Perceptions and interpretations that Fuel Feelings

There is a two-part process that produces feelings:  Arousal + Interpretation = Emotion

For example, if someone steps on our toe, we will feel pain but our heart will also start beating faster. This reaction is automatic and we have little control over out body’s initial physical response. However, the emotions we experience are not automatic and will be influenced by our interpretation of the event. If we perceive that it was an accident and the person feels badly, we may feel compassion for the person, even though we are in physical pain. If we perceive that the individual stepped on our toe on purpose, we may feel angry and that it shouldn’t have happened.

It is our interpretation of events that are the key to our experience of emotion, not the events themselves. Whereas sad individuals tend to interpret events as caused by situational factors (e.g., I missed the flight because the traffic was bad), angry individuals tend to attribute the same events to human factors (e.g., I missed the flight because the cab driver was terrible). This is because anger is typically caused by the actions of people and sadness by factors that are circumstantial. As a result, people make different interpretations when angry than when sad.

We learn to fear things from our experiences. As a human, when we experience something painful, like getting stung by a bee, and we store this experience in our memory. However we may continue to feel afraid when we hear a buzzing similar to a bee. This happens because your memory has associated the past experience of pain with the current buzzing sound. A bee does not cause the fear, the fear is an interpretation about the bee. It is our interpretations of what it means to be near a bee that determines if we anxious or not.

Most small children have no fear of animals. They are interested in anything that moves, and if the thing also happens to be warm, soft, and fuzzy, they will like it. A child will not automatically be afraid of a big animal, such as a lion or bear. They must learn about the danger of such animals before they will be afraid of them.

Some have associated the pain or discomfort that can occur in the future, with the thought of that thing or event in their mind. For example, a person who interprets all bees as dangerous and causing harm, feels fear when they see any sort of real or plastic bee. The emotional “fearful” thoughts will occur automatically, without any conscious evaluation. This reaction can come from numerous experiences or from a single, intensely frightening one, especially if that experience occurs while they are young.

Others have concluded that there is no pain associated with a bee and have no problem being in a bee’s presence. Either way, the feeling depends on what our interpretation of a thing or event related to whether it brings potential pain or comfort.

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Shared by: Aaron Karmin, LCPC, Contributing Blogger

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