Episode 110: Lessons Learned from Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett and Emotions
We often blame others for how we feel. We think that others “made” us feel a certain way. They said words and now I’m hurt. But this thought track is so disempowering and will keep you from being able to feel confident and progressing. In today’s episode, I share a small portion of Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett’s work and her book, “How Emotions Are Made” where you learn that others don’t “make” us feel anything at all rather you are the creator and architect of your emotinal world. Join me today, it’s a good one!
Welcome back to the podcast. I’m so excited to talk to you all today about one of my favorite books and topics: How Emotions are Made by Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett. As you know every tenth episode I like to spotlight a book, a teacher, someone or something that has greatly influenced my life so that you can add this to your to be read, to be studied, to ponder on the list as well.
This book and topic today comes at a significant time because in the Catalyst membership we’re focusing on our emotions this month so this will be a great addition to the already in-depth content that they have access to. I chose this month, January if you’re listening to it when it comes out as our month to work on and focus on our emotions because most of us are in full-on goal-swing right now. And so many studies show that right around this time, the last week of January is generally when a lot of people already give up on their goals and there are a lot of reasons behind that but one, in particular, is how we feel.
We might step into our goals feeling excited, a little nervous, motivated for sure. It’s like, “This year is going to be THE year that I…” and most of the time we make these goals on a whim. They’re not thought out, planned for, or prepared for. And I know, that I’m just as guilty in years past. We have these dreams or goals that we want to accomplish but we don’t anticipate roadblocks, any challenges that may come our way, and we certainly don’t plan on the negative emotions that will most definitely arise. We don’t plan for what’s going to happen, what we’re going to choose when our motivation wears off so inevitable without thought work and an understanding of our emotions we quit, we stop, and then what’s worse, we shame ourselves because we didn’t or couldn’t follow through, or even more extreme we deem ourselves as incapable and then we give up on that dream, that goal, that idea altogether.
So no matter where you’re at, what you’re doing, what season of life you’re in this episode, this information, this book, and this amazing doctor and scientist will greatly enhance your life and your ability to progress because you’ll start to understand what’s happening in your body and how you are not at the whim of your emotions but rather you’re in the drivers seat. You can feel confident in your ability to feel, regulate, and create your emotions. So with all of that, let’s dive in.
The book is How Emotions Are Made by Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett and I have to say I’ve read this one numerous times. My copy is well marked, loved, and referred back to often. This is one you’ll want on your bookshelf. Largely her work, her research is really incredible because for so long it was assumed that emotions were just something that happened TO you, that you didn’t have a say in it, and that everyone feels the same things (not at the same time obviously) but that happy feels the same in everyone, sad, mad, angry – so we just believed that we understood what those feelings meant and when someone is having an emotion that we understand what that is and what that feels like and Dr. Barrett in her latest research studying the brain, psychology, and emotions for the last 25 plus years has been able to not only contradict but offer information and understanding that you are more in control than you realize and that the emotions of each individual experience differently.
I can totally geek out on all of this because I find it so exciting, empowering, and really anticipatory in wanting to connect with others and understand how they’re feeling and why.
Emotions aren’t a set given. They’re learned, they’re created and all of this is uniquely individual based on your past experiences, your past information, and understanding to these. Which is why no two people ever feel the same emotion. We can get a general idea of happy or sad but to the degree that we feel and experience them is going to be different per individual and their thoughts and past. I think this is so intriguing because it stops us from just assuming things about another person or dismissing their emotions because we just don’t know what that looks like to them or for them. I say this and wanted to start with that because so many of my listeners come from homes and an upbringing not only at home but at schools, with friends, work even where emotions were dismissed, minimized, ignored, or criticized. Emotions for many of us were not talked about and so you most likely adapted to move forward but now might be stuck in a non-productive loop of discomfort, negativity, and discouragement because we never learned about our emotions, how they’re made, why you’re experiencing particular emotions, how to regulate your emotions, and how to move forward.
This research is liberating because you are not at the effect of your emotions. You are the creator. You are the catalyst. It’s not the circumstances that create your emotions – it’s not, “They said words to me and I’m now I’m sad” or like growing up we learn that we can hurt others feelings and more scary is that they can hurt yours. So disempowering, frightening really because how are you ever able to feel confident constantly unsure that at any given moment someone or something could happen and make you feel a certain way.
Dr. Barrett says, “Emotions are not reactions to the world; they are your constructions of the world.”
Again, “Emotions are not reactions to the world. You are not a passive receiver of sensory input but an active constructor of your emotions. From sensory input and past experience, your brain constructs meaning and prescribes action. If you didn’t have concepts that represent your past experience, all your sensory inputs would just be noise. You wouldn’t know what the sensations are, what caused them, nor how to behave to deal with them.”
If you think about babies or children they’re not afraid of things you are afraid of. And I say this because we assume our circumstances cause our feelings but think of this in a few different ways:
1.) We believe that if someone came and said negative things to you that you would be hurt or offended.
But what if that person said all those things in a different language that you didn’t understand. You wouldn’t feel hurt or offended. You’d most likely just be confused. You wouldn’t have the understanding, constructs to make meaning of it which then would create the emotion. It’s your meaning, your interpretation that creates how you feel not the circumstance.
Another example, 2.) When I was a little girl I don’t know how old I was, preschool-age maybe. I found a garter snake in the backyard. It was little and I was fascinated with this slithery thing and so I picked it up and brought it inside to show my family. My dad saw it and immediately had a reaction that I think most parents would of shock and fear and this need to act immediately which he did. He put it in the nearest bowl he could find and told me that we don’t touch snakes, we don’t catch them, don’t do that again kind of thing.
If snakes, my circumstance was the cause of my emotions then I never would have touched the snake in the first place. I would have immediately felt fear. But I didn’t. At that time I didn’t have my own understanding or meaning about snakes. It was after seeing fear in my dad’s face, whether that was of the snake or that his tiny daughter was holding a snake I don’t know but I learned that day that snakes could be dangerous and something to fear. My brain became shaped by the social agreement and constructs of my environment.
Which is totally different from the Erwin family, right? Remember the Crocodile Hunter? I’m sure they have different emotions when it comes to snakes largely because of how they were raised and what was socially agreed upon in their immediate world.
And last example, this is from her book, her work – 3.) she had several people look at blob paintings where there’s an abstract image in this blob and the individuals would look at it and see what they could interpret from that blob. And in one image it’s of a “blobby bee” a bumblebee and based on your understanding and interpretation of a bee you’re either leaning in to get a better look at it or shying away because you’re afraid of it. The blob, the bee didn’t create your emotions, rather your past understanding and experience of it did.
Dr. Barrett says, “Your brain is shaped by the realities of the world that you find yourself in, including the social world made by agreement among people. Your mind is a grand collaboration that you have no awareness of (your subconscious). Through construction (which means you build it with experience and understanding), you perceive the world not in any objectively accurate sense but through the lens of your own needs, goals, and prior experience.”
All of this is amazing to know because for so long we’ve seen our emotions as something that happens to us instead of realizing that I’m creating this and if this isn’t what I want to be experiencing, what I want to elaborate on then I can change this construction. And that can start with just questioning your reactions, taking ownership that what I’m experiencing is a projection of my understanding of my environment, that this isn’t necessarily TRUE and that I have options if and when I want them.
This is really good to know and understand because depending on what you’re thinking, what your past was like, what you see or interpret in the world around you, what you’ve been taught, what you’ve heard this is why you’re experiencing things the way you are.
Barrett says, “Human beings are not at the mercy of mythical emotion circuits buried deep within animalistic parts of our highly evolved brain: we are architects of our own experience.”
And I love that word architects because you give your brain the tools, the materials to construct these emotions with. With every negative or non-productive thought, interpretation, experience, understanding you’re building your inner emotional database with non-productive materials and elements and so it’s no wonder when something happens your brain is automatically going to predict that it’s negative to brace you for it.
So here’s the next really important thing I want to highlight. Your brain is always making predictions. It doesn’t know the future but our brains are designed to think and respond quickly. So without knowing what’s happening because it hasn’t happened yet your brain jumps into assumption mode and makes predictions based on the past and what you’ve stored in your database to predict how you should respond including thoughts/feelings/and actions.
She calls your brain your inner scientist.
“I’ve said several times that the brain acts like a scientist. It forms hypotheses through prediction and tests them against the “data” of sensory input. It corrects its predictions by way of prediction error, like a scientist adjusts his or her hypotheses in the face of contrary evidence. When the brain’s predictions match the sensory input, this constitutes a model of the world in that instant, just like a scientist judges that a correct hypothesis is the path to scientific certainty.”
So when you’re already feeling frustrated or negative and you see a friend or family member not smiling your brain might interpret that or them as being negative or cranky or upset which changes how you approach them. You might be short or quick to judge, quick to feel disconnected because your brain is predicting that this world is negative and the people are negative – so notice it’s making predictions and then looking for evidence to prove those predictions true and that is how your brain creates certainty and what’s true for you in that moment.
It doesn’t mean that they were negative or even feeling negative. They could have been concentrating, deep in thought, tired even but that’s not what your brain sees, it sees through the lens you’re currently offering it and past experiences.
So the best thing we can do isn’t to try and change anything or talk ourselves out it but rather be curious and not attach ourselves to anything at first. Which is a bit of an art form. It’s something that you need to practice at and train your brain to respond with curiosity rather than immediate meaning. We humans tend to make everything about us. Even when it’s definitely not about us – we can’t help it naturally – we can teach and rise above but your primitive wiring is focused on survival so naturally your brain is looking through a survival lens. What does that (the circumstance) mean about me? How is that going to affect me? What does that say to me or about me? It’s all about me.
And I love what Dr. Barrett says here,
“When you categorize something as “Not About Me,” it exits your affective niche and has less impact on your body.”
When we learn to step back as our default we won’t be thrown into the world of chaos or uncertainty – which it might and probably feels like for a lot of you. I know it did for me for a while too until I learned these tools and that we have more options.
Anything anyone else does or says or even intends, it’s not about us. It’s never about us. It’s always about them and their understanding, their experiences, their day, their thoughts, their practiced emotional habits. What you look for, you find. If you look for or believe that people are judging you, you’re going to find it. When you believe that people are rejecting you or that you often get rejected, that people don’t like you – that’s what your amazing brain will find evidence for. When you constantly make everything about you, that’s how you’ll experience the world and that’s exhausting. We just don’t have the energy for all of that input all the time.
Which is why we often feel tired, exhausted, and unable to concentrate on anything but the thoughts at hand.
Gordon B Hinckley once said, “Happy is the man (or woman) that can brush aside the offending remarks of another and go on his way.”
I remember hearing this and really thinking, but how? How does one brush them aside? It’s kind of like that whole, “let it go” notion. It seemed so far away from me and like some thing amazing that other people, like prophets can do but me? I dunno. Until I learned just to engage intentionally in curiosity. Curiosity isn’t taking sides. It’s not about you, it’s about possibility and that’s super fun to employ your brain to. Be curious, look for options because again, your brain doesn’t care what it does, it just needs a job and it works better for you if you give it one instead of it finding one because it’s going to find one that isn’t going to serve you, it’s going to bring up and predict things in your past to look out for, to be concerned about – it doesn’t want to go through another negative experience so in attempts to protect you from those, it starts scanning for them and of course, finding them.
If you have a story about a person when you hear about them, think about them, see them your brain will find evidence to support your thoughts. If you think someone is rude and doesn’t like you your brain will find evidence of that. Unless you give it a job to find evidence to prove that it’s not about you. Then you’ll start to see things differently. It’s a self-fulling prophecy.
What you look for you will find.
This is all incredibly empowering because that means that confidence isn’t something that just some people have or can have or can feel on the regular, it’s something that you create by the intentional focus, directive, and lens that you employ.
Dr. Barrett says, “Every experience you construct is an investment, so invest wisely. Cultivate the experiences you want to construct again in the future.”
And one way to think about this is to savor the good, what you love, to stretch, expound on, and really sit in the moment. Just as we make negative experiences a big deal in our brain, we talk about it to others to try and make sense of it, to feel validated though it, we think and over think about it – are you doing this also and more so with the experiences you want to keep front and center? What get’s more airtime in your intentional thoughts and focus?
Negative emotions are not the bad guy, they’re part of the human experience but you just don’t want to live there. Feel them, process them but ultimately where do you want to spend the majority of your time? Make sure your invest wisely as this investment will come up continually throughout your life.
For many many years I struggled with my body image and it’s what I focused on, what I found evidence for, what consumed so much of my daily thoughts and energy. I didn’t know at that time that I was investing in that negative thought/feeling cycle. But the more I invested in it, the more I would see and experience it. I believed negative things about my shape and size and because of that I believed that others thought the same thing of me and as you can imagine it wasn’t fun at all. I couldn’t enjoy doing things that I wanted to do because I was wrapped up in these thoughts which created my emotions.
I had insecure thoughts which created the emotion of fear and insecurity, envy for those that I saw that had what I thought I needed to be happy. I mean, for years. This is what I experienced and created for myself not realizing that there were other options.
It wasn’t until I started allowing myself to be curious about my thoughts that I felt the pull and tug lessen. I remember hearing my coach ask, “If you weren’t constantly thinking of your body or your weight, what would you be thinking? What would you want to spend your time and mental energy on?” And I was like, “What?” Because I hadn’t thought about that as an option before. It was the first spark of liberation for me.
Everyone around me was talking about their body or the ideal body or a diet or exercise or goals related to body and I say everyone but really it’s everyone that my brain would register – because it’s not that there aren’t people talking about their body, it just that my brain wouldn’t allow me to see it, it blocked that sensory input out to focus on what it thought I wanted – which is most certainly NOT what I wanted.
So when I heard something contrary to what my previous thoughts and beliefs were it invited curiosity. I started thinking about what I wanted to think about, I started noticing other people that didn’t talk about or focus on their bodies and what they are thinking about and talking about.
It’s been years since I was in that insecure state and I can tell you that I don’t think about it anymore. It is incredibly liberating and mind boggling to remember how pertinent it seemed at that time. My brain doesn’t predict that for me anymore because I’ve intentionally chosen to focus on other things, how my body feels instead of how it looks to others or on the outside. How my clothes feel instead of how I think it looks to others. I can be in my body instead of looking AT my body.
I bring this up just as an example because I know it’s one that many of you also struggle with and I want you to hear and know that it’s optional. You don’t have to be consumed with how your body looks. You don’t have to change or diet or fix your body because there are options for you. You can learn that what others see isn’t about you at all. And like Dr. Barrett said when we really internalize and take in input through the lens of, “It’s not about me” then it’s easy for your brain to let it go, to not hold on to it, or shame you for it.
And if still sounds far off to you, come talk to me because I’d love to help you progress and establish more productive investments for you.
There’s so so much in this book that I could talk for hours on but I really you to read it or listen to it audibly. I loved listening to it on audible and then it was so good I had to buy it and now I do a combination of both because like I said, I’ve read this book several times and it just blows me away each time because we have so much say and control over our emotions instead of our emotions ruling us.
The last area I want to touch base on is her unique concept of emotional granularity. This is the idea of being able to articulate and describe what emotions feel like to you. We tend to use words like: good, bad, fine, okay but what do these even mean? But when we can articulate our emotions into more precise descriptions like, “joyful, elated, excited, giddy” we can start to paint a more detailed and feel a more in depth experience.
“One of the most challenging implications of the Theory of Constructed Emotions is that, if someone doesn’t have a concept to describe an emotion, they won’t be able to perceive it.
(did you catch that? If you can’t describe the emotion you can’t perceive the emotion)
“They’ll still feel the bodily sensations, but won’t be able to label them precisely.
In other words, the range of emotions a person can experience is limited by their emotional granularity – the ability to construct and identify more precise emotional experiences.
(Pausing for a moment, when you think of the color spectrum there isn’t just light or dark colors which could mean anything but when you can start to be more specific we can start to see more clearly – like instead of a light color – think about what that would be for you if someone said a light color – we could be talking about two totally different colors but if I tell you egg shell or white dove, now you have a different interpretation and perception of that. It’s similar with our emotions – we need a better emotional vocabulary. Continuing from Dr. Barrett:)
“Imagine an extreme example: someone who only has the ability to distinguish between “good” and “bad” feelings. They exhibit low emotional granularity. Because they have only imprecise information about what is happening inside their bodies, it will be difficult for such a person to handle many of life’s challenges. They will be experientially blind to even their own feelings.
This illustrates the critical importance of high emotional granularity. Making sense of bodily sensations requires energy, and trying to sort a huge amount of sensory data into a broad feeling like “happiness” takes a lot of energy. Now imagine if you had a more precise concept for the feeling of attachment to a close friend, such as the Korean word jeong (정). Your brain would require less effort to construct this more narrow concept. Preciseness leads to efficiency; this is the biological payoff of higher emotional granularity.”
I love that because I think of cake. Because cake is fun right? So if I tell you I’m eating a good cake. What do you think of? And this is interesting because depending on your preferences, past experiences, cultural influences you’re going to think of a different cake from someone else with a different background and it’s only because I used the word “good” good cake. But what does that mean? What is it?
So instead if I tell you that I’m eating a decadent, rich fudgey, densely moist, mouth watering chocolate cake. Well, now you have a different image in your mind one that is more in alignment with what I’m experiencing. So that we can connect a bit better instead of trying to rely on our own experiences and brain defaults.
We need to expand our emotional vocabulary so that we can accurately file these away to reconstruct them in the future, to share with others so that we can connect more without vast chasms of misinterpretation between them, and so that we can experience the world in a richer, fuller way.
She says, “Our words allow us to enter each other’s affective niches, even at extremely long distances. You can regulate your friend’s body budget (and he yours) even if you are an ocean apart—by phone or email or even just by thinking about one another.”
We don’t make anyone feel anything but even oceans apart we can connect when we share our words and are more articulate with our word and especially our emotional vocabulary. We aren’t the byproduct of our emotions we are the architects of them. You have your agency to choose how you want to interpret your circumstances. One of the best things you can do for yourself now as an adult is just to start questioning the thoughts and beliefs you adopted and soaked in as a child. We run with these interpretations and meanings for so long that we never question them and some are completely non-productive so start giving yourself the gift of a curious mind which includes asking yourself and others how you’re feeling and being specific with that so that you can understand and connect on a deeper plane.
Your perception and experience changes as you decide the meaning of things. One last quote from Dr. Barrett:
“A dandelion is often considered a weed, but it transforms into a flower when placed in a bouquet of wildflowers or if it’s a gift from your two-year-old child. Plants exist objectively in nature, but flowers and weeds require a perceiver in order to exist. They are perceiver-dependent categories.”
Just about everything is perceiver-dependent. It’s your interpretation, what you’re making that mean about you and about the world that matters that makes up your world your truth your reality so invest in the things you want to invest in. You have all the power. You are the catalyst. You are the architect of your emotions.
It’s so good you guys. Now, practice being curious, being aware of your thoughts, your interpretation, and the influence you hold, and practice your emotional granularity to shape your world into what you want it to be.
You don’t have to see people as harsh, negative, judgmental, contentious, rude, mean, or hurtful. You have options. This doesn’t mean that you’re blind to all things or that you’re not making safe decisions – like the snake example, it was smart of my dad to warn me that not all snakes are friendly or safe that maybe I want to be cautious of them with an invitation to learn more about them and then make decisions.
Everything that happens around you is information. The things people say or do (or don’t do) isn’t about you, it’s about them and it’s information to you. But you get to categorize that information and where it goes and what it means to you and about you. This is power, this is certainty, this is where you can cultivate a lot of confidence for yourself. You are the catalyst!
Go and read and re-read, and re-read some more How Emotions are Made it will change you in the best of ways. Okay my friends, have an amazing week and come join the membership so that you can move forward with your goals, expanding and expounding on a more confident plane and learn to connect better to yourself and others around you. This work is no joke, it’s incredible and transcendent.
Thanks for listening, I’ll talk to you all next week! Bye, everyone!