For many years I had asked myself the questions: What is the real source of our negative emotions? Why do so many things cause fear in our lives that aren’t inherently scary? And why do some people experience negative emotions while other people don’t in similar situations?

About eight years ago I wrote a paper for myself on the source of negative emotions. Today’s post is a summary of that paper. I think you’ll find some fascinating material here and I’m excited to get your responses and start a conversation.


What is an emotion?

An emotion is the experiential, chemical, and neuro‑physiological response a conscious being has to a stimulus. (I am concerned here only with negative emotions in human beings.)

If specific emotions were created by specific stimuli, then a particular stimulus would produce the same emotion in every person. In fact, different people have varied emotional responses to the same stimulus.

Then what does cause emotions? Except for stimuli that are explicit threats to our physical survival, stimuli themselves do not have inherent meaning for adults. The meaning adults give to events is what triggers emotions. On the other hand, certain events can have inherent meaning for children.

A specific stimulus is a necessary condition for an emotion, but not a sufficient condition. An additional condition that has to be present is a meaning given to the meaningless stimulus—that entails either a threat to survival, or a sense of powerlessness or helplessness that is indirectly, but ultimately related to a threat to survival.

Thus for adults to experience a negative emotion, they require either (1) beliefs that cause a stimulus to be experienced as a threat to their survival or beliefs that produce a sense of powerlessness or helplessness; and/or, (2) conditioning, that occurred in childhood, that links a stimulus and an emotion together. (Phobias also are the result of conditioning, but that conditioning can occur later in life when there is a perceived threat to one’s survival.)

(If all negative emotions ultimately can be traced to a threat to one’s survival, then the ultimate source of negative emotions is the belief/perception that we are a separate creation, a thing, whose survival really is at stake. If that is the case, perhaps all positive emotions can be traced to a feeling of inclusiveness, wholeness, a lack of separation—to the recognition that who we really are is a non-dual consciousness whose survival can never be at stake.)

It is a child’s inherent dependency on others that makes it possible for him to directly experience a threat to his survival in the face of certain stimuli. Children also experience powerlessness and helplessness and these experiences are directly related to a sense that their survival is at stake.

The Cause of Specific Negative Emotions

Fear is our emotional response to something that we interpret to be a direct threat to our physical well‑being. All other negative emotions are the result of interpreting events as a threat to our mental/emotional well‑being. They are our response to something that is an indirect threat to our physical well‑being, namely, something that makes us feel powerless. Specifically, negative emotions other than fear are our response to something that is a threat to our efficacy, our “okayness,” our ability to act on our own behalf to do what is necessary to survive.

To summarize what we’ve seen thus far: the perception that something is a threat to our survival causes fear. The experience of powerlessness, the inability to take the actions necessary to survive, is the source of all the other “negative” emotions. (Guilt is the only exception, which is more directly related to fear, as explained below.)

Physical pain is a symptom of an underlying malfunction of the body. It is a sign of a dysfunctional physical/body state. It is a signal that there’s something wrong with the body, a potential threat to the survival of the body. Mental pain, which is experienced as negative emotion, is a signal there’s something wrong psychologically. It is a signal that we either are being threatened directly or that our efficacy (our ability to deal with threats) is being impaired, which results in a feeling of powerlessness.

Anger is the emotion we feel toward that which does something (or refrains from doing something) that results in our feeling powerless, helpless, and inefficacious.

Sadness, unhappiness, grief, and sorrow are emotions that result from feeling powerless in the face of not having (or not being able to have) what we want, or losing something we had.

Jealousy is the emotion we feel toward someone whom we experience as taking away from us something we want and we feel powerless to do anything about it.

Envy is the emotion we feel toward someone who has something we want—when we see ourselves as powerless to do anything to get it.

Shame is the emotion caused by a strong sense of embarrassment, unworthiness, or disgrace, which makes us feel we aren’t okay. If we aren’t okay, there is an implied impairment of our power to deal with possible threats to our survival.

Guilt is the emotion we feel as a result of a judgment we place on ourselves. When we feel guilty, we experience ourselves as “bad” because we don’t think, feel or do what we should have or could have thought, felt or done. This judgment makes us feel we aren’t okay. Guilt is a function of thinking we have done something bad.

If guilt requires the concept of bad, what is bad? For adults, beliefs determine which behaviors are good or bad. For a child, good consists of doing what parents want and approve of. Bad consists of not doing what parents want and approve of. Therefore, for a child, bad is usually associated with withdrawal of love, which, for a child, necessarily produces fear. Thus fear always underlies and is the foundation for guilt.

There is a difference between shame and guilt. Shame results from concluding: I am inherently flawed. Guilt results from concluding: I did something bad.

How fear occurs as a result of conditioned stimuli

The real cause of fear is always the perception that our physical survival is being threatened. The real cause of all other negative emotions, except guilt, is always the experience of powerlessness or inefficacy that is inherent in being a child. The real cause of guilt is the perception that our physical survival will be threatened because we are bad.

Let’s use this understanding of how emotions are caused to explain how certain stimuli directly cause emotions in children and how other, neutral stimuli become conditioned to cause emotions in adults.

When emotions are caused by conditioning, we have an emotion today whenever we are confronted with any stimuli that in the past we associated with the real cause of the emotion. Let me explain.

Pavlov’s experiments with dogs are the classic example of this conditioning process. When presented with food, the dogs salivated. Then a bell was rung just prior to presenting the dogs with food. After numerous presentations of the food with the bell, the bell was rung and no food was delivered. The dogs salivated anyway, because they had associated the bell with the food. In other words, a stimulus that normally would not produce a response does so because it becomes associated with a stimulus that inherently produces such a response.

In almost every instance of a stimulus that has been conditioned to produce fear, the stimulus itself did not cause fear in a child. The fear almost always was caused by the meaning the child gave to her parents’ behavior at the time the stimulus was present, namely, the parent’s behavior means the child will be rejected, which means it will be abandoned, which means it will die. Because children experience themselves as dependent on their parents for their literal survival, children inherently feel fear whenever their parents do anything that a child experiences as rejection or potential abandonment.

To show how childhood conditioning results in adult fear, let’s use as an example an adult who feels fear whenever he makes a mistake or even thinks about making a mistake. When did he first experience fear associated with making a mistake? Assume that as a child his parents usually got angry when he made a mistake (in other words, when he didn’t do what his parents wanted him to do). The anger (the parents’ response to his mistake) made him feel rejected, which to him meant he’d be abandoned, which to him meant he’d die. That perceived threat to his survival is the real source of the fear, not making a mistake. But because he almost always experienced fear whenever he made a mistake, making a mistake (a neutral stimulus) became conditioned to cause the fear.

Making a mistake didn’t initially cause the fear. The meaning the child read into the parents’ response is what really caused the fear. The child didn’t distinguish between what really caused the fear and an event that just happened to accompany what really caused the fear. Therefore the latter event became conditioned to cause the fear. Later in life, the conditioned event continues to cause fear even when the true cause of the fear is absent.

Phobias are the result of conditioning that can occur at any age. You can be conditioned to fear dogs, or heights, or even specific people. You had an experience (or observed someone having an experience with which you identified) with the stimulus that you interpreted to mean a physical threat to you. Now, even if the physical threat is absent, the stimulus produces the fear. Again, the neutral stimulus has been conditioned to produce the fear. It merely accompanied the fear earlier, just as Pavlov’s bell merely accompanied the food.

How the Stimuli for Anger Get Conditioned

Now let’s look at how childhood conditioning produces other emotions, where there is not a perceived threat to survival.

Let’s assume you experience anger whenever you are told what to do. Merely being told to do something does not inherently cause anger. Being told what to do has become conditioned to produce anger.

Imagine that as a child you experienced anger when you were told what to do. The real cause of the anger was not merely being told what to do. It was the powerlessness you felt because you had no ability to refuse. If you had been told what to do, but always had the option to negotiate and frequently ended up not having to do what you had been told to do, you would not have experienced anger when you were told what to do.

Being told what to do became conditioned to cause anger because you never distinguished between the real source of the anger—the powerlessness you felt when you couldn’t refuse your parent’s demands—and the demands themselves.

The same conditioning process occurs with all the other emotions, except guilt, which is more directly tied to a threat to one’s survival than to powerlessness.

Although this is far from the last word on a complicated issue, this theory does explain why fear and guilt are ultimately a function of a perceived threat to one’s survival, and why all other negative emotions are a function of powerlessness. Maybe our negative feelings won’t be quite as mysterious to us as they are now.

Please share any comments you have on these thoughts about our negative emotions.

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