How do you complete an emotion?

It’s an interesting question, and one that would be very useful to me if I applied an answer to it. What does it mean to have processed an emotion to the point where there is no more processing to do?

If Ekman is right (overwhelmingly likely), then the automatically displayed emotions are joy, anger, sadness, fear, and disgust. My theory is that we experience and display emotion when our minds are in the process of adjusting themselves to something that isn’t part of their current representation of the world and how it works:

  • Joy: There’s something good in the world that doesn’t fit.
  • Anger: There’s something bad in the world that doesn’t fit.
  • Sadness: There’s an good thing that I expect, but it isn’t in the world.
  • Fear: There’s something in the world that might be dangerous.
  • Disgust: There’s something in the world that is contaminated.

The process of grieving suggests how we can complete a feeling of sadness. We can adjust how we see the world so that we know what isn’t there anymore, and we can account for its absence.

A few days ago, my wife and I decided that it was time for our elderly cat (Bethany) to undergo euthanasia. In the hours between the decision and the procedure, we did our best to make her comfortable and happy: she climbed onto my lap for a nap, and I petted her. A lot of crying was done. More crying at the vet clinic as I held her (and she rested her head on my arm) while she died.

I made a Facebook post and talked about what a wonderful cat she was. My friends made sure I felt heard. And I have a sense of completion now: I know that she is gone, and I know what that means. I know there is nothing to be done about it.

Disgust seems to arise when something isn’t the way it should be, and to fade when the way it is seems natural and normal. All parents know that once you come to terms with nappies and their contents, you stop having feelings about them: they’re just a job to be done.

Fear passes when there’s certainty. I remember the odd peacefulness I felt when I was 13 and I couldn’t breathe. The certainty that was about to die wiped away the fear (and also enabled me to relax enough that I could breathe again!)

Anger doesn’t pass when you win. It passes when you are confident in your understanding of the bad thing. Hence the frustrations that stick with me about problems that are over: if the same situation were to happen again, would I get hurt again? Without an answer to that, I can’t know that my brain can protect me; therefore, I’ll need to adjust it further.

What I’ve been doing for the last week is making a conscious effort to understand what I’m feeling, and to catalogue the information I might need in order to complete the emotion. It’s hardly a radical change to counseling approaches, but I find that the more fine-grained structure seems to be helpful when I’m feeling hurt and confused.

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Nick Argall is an organization engineer, structuring activities to help businesses achieve their goals.

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