Grand Unified Theory

I’ve been thinking a lot over the past year about emotions.

Well, that’s only half the truth.

I’ve been feeling a lot of emotions. In 2011, I weathered a midlife crisis, made a new commitment to my writing,  and confronted several serious challenges in my marriage. In the lulls between storms, I’ve tried to think about what the hell had happened to me and what it all meant. All I have to show for it is a theory about the emotional lives of human beings that makes sense to me, at least at the moment. 

With the help of a patient friend over brunch last Sunday, I scribbled it all down in the somewhat insane-looking diagram below, featuring lots of circles and arrows, pluses and minuses, a supplementary t-chart, overlapping bursts of text, and a footnote, all crammed onto one 7” X 5” notebook page.

I offer it in the spirit of inquiry and with the appropriate degree of humility, given that I have no qualifications to theorize about emotions, other than experience and the ability to think about it. (Does one need a doctorate in philosophy or psychology to theorize about emotions on the Internet?) Maybe it is patently obvious, like the famous theory belonging to this lady, but just took me longer than most people to figure out. On the other hand, I certainly don’t assume that it’s correct for everyone, and if you’d like to share your own theory in the comments, I’d love to read it.

So, here it is:


I. Emotions are physical

We know that emotions live in the oldest, most primitive part of the brain. They are physical. I used to believe that the physical manifestations of emotion (pounding heart, red face, tense muscles, etc.) were symptoms or side-effects of emotion. I now believe that these are the emotions: that the entire range of physical and (for lack of a better term) spiritual experiences that we call anger, are anger.

What difference does it make whether we consider emotions physical or not? Because if we consider emotions to be abstract, disembodied things that happen to have some disturbing physical symptoms, then we can mistakenly believe that it is possible to reason them away or successfully repress them, and that those irritating physical symptoms will disappear with no ill effects.  But you can’t repress your heartbeat, and you can’t ever really repress a feeling. You can ignore it and hope it goes away, just as hunger pains eventually go away if you ignore the need to eat, but the physical reality will still be present in your body, working its wonders or its mischief, and, like hunger, will return with renewed urgency if not satisfied.

II. Emotions are ALWAYS right

Your emotions cannot be wrong. You can be misinformed and react emotionally to the wrong information (like the elderly, hard-of-hearing woman across the street from us years ago, who, having misheard some bad news, believed that her next-door-neighbor was dead, then collapsed into his arms sobbing for joy when she saw him doing yardwork a few hours later), but what you feel simply is, like any other natural force. Your sadness is correct. Your anger is correct. Your joy is correct. Your love is correct. Even your fear is correct, that most maligned of all emotions, and (not uncoincidentally?) the most obviously physical.

Every feeling you have ever had was absolutely right in its moment. The perception that caused the feeling may have been inaccurate; what you did about the feeling might have been deplorable, but the feeling itself was sovereign. You cannot judge your own emotions or anyone else’s by the standards of either rationality or morality; you can only make those kinds of evaluations for behavior.


I. Positive

In an integrated person (and let me know if you happen to run into any), a rainbow bridge stretches between emotions and intellect. The role of the intellect is to interpret feelings, to help us understand why we feel the way we do. If we are patient and loving with ourselves, and really listen to our embodied emotions, we can gain some insight. If the intellect discovers, with its genius for uncovering truths and making connections, that the feeling is based on a misperception, it may, crossing the bridge the other way, be able to gently guide misinformed feelings. No one can ever be talked out of a feeling, but one can be talked into a different perception that may, in turn, alter the emotion.

II. Negative

In some people, the connection between emotion and intellect is a barrier rather than a bridge. The role of the intellect in this case is to repress emotion altogether, or, if the feeling is too strong to be repressed, to misinterpret or delegitimize it.

How did we learn to do such a crazy thing to ourselves? Well, many of us had good teachers. (“Where do you get off being angry at me after all I do for you?” “You shouldn’t be sad–you should be happy that Grandma’s in Heaven now!” “He’ll only break your heart. You really shouldn’t fall in love until you’re done with grad school.” Fill in your own, if you have them, or post them below, if you like.)

We take over where our early teachers left off, scolding ourselves for feeling angry, sad, lonely, exhausted, unappreciated, or unloved. Friends and family are more than willing to help, unfortunately (“Complaining about your job in this economy? You should feel grateful you even have a job!”). The intellect, and even the moral sense, cannot alter the feeling one iota. If you are angry about your rude, thoughtless colleagues, your unemployed friend’s demand that you be grateful can neither talk you out of your anger nor fill you with gratitude. The resulting guilt and rage feels familiar, doesn’t it? “Starving children in Africa would be thrilled to eat what you’re turning up your nose at!” made you feel neither thankful for your least favorite meal nor particularly kindly toward the starving children in Africa.  We don’t want to feel the anger or the guilt, so we try to shut off the conduit of emotions, which is, if my theory is correct, completely impossible.

Cut off from feelings, the intellect can make terrible mistakes in its rush to explain vulnerable emotions away. Hurt or sadness can become anger, a much safer and more powerful feeling. Fear can become disgust or superiority. (“I’m not afraid of gay people, I just find homosexual behavior gross!”) The intellect then makes decisions based on these misinterpreted feelings.  For example, a person feeling unloved may conclude that the relationship simply isn’t working and should be abandoned, instead of sitting patiently with the sad, scary feeling of being unloved, exploring its roots in the past and present, and reaching out to the beloved. I suspect that people who bounce from one relationship to another interpret every negative feeling as a signal to leave, or as evidence that they themselves are truly unlovable.

The Moral Sense

Morality attempts to instruct us to have the correct feelings and thoughts, when its real job is to tell us how to behave. Governing our behavior is a sufficiently onerous task for the moral sense to perform. It cannot touch our emotions.

When morality tries to dictate emotions, guilt results.

Mothers are particularly prone to feeling guilty about their negative emotions. Is it any wonder, when mothers are constantly lectured by everyone, even perfect strangers in Target, about the correct way to feel? (“Oh, enjoy every minute of your children’s lives! It all goes by so fast!”). But feeling guilty about an emotion doesn’t make it go away; it just compounds the original feeling with guilt, while attempting to drive it underground, where its root causes cannot be addressed.

If a woman is angry at her husband for not sharing equally in child-rearing tasks (which, remember, she’s supposed to enjoy every minute of!), but feels guilty because he works so hard at his job and the children adore him, she tries to repress that anger. Unhealthy? Of course. But worse: it doesn’t get the job done. Our feelings are there for a reason. Like physical pain, negative feelings alert us to problems that we may have the power to address. If her guilt causes her to repress her anger, then she can’t have the conversation that may save the marriage, which begins, “I feel angry at how much the burden of caring for our children falls on me.” They can fight like wildcats or have a calm, reasonable conversation, but at least the problem is out in the open where it can be addressed. All guilt does is keep the anger and its cause a secret from the one person who may be able to help solve the problem.

The best morality can do is to guide the intellect, which can, sometimes, under the right circumstances, change our perceptions and feelings. If I’m feeling irritated at someone who won’t shut up, but I realize that the person is really lonely and just needs to talk to someone, somewhere, about anything, then my moral sense guides my intellect to replace irritation with compassion.  I listen, now, not to the endless stream of chatter, but to the emotional need for human connection beneath it.  Learning to pay attention to my own feelings shows me how to attend to someone else’s.


If this theory is true, then I need to remember a few things:

1. I can never try to tell another human being how to feel.

2. I can never try to tell myself how I ought to feel.

3. I need to listen beneath people’s complex explanations of their mental state to hear the simple, primitive, elemental emotions at the root. Ditto for my own complex explanations.

4. When writing, I need to remember that characters operate the same way and try to represent in language their physical experiences of emotions, not merely their cogitations.


Well, that’s my theory. What’s yours?

Thanks to Kathryn Adorney and Alexandra Hanson-Harding for helping me think this through over the past few months. Thanks to Neil Fein of Magnificent Nose and Jeff Gutenberg of Stream of Subconsciousness for excellent editorial feedback on this essay, without which…well, it doesn’t even bear thinking about. Neil, bless him, also did the graphics.

About Julie Goldberg

Julie Goldberg has lived a life entirely too entangled with books. She is a school librarian, former English teacher, compulsive reader, occasional jazz singer and the author of Lily in the Light of Halfmoon and In the Meat Department: A Novel, one of which may even be published someday! She is a former candidate for New York State Senate and Rockland County Legislature, and would be only too happy to tell you all about it. You could at one time follow her on Twitter, but she's done with that all that now. Please connect with her on Mastodon instead: Mastodon
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8 Responses to Grand Unified Theory

  1. Scott Brizel says:

    Loved this piece. A couple of comments: ‘Emotions are always right’ is confusing. I think you mean that emotions are always real, and thus, neither right or wrong should apply. If neither right or wrong applies, then you could truthfully say that emotions are never wrong. However, it seems you may have hastily inferred from emotions never being wrong that they are therefore always right. You do address this adequately in the ‘Intellect: Negative’ section, so I know you get this point, but I can say that it raised my eyebrow at first until I read further down…

    As you’ve asked for some supplementary theory, You refer to fear or hurt being transferred to the feeling of sadness. I’ve thought about this transfer, and my consideration is that this is not a ‘sometime’ thing. I believe that anger is ALWAYS a transfer from another emotion, and I’m thinking that it may be improper to regard it as an emotion at all. My sense is that the other main emotions speak directly to the appraisal of how circumstances bode for our well-being, but anger is different. It is not a direct reaction to our appraisals, but rather some kind of adrenalized compensatory reaction to fear/insecurity. I think that anger is our body’s attempt to marshal our resolve in defending ourselves against something feared. I can think of no condition of anger that is not a cover for insecurity. I’m not saying that one that is angry knows they are insecure and just trying to cover it up–I’m saying that it’s the body’s hysterical, fight (rather than flight) mode to intimidate the human or animal cause of threat. I think it’s more like crying, which nobody confuses for an emotion as such, but is rather seen as an outward affect of sadness which has the social function of reflexively drawing compassion. I’m thinking that anger may be the effect when it is believed that compassion will not be forthcoming if one cries for fear. I imagine it’s like the ruse that one is taught to perform if encountering a bear in the forest: one are advised to ‘make yourself large’ by putting your hands up to seem taller than you are. I think anger performs much the same function in cases of helpless fear among humans. Does this sound reasonable to you? Do you think there are other states that are called ’emotions’, like anger or weeping, which maybe should be regarded as adaptations and not themselves emotions?

    I’d also like to add that I see another problem doggingthe emotion-intellect relationship. You refer to some emotions being substituted for each other, such as anger being substituted for fear mentioned above. Sometimes I think our idle endocrine systems generate either positive or negative emotions for no apparent reason. Depressives and those subject to occasional hormone-induced mood inconsistencies will relate. When positive emotions are generated ‘for no reason’ it’s a euphoric life-loving all-is-well, we don’t need a reason to be happy feeling. However, a bout of random negative emotions can cause problems for the intellect. A busy intellect sometimes attempts to ‘backward engineer’ explanations for such feelings which may not be explainable in terms of our direct reactions to real events or circumstances. A spouse encountering such unexplained moods may be given to assume their relationship is making them unhappy, etc. I have seen people sabotage what seemed to be otherwise healthy situations over what may be this pointless habit of the intellect needing to interpret ‘meaning’ into randomly generated complex emotional states. I’m guessing a lot of people might believe that nothing is random, and that feelings are ‘always right’ as you stated above. Do you think that some feelings can be wrong in the sense I describe here?

    • Scott, I think you’re dead on about “backward engineering.” To my way of thinking about it, this is the intellect not being patient enough to sit with the emotion and discover its true causes, and then jumping to the conclusion that the problem lies in the relationship. Maybe some people were raised to believe that their only true source of happiness is in their relationship, so when something doesn’t feel right in their lives, they look too quickly to find the cause there.

      I also like the distinction you’re drawing between anger and other emotions. Anger responds to a threat, real or perceived, so you could very well make the case that it isn’t a core emotion on its own, though perhaps aggression itself is?

      Thanks for your serious, thoughtful response. This is exactly what I was hoping would happen! I want to understand the truth, and I can never do that solely on my own.

  2. Joyce Romanski says:

    Dear Ms. Goldberg – You said something I have always known in my gut (no pun) was so true. I often made the same “argument” about feelings and related them to hunger. “…you can’t ever really repress a feeling. You can ignore it and hope it goes away, just as hunger pains eventually go away if you ignore the need to eat, but the physical reality will still be present in your body, working its wonders or its mischief, and, like hunger, will return with renewed urgency if not satisfied.”

    so much to say, Ms. Goldberg, but I must ponder it further. It’s 3 am and my brain is on fire — and you, are becoming quite the muse!

  3. OGRe says:

    Julie! While some of us might buy red cars or lipstick, you’ve produced a grand theory in response to your midlife crisis. Brava! I respond as a person similarly drawn to both the topic and the tendency to make systems.

    Emotions are physical, experienced in the whole body, and unmodifiable via direct control. While an emotion is not ‘right’ any more than hunger is ‘right,’ our opinions about whether we should feel this or that are guaranteed to put us in conflict with ourselves while doing nothing to change the actual conditions that created the feeling.

    I enthusiastically agree with you and Scott on the dangers of ‘backward engineering’ and meaning-making. Here’s where I turn to Zen to help me experience the emotion raw, without simmering it in meaning. Breathing in and breathing out, the emotion reveals its components (sensation, thought), and then if I’m lucky, the decision about what to do, if anything, becomes clear.

    I find that morality gives tricky instructions. You say: “Learning to pay attention to my own feelings shows me how to attend to someone else’s.” But my radar went up earlier when I read the phrase “my moral sense guides my intellect to replace irritation with compassion.”   You probably didn’t mean it that way, but many people do. Your intellect can’t replace irritation but your intellect can help you experience compassion for your own irritation.

    I thought of you the other night as I tried to sleep: “I should sleep.” Ah, there’s the thought “I should sleep.” “Thank you, Thought.” I accept the intent but not the direction. Breathe into the sensation. Rapid heart-beat, feeling ‘trapped.’ What is that? Tight chest, face clenched. Breathe into trapped chest. This is life right now. Take it all in. Decide to get up and meditate. Noticing thoughts of food. Breathe. Rice. Breathe. Porridge. Breathe. Banana. Breathe. Decide to get up and snack. Yum. Back to bed. zzzzzzz

    By the way, compliments on that excellent chart.

  4. Brian Hanson-Harding says:

    Very interesting. This does indeed remind me of ideas I’ve heard in marital counseling and from my wife. And it reminds me of lessons it took me a long time learn. One point you make that I find important is the notion that sometimes empathy and compassion are the best ways of dealing with one’s negative emotions or of hose

  5. Pingback: A Year Has Passed | Perfect Whole

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