There is a concept in psychology called ‘primary emotions’. These are seen as the emotions out of which all other emotions flow. Theorists, however, disagree wildly on what these different primary emotions might be. The following chart summarizes a wide range of these theories:
But me being me, I couldn’t simply accept them at face value.
I spent some time thinking about them, studying them, looking at other sources, and the conclusion that I came to was that to my way of thinking there are only two emotions: fear and love.
Fear emotions include obvious ones such as worry and anxiety and panic and timidity, distress and despair and dread and cowardice, shame and guilt and dejection. But fear can also be the driving emotion behind hate and contempt, rage and complacency, arrogance and disgust, jealousy and denial.
Love emotions, on the other hand, include the obvious of tender and kind and gentle and generous, delight and joy, wonder and patience. But love also surprises us when it shows up as courage, elation, confidence, peace, trust, truth-seeking and rest. And it catches us off-guard when it comes in the form of expectancy, rest, sadness, grief, concern or hope.
And the reason this matters, is because without this understanding we can easily end up confused. We see our child throwing a temper tantrum, and we assume they’re just being deliberately obnoxious … instead of asking ourselves what are they afraid of?
We decide that we want to change a behaviour in ourself, like being hard on our kids, without ever asking what fear is being triggered?
We see the anger and the vitriol on social media about an issue and we feel attacked until we remember that anger is just a substitute for fear and we wonder, why is this situation making this person afraid?
And the reason that matters, is because the only thing bigger than fear is love, so the only way to do battle with fear is to lean in to love.
Lean into your child’s fear about how long you’ll have to be out at the store when they’re tired and thirsty and hungry and overstimulated. See their fear. Know their needs. Take the time to reassure them of their value in your eyes. I promise, it takes less time and emotional energy than the temper tantrum!
Lean into your fears about not being able to get all the errands done, or about your finances or about the work you had to leave unfinished at home or at the office so that you could be on time for the day-care pick-up. Take a few deep breaths. Ground yourself in love. Celebrate all the things you’ve succeeded at today already, starting with getting out of bed! Remind yourself of the things you are grateful for. Then decide which things you can actually do, put the rest to one side, and you will find that with this type of self-compassion you have much more patience with the kids.
Lean into the fears of your friends and family on social media (or turn it off for a season, if your self-compassion gives you the nudge) and realize that at the root of the anger there is fear. Then you might respond with stories of hope, reconciliation, wonder or creativity. You might put legs and arms on your love and show up with a casserole when someone complains that they’re sick, or show up to help a friend move, or invite a friend struggling with depression out for a gentle walk.
When we understand that there is fear and there is love, it suddenly reveals two game-changers to our relationships:
- We finally have an opportunity to understand why this person is acting the way that they are; and
- We finally have an effective strategy to respond to their actions, if we so choose.
There is fear.
There is love.
So, now, before I respond, I try to ask myself, ‘what would love do’?