to have a fantastic experience listening to every episode of this podcast. I want to enunciate clearly. I want to convey my ideas in a way that is easy for you to understand and easy for you to use them to create the life you want for yourself. And I want to speak in a way that’s engaging, and that keeps your attention so that you can hear those ideas and take them in and so that you’re not trying to not fall asleep while you listen.

But absolutely zero of those skills have any bearing on my actual physical survival. But remember, our brains are outdated. And for millennia, most of the skills that we used were important to our survival in some way. Not all of them, but a large percentage of them. And so if I’m sitting in a moment where I’m feeling, crushing self doubt, in my skills, in my successfulness, in my, in my skills in my ability to execute on the things that are important to me, that limbic system, I imagine actually doesn’t really know the difference between me feeling like “I wish I’d explained the concept a little better” and me thinking that “maybe I don’t have the skills to trap enough food to eat and to keep myself alive over the winter.”

And the third category I think about, remember the first two are ways in which the physical manifestations of our emotions actually make our body feel like it’s healthy in that moment or not. The second is ways in which our brain takes signals about our fitness to survive as an individual, our own skills. And the third is about how we fit in socially as part of the group.

You’ve probably heard me say before, that our brains put a really high value on belonging. On having a healthy group around us. On being welcome and part of the crowd. And I think of that happening, because for millennia, being part of a healthy community was critically important to your survival. You had to work together to create a safe space where you could sleep without worrying about animals or without worrying about a rival group of people that lived miles away. You had to have help in order to get a varied diet because some people had to spend time going and trapping and obtaining protein and other people spent time making sure that you had fiber or various nutrients and vitamins that were found in plants.

And it was a fairly reasonable scenario that some kind of social disapproval of you could lead to you being asked to leave that tiny community that you lived in, and the one that you depended on in order to have enough variety in your food. In order to be able to see sleep safely at night. In order to have a warm place to winter. Or a cool place in the summers. Because your community work together to provide those basic needs.

Most of us now live in towns and cities, and we go to a grocery store. And we can trade the value we create in the world to one set of people for money. And then we can trade that money to someone else, in order to make sure that our diet is full of the nutrients that we need every day. And we can trade that money to a third set of people to ensure that we have a roof over our heads, and that we have heat and cold and light and water.

So these are some of the ways that I model for myself why my brain thinks some emotions are positive and some are negative. Why it wants to bring some to me as often as possible, and it wants me to avoid others. And it will go out of its way to try to help me or force me to avoid them.

But what we really want our brains to learn is that there’s nothing that can actually go wrong in the world around us. If you remember back to Episode 5, where we talked about the self-coaching model, everything in the world around us is just a neutral circumstance.

Now, some of those neutral circumstances we choose to think, and we choose to believe are horrific. And I agree. There are lots of circumstances in the world around us that we want to have negative opinions about. I’m not saying that we should think that all of them are positive. What I’m reminding you is that we get to decide which things we think are positive, and which things we think are negative.

And the reason that matters in this episode is because if nothing in the world is actually going right or going wrong, if none of those things have an emotional valence, until we make a judgement about them, until we have an opinion about them, it means the worst that can happen in life is an emotion.

The worst that’s going to happen to us is how our body feels in response to our thoughts.

And all of those emotions are just arrangements of muscles and chemicals within our bodies.

And your body changes its arrangement of muscles and chemicals thousands of times every day. Every time you take a step forward, every time you shift in your chair, that’s a different arrangement of muscles. Every time your body processes your lunch, and your hormones go up and down. By the way, when I say chemicals here, I’m including hormones and all sorts of other things in it. That’s probably not the best technical description. But it’s simple. And I think it’s the right abstraction for this conversation. Our bodies change those arrangements of muscles and chemicals all day. Some of them are in response to other chemicals. Some of them are in response to the ways that we’re thinking.

So let’s look at an example. Let’s say that you give a presentation at work. It goes exactly the way you imagined, except the words flowed even better, and the audience was highly engaged and you got a compliment from the CEO afterward. The excitement or elation or pride you’d be feeling? It’s just an arrangement of muscles and chemicals.

You made judgments about your performance. You had thoughts. And the actions and words of other people during and after your presentation, you had thoughts about those too, and your brain interpreted all of those thoughts as “success at a task important to our survival” or “reinforcing our place within this group.” Those were the skill and belonging aspects of why we might feel an emotion is positive. So it fed you positive chemicals. Your limbic system, the survival part of your brain, decided this outcome increased your likelihood of surviving and passing on your genes. So it released chemicals that encouraged you to do these behaviors again and again.

Now, let’s imagine that your presentation went a little differently. You forgot a few of the points you’d intended to make. You notice two coworkers playing games on their phone in the front row, and you accidentally inhale some water partway through and have a coughing fit. You think thoughts like, “Ugh, I’m such a failure” and “I’ll never get that promotion now” and “I don’t know why I thought I was good at my job.” These thoughts trigger your brain’s heuristics that indicate your thinking you might have a decreased social standing, or get kicked out of your social group or have a low skill level at an important skill. Remember the previous scenario, our thoughts triggered the positive side of the skills and belonging heuristics. In this case, they’re triggering the negative side of it.

And your outdated limbic system, that doesn’t really suit your modern professional life, jumped to the conclusion that your chances of survival are lower than they were yesterday. And it turns on the chemicals that make you fear for your life and tense up your muscles to fight, or that just send negative reinforcement. Don’t do that again.

To help you get used to identifying emotions as the chemicals and muscles in your body and how those are arranged, and understanding that all emotions are made up of the same basic components, just arranged in ways we personally find more or less pleasant or more or less comfortable, I want to do a quick exercise.

Though before we jump into that, I do want to point out the phrasing I just used. Some emotions, we each find more or less pleasant. And this is different from which ones we individually find more or less comfortable. How comfortable do you find some of the feelings of pride or confidence? What about ambition? Can you come up with a positive emotion that you find really uncomfortable? I bet you can. And I bet you can also come up with an emotion that you don’t feel very pleasant in your body, but that you’re very comfortable with. What about pity? Or frustration?

What are some examples for you? What’s an emotion that is pleasant that you think of is positive, but that’s actually very uncomfortable for you?

And what’s an emotion for you that isn’t pleasant, you don’t want it, but that you’re very comfortable with? It’s easy to sit and wallow in it.

And now let’s jump into this week’s exercise. So as I said, I want you to get used to thinking of emotions as just arrangements of muscles and chemicals in your body. And I think when we start to see all emotions this way, when we understand that it’s all the same parts of our body, right, our body doesn’t grow or lose bones or muscles or chemicals that it’s possible of producing, with each emotion, those are all already there. And there’s only so many ways that our muscles can change their state, right? They can engage, they can be tense, or they can be relaxed, there’s not a lot more, right? In terms of chemicals, they can be in our bloodstream at a high level, or they can be there just minimally or not at all. But there’s not really another scale that we can use. So it’s actually a pretty small pool that all of these different emotions we experience are made up of.

All right. So, first I want you to choose an emotion that you consider to be really positive and that you love to feel.

What does that emotion feel like in your body? Bring it into your body and really explore. One of the easiest ways to bring an emotion into your body is to think a thought that creates that emotion for you. Or think about a situation where it’s easy for you to feel that emotion.

How does this emotion that you really enjoy, how does it feel in your neck and your shoulders?

How does it feel in your throat?

What about your chest?

How does this emotion feel in your stomach?

What about your toes?

How does it feel in your ears?

What about your wrists?

Alright, now, I want you to choose an emotion that you really avoid. That you have find distasteful or uncomfortable. And you really don’t ever want to experience if you can help it. And we’re just going to ask the same questions.

How does it feel in your neck and your shoulders?

How does it feel in your throat?

What about your chest?

How does this emotion feel in your stomach?

What about your toes?

How does it feel in your ears?

What about your wrists?

I want you to think for a minute. What was similar about those two emotions?

An emotion I find really uncomfortable is anger. And for me anger in my chest feels like my chest getting big and full and like trying to burst. And excitement, which is an emotion I really enjoy, has almost the same exact experience when I think about what’s happening in my rib cage. They’re also pretty similar in kind of the front of my throat and top of my chest. It feels again like that’s pushing outwards, a little bit, and a little bit tense as well.

Now, think about those same two emotions, and what’s different about your physical experience between the two of them?

For me, excitement has a bounce to it. A little bit of foot tapping or jumping or can’t sit still. And anger is a very still emotion. When I’m angry it’s like everything in my body pauses. Not quite the same way that I hold myself rigid when I’m anxious. But anger, anger doesn’t have unnecessary extra motion to it. The way that I find myself a little fidgety when I feel excited.

What I want you to do is repeat this exercise everyday this week. If you’ve been listening to the podcast for a while, you’ve got 10 minutes of time on your calendar. Mine’s labeled growth. And make sure it’s on your work calendar so that you actually see it during the day. Set aside 10 minutes every day, and set aside 10 minutes every day to practice your emotional health and your growth in the skills that are going to make you so much more effective at work and in the rest of your life. And this week, what I want to do is repeat that same exercise that we just did. And then add one more question on at the end.

I want you to notice what changes in your thinking, when you realize that both of the emotions you chose are just arrangements of muscles and chemicals. That in many ways, they’re very similar to each other. And yet, one of them you like, and one of them you do almost anything to avoid.

So I really want you to consider that over the next week. And my challenge to you would be to choose a different pair of emotions every day and really start to get a sense of how similar most of them are to each other.

And for me, once I started to really understand that these emotions are fundamentally kind of almost all the same thing within my body, it got much easier to stop telling myself that some of them were wrong and bad and needed to go away and never come back again.

So, make sure you grab the Podcast Guide for this week. It’s got all the different explanations for feelings I shared in this episode, and a workbook to help you deprogram your belief that some or all emotions are problems when you experience them, like the exercise we just did. You can find it on the episode’s web page, which is linked from the show notes.

Have an amazing week. Remember to take the time to break down emotions into the component parts within your body. It helps you get the distance to stop resisting them and stop avoiding them. And I’ll see you next week. I’ll see you next week.

If you loved this episode and want to dive deeper into improving your own emotional health so you can feel better and have bigger results at work, you have to join me for a one-on-one call. We’ll talk about where you are, where you want to be, and create a solid plan to get from here to there. Just visit go.exceptional.vision/call. See you there!