003: Emotions Are Constructed

Let’s talk about emotions, today. Notice that I normally tend to use the word “emotions,” rather than the word “feelings.” The word “feeling” often tends to be ambiguous. When I used to ask untrained clients a question like “What are you feeling?” they would invariably answer in a sentence that started with, “Well, I feel like …”. It could be things like “I feel like I’m going to die,” “I feel like he’s judging me,” “I feel like I’m letting them down,” “I feel like something bad is going to happen,” etc. Those are not what I call “feeling words,” but judgments.

The Classical View of Emotions

The classical view of emotion, is the concept that we have evolved specific emotion circuits deep within our brains, and that they produce and encode a set of very basic emotions that have the same fingerprint in any human, and perhaps even in other mammals. When specific stimuli occurring in the world, these circuits will get triggered and produce the appropriate change in our body physiology, our neurochemistry, our perceived sensations, and finally in our behavior.

Furthermore, that theory claims that the basic set of emotions is so universal that any culture in the world can recognize which emotion someone expresses, just by looking at their face. Below, you’ll see the picture of a man in distress. He’s looking like he’s about to cry. This man is soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo, and the picture was taken in 2016, at the European Championship final, when Ronaldo was playing for Portugal’s national soccer team. France had just scored the decisive goal against his team.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Except that in that picture, the goal that Ronaldo had just witnessed was Portugal’s first goal against France, and the emotion displayed on his face is one of elation, and his watery eyes want to cry tears of joy. If you saw the picture before reading these words, you were primed to see a man who’s upset, and you probably agreed. It’s only in context that you could tell for sure what the expression on his face meant.

Affect and Interoception

Coming back to a definition of the word “emotion,” we consider an emotion starts with an internal sensation, using a sense called interoception. Interoception our sense of the internal state of our body. For instance, if I perceive what I label as “anxiety,” I feel a sort of constriction in the center of my chest. This is an example of interoception. But that doesn’t have to be uniquely related to emotions. If I have heartburn, I will also feel a strong feeling in the center of my chest, albeit somewhat different. That, too, is an example of interoception. The main difference between anxiety and heartburn is how I interpret the sensation, based on my context. How I give it an emotional meaning.

The concept of “affect” is your basic sense of feeling. It has two main components: Valence and Arousal. The Valence dimension goes from unpleasant to pleasant. The Arousal dimension goes from agitated to calm. Below is a circular diagram called the “Circumplex Model of Affect.” The feeling words are arranged around a circle, positioned roughly according to their level of Arousal and their level of Valence.

Circumplex Model of Affect
(Russell, 1980; the original paper did not place the words in such a neat circle)

A positive emotion will be associated with pleasant affect. A negative emotion will be associated with unpleasant affect.

Interoception and affect are hardwired in us, but our emotions are not. They are constructed, based on a large number of experiences we have had along our lives.

The Predictive Brain

According to Lisa Feldman Barrett, the brain’s job is to manage our energy budget. In order to manage this budget, the brain makes predictions. We predict what’s going to happen next and our brain manages our physiology accordingly.

Fine-Grained Emotional Concepts

The granularity of detail in how finely you can distinguish one emotion from another is a predictor of greater happiness and success in life. This capacity is called Emotional Intelligence, a term coined by Dan Goleman.


You’ll find below a handout with a list of feeling words. On the front side are words that correspond to a positive Valence—pleasant affect—and on the other side, words that correspond do a negative Valence. The negative side has a list that’s quite a bit longer than the positive side. Our culture has a finer resolution for uncomfortable emotions than it does for pleasant ones. But also our brain has a negative bias. Print out that list and expand your emotional vocabulary. When somebody asks you how you are doing, instead of replying a mundane “Fine!” try on the following feeling words, for size: “I’m feeling giddy, today!” “I’m quite cheerful, lad!” “Feeling mellow…”

002: Core Limiting Beliefs

There is a hierarchy in our negative thoughts: Automatic Thoughts, Conditional Assumptions (or Rules), and Core Beliefs (or Core Limiting Beliefs). Those form the foundation of our identity. They are the central beliefs that we maintain about ourselves, others and the world. We have mentioned this hierarchy in the previous episode.

In this episode, we explore more closely how to uncover the Core Beliefs, especially Core Limiting Beliefs about ourselves. These belong in two domains: competency and desirability.

Examples of Core Beliefs that reflect incompetency are:

  • I am incompetent
  • I am a failure
  • I am weak
  • I am not good enough
  • I am inferior
  • I am dumb

Examples of Core Beliefs that reflect undesirability are:

  • I am undesirable
  • I am unattractive
  • I am unlovable
  • I am unlikable
  • I am bad
  • I am worthless

You can think of Core Beliefs as a pair of sunglasses. We may forget that we’re wearing them on our nose, but they still color the way we see the world:


In the handout, you’ll find a sample list of common Core Beliefs—see if some of them apply to you. You’ll also learn how to uncover some of your Core Beliefs, especially when they are hard to find. It uses a technique called the Downward Arrow.

Questions used in the Downward Arrow:

“What does that mean? Why is that upsetting to you?”
“What does that mean about you (or others, or the world)?”
“If that’s true, what’s so bad about it?”
“What’s the worst part about this?”
“So what if this is true? What are you afraid would happen?”
“How is that a problem for you?”

Find the Core Belief(s) underlying your Automatic Thoughts, and challenge it (them) by finding contradicting evidence.

001: You Feel the Way You Think

In this first episode of the podcast, I talk about how our thoughts influence our emotions. This principle was discovered—or rediscovered—by American psychologists and pioneers of the cognitive model, Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck. They were drawing on ancient wisdom, such as that of Greek philosopher Epictetus, who wrote in his philosophical manual, the Enchiridion:

“What disturbs men’s minds is not events but their judgements on events”

(Epictetus, The Enchiridion, c. 135 A.D.)

Going back even further, Buddhism’s sacred scripture, the Dhammapada, start with these words:

“All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts; it is made up of our thoughts.”

Opening lines of the Dhammapada (c. 500 B.C.E., trans. F. Max Müller)

Today, cognitive-behavior therapy posits that:

  1. We feel the way we think
  2. When we feel depressed/angry/anxious, the thoughts that create those difficult emotions are distorted
  3. You can change the way the way you feel by changing the way you think

Albert Ellis noticed the following set of beliefs in North American culture (if you are not from North America, don’t worry—those beliefs are very human and tend to be generously spread around the world):

  1. It is a dire necessity for adults to be loved by significant others for almost everything they do
  2. Certain acts are awful or wicked, and that people who perform such acts should be severely damned
  3. It is horrible when things are not the way we like them to be
  4. Human misery is invariably externally caused and is forced on us by outside people and events
  5. If something is or may be dangerous or fearsome we should be terribly upset and endlessly obsess about it
  6. It is easier to avoid than to face life difficulties and self-responsibilities
  7. We absolutely need something other or stronger or greater than ourselves on which to rely
  8. We should be thoroughly competent, intelligent, and achieving in all possible respects
  9. Because something once strongly affected our life, it should indefinitely affect it
  10. We must have certain and perfect control over things
  11. Human happiness can be achieved by inertia and inaction
  12. We have virtually no control over our emotions and that we cannot help feeling disturbed about things

Aaron Beck researched the thought content of depressed people, and found that his patients reported:

  • Low self-esteem and feelings of inferiority
  • Sense of deprivation or aloneness
  • Self-criticism or self-blame
  • Magnifying their problems
  • Speaking to themselves in terms of “shoulds” and “musts”
  • Wanting to escape their unsolvable problems, sometimes through suicide

(Aaron T. Beck. “Thinking and Depression: I. Idiosyncratic Content and Cognitive Distortions.” Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1963;9(4):324–333)

Types of Irrational Beliefs:

  1. Core Beliefs (or Schemas) — serve as a basis for screening, categorizing, and interpreting experiences.
  2. Conditional Assumptions — beliefs that shape your response to experiences and situations. Conditional assumptions that focus specifically on ways of influencing others become interpersonal strategies.
  3. Automatic Thoughts — spontaneously flow through our mind in the moment.


In the following handout you will see that it is divided into 4 columns. In the first column, note what is the situation where you are feeling discomfort; for example, “Hanging up the phone after talking to mom.” In the second column, write down the thoughts that come up; e.g. “I need her to love me.” In the third column, check the box that corresponds to the type of thought, as I described earlier, e.g. Automatic Thought, if the thought is a spontaneous reaction to the situation, Conditional Assumption, if represents your interpersonal strategy, or Core Belief, if that’s one of your basic assumptions about yourself, others or the world. Finally, in the fourth column write down how that thought might be distorted.