Why do I get upset – Understanding the role of emotions

Written by Gunnel Minett

In the beginning of the 17th century the French philosopher René Descartes made the philosophical statement “Cogito, ergo sum” (“I think,
therefore I am”). The simple meaning of the phrase is that if someone is wondering whether or not he exists, that is in and of itself proof that he does exist. This short statement came to change the western worldview quite drastically. Before Descartes the predominant view was that body and soul were created and controlled by God. Being God’s representative on earth, the church was therefore the ultimate authority that controlled all human activity.
A new worldview

One reason why Descartes came to play such an important role was that his idea made it possible to make a split between body and soul. With thinking alone determining who we are, the body became more of a vessel for the soul. Consequently, as long as the church remained in charge of our souls, science could be allowed to study the body. Our understanding of the human body started to grow rapidly.
The price science paid for their new freedom was that it became very mechanistic. With the church in charge of everything nonmaterial, thoughts and emotions were not part of science. Although much has happened since the early 17th century, science is basically still operating in the same materialistic universe. But recently a new change has started to take place thanks to neuroscience and technology.
Consciousness studies

One of the hot new areas of science is the study of consciousness. Still dealing with body (not soul), biology is able to examine the brain – our ‘thinking’ faculty – in more and more detail. The more we learn, the more it becomes clear that Descartes was wrong. What he should have said was not “I think therefore I am” but “I feel therefore I am”. According to evolutionary psychology (based on Darwin’s theory of evolution) it is not our conscious mind (the thinking part) that is important. Consciousness starts much earlier in the evolutionary chain. Even very primitive animals are now assumed to be conscious. Not in the same way as human beings of course, but they are conscious in so far as they experience certain emotions. This in turn gives them a certain primitive sense of ‘self’.
Consciousness redefined

Science also argues that body and soul can’t be separated. Thought, emotions and bodily reactions are all one entity. Our body generates emotions that generate thoughts that generate emotions that lead to changes in the body that lead to changes in the thought etc. in endless loops. This means that the role of our conscious mind needs to be redefined. Rather than determining who we are, our thoughts are more just a reflection of what we are aware of. The mind is in no way a separate unit that works independently of its environment. It is the unconscious part of our brain that controls the bodily functions and generates emotions that plays the important role. In order to establish who we are, it is not enough to understand our thoughts. We also need to understand our emotions, where they come from and why we have them.
Where do emotions come from?

The origin of our emotions is linked with our DNA, our genes. Each one of us is born with a certain genetic makeup that will influence the way we deal with life. If our genes pass on an aggressive, competitive reaction pattern from our ancestors, chances are that we will develop an aggressive, competitive attitude to life and pass that on to coming generations. Not so that we will go through life fighting or competing, but more that our basic reaction pattern will be biased towards aggression.
The next contribution to our emotional life comes in the womb from our mother. What happens to her during pregnancy influences the foetus. There is an old saying that if a pregnant woman experiences a fire during pregnancy this is bad for the child. This probably reflects observations that stress during pregnancy causes stress in the baby. The child is born with a form of posttraumatic stress so to say. Although this old wisdom is now being confirmed by science it seems to have lost its influence. The modern idea of ‘super mums’ who will do carry on as usual during pregnancy, regardless of how it may influence the foetus, is usually admired rather than criticised.

A third important input to our emotional life is the transition from womb to a life separate from the mother and in the big wide world outside the womb. The whole birth process is heavily controlled by hormones both in mother and child. If this process is allowed to work as nature intended, both mother and child are equipped to manage birth quite well. It is when complications occur and/or the process is interrupted or disturbed (as often is the case in modern hospitals) that the whole situation becomes traumatic and leaves emotional residues that may remain throughout life.

Our first impressions of life after birth make a huge impact on how we see life as such from then on. Because of the way the brain develops, the child’s first experiences are totally based on emotions, in a right brain to right brain communication with its carers. The part of the brain that deals with relationships has very few neural connections at this stage. The experiences of these first contacts will therefore form a ‘basic structure’ in the brain that future connections will be built around. This means that the way we are treated as newborn babies will therefore determine how we connect with others for the rest of our lives.
From birth it takes another 20 odd years for the brain to develop fully. Throughout this period that we call childhood, the environment becomes the main influence on the child’s emotional makeup. We learn emotional reaction patterns from people close to us (usually the mother to start with and the father playing an essential role at a later stage). Because we are social animals and cannot survive entirely on our own, we need to learn how to express emotions in such a way that we can use them to communicate with each other. This is such an important process for each new child that without direct eye contact this development phase will not be triggered. It is as if we need confirmation that we are not alone on this planet, that we are seen and heard by others (that our ‘arrival’ has been noted) before we
start to develop into human beings in earnest.

Crash course

As soon as the child has established a satisfactory contact with the outside world it starts what can only be described as a crash course in how to be a human being. To get up to speed as quickly as possible, the child ‘scans’ the brain of the most immediate carer/s (usually the mother) and simply copies the content of her brain. The child has not developed enough brain capacity yet to do any real ‘thinking’ so it simply assumes that the mother’s reactions must be right. It copies all her reactions, in particular her reactions to stress/danger, since they are essential safety features for the baby.
The effects of this transfer can be seen clearly with mothers (in particular inexperienced ones) who live in stressful environments. The extent of this is still not established, but the strong link between the immune system and the emotions, indicates that the increase in allergies and stress related disorders such as hyperactivity in children can be a direct result of stressed mothers. Still not enough is being done to make sure young women are taught mothering skills. On the contrary, demands from society often make it difficult for the mother to get the stress-free environment she and the child need in order to equip the child with good stress reactions.


After the initial crash course, the child needs to learn to moderate its emotions to fit in with society’s demand for conformity. All human beings need to go through socialisation process in order to fit into society as a whole. Without some kind of common social order we would simply not be able to function as a group which in turn means that we would struggle to survive on our own. All nations have churches, schools, legal systems and other figures of authority to lead the way in this process.
Since the goal is to get the individual to fit in with society the risk of conflict between personal needs and society’s needs is obvious and great. In particular if the child, for various reasons, is not given a clear understanding of what it must learn to fit in with society. Ideas of how to bring up children have changed throughout human history. As a reaction to previous authoritarian views, new (post modern) trends were introduced some decades ago arguing that children (as well as adults) are better off finding their own way in life. One or two generations down the line this attitude has been brought into question. The term ‘feral children’ has been coined for children that are struggling to fit into society’s demands. Without sufficient parental guidance they have spent their whole childhood in constant conflict with their environment in attempts to work out where their boundaries are. Even if the socialisation process involves curbing individual emotional expressions, it is a process that we are hardwired by nature to go through.

Children have an insatiable appetite for learning and do so through play. Play as well as parental guidance is equally important for the socialisation process. But parents tend to bring up their children the same way they were brought up. Not necessarily because it was a good way, but because early experiences tends to override later learning. According to science, children manage the socialisation process best when they get things explained, are allowed to make mistakes and gradually take on responsibilities.

The role of emotions

Regardless of how the socialisation process has influenced us, we continue to be influenced by our emotions throughout life. They reflect our basic, hardwired drives (reproduction being one of the strongest) and needs (such as food and sleep, but also care and recognition/acceptance for who we are). When our basic needs and drives are met in a reasonably satisfactory way this triggers positive emotions. If they are not met, this triggers negative emotions – like a constant reminder of what we really need in life. In this respect our emotions are simply signals from our body aimed at making us aware of our basic needs.
Depending on how the socialisation process was done, we will be more or less able to interpret our emotions and act appropriately on them to meet our basic needs. If we are lucky enough to get a good start in life, we will continue to be in touch with our basic needs in a fairly direct way, and able to satisfy them without disturbing the social balance.

But this can also be a constant source of misery and pain in our lives. In many cases the socialisation process leads to confusion and misinterpretation around our basic needs. Our sex drive is a good example. It is one of the biggest sources of conflict. Because it is a very strong drive, religions in particular have tried to control it, usually with a combination of shame, fear, punishment and social exclusion. If a child is taught that the sex drive is a taboo area, their brain will intervene and construct suitable thought patterns (good or bad) to help ignore or explain away this basic need. History shows however that no matter how much we pretend not to notice, or explain away our emotions we will not succeed very well. On the contrary, it is a major source of inner conflict and psychological problems. At worst it may lead to schizophrenic expressions where we develop sub-personalities that act as shadow selves and let ‘them’ express our needs. Under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol etc ‘they’ may take over and start to act out unwanted behaviour (with dreadful regrets the day after).

It is not just ‘negative’ emotions that cause problems. In many ways ‘positive’ emotions can be more difficult to understand if they are expressed in behaviour that is appreciated by society as a whole. People often express the wounds due to a loveless childhood, in professions where they can support others (rather then themselves) on a regular basis. Psychotherapists are often in this category. This may not be a problem in itself. On the contrary, they may offer excellent support and heart-felt empathy in a very healing way. It is only when the therapist is unaware of their own needs that therapist/client may get entangled in a co-dependent relationship, with the therapist’s own needs taking centre stage rather than the other way around.
In short, our basic needs will continue to have a strong influence on us throughout life and express themselves in the symbolic language of emotions. When we grow up we will be taught to ignore or ‘re-interpret’ many of our emotions depending on what we learn are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ emotions. As a result we tend to adjust our thoughts so that they will match what we think is socially acceptable. Throughout life we will try to balance our deepest emotions and needs with what we think is required of us as citizens of this planet. As we can see from the ongoing turmoil between races, religions and worldviews, this is not just difficult on the individual level but also a continuous source of conflict between groups of people, countries, religions etc.

Descartes’ mistake

It is easy to understand why Descartes made the mistake of focusing on thinking as a confirmation of our existence. The conscious part of the mind, the part we are aware of and where our thinking takes place, is what most of us (folk psychology) would describe as ‘me’. An often used metaphor to illustrate the conscious mind is a theatre where we are both actors and audience. Descartes may have agreed with this comparison. But in a theatre it is neither the actors nor the audience that actually decide the play and how it is performed. This is decided by the ‘invisible’ people who run the theatre. It is they who decide if a drama should be played in an optimistic, teaching way or in a meaningless, black and surrealistic way.
In the mind, the ‘invisible’ parts that decide the content of our conscious thoughts, are a combination of needs, thoughts, memories as well as our social, financial
and physical situation in life. How and what we think is the sum of our individual circumstances, in a layered way, where thoughts, needs and emotions form layer upon layer. Our memories of previous experiences will gradually influence our perception and interpretation of our emotions and lead to new thoughts aimed at understanding what is going on inside us. When this gets too problematic we may turn to psychotherapy for help. It will then become the therapist’s role to gently and carefully help us entangle these layers so that we can re-unite with the innocense of our basic needs and find new ways of expressing them in line with the life-situation we are in.

If Descartes had thought a bit more before drawing his conclusion he may have realised the real role of emotions. They start to influence us very early in our development from egg to human being, far earlier than our thoughts. And what comes first tends to set the standard for what is to follow. Our emotions have their roots in our deepest and earliest existence, which we have inherited in part from our ancestors. They represent our innermost truth. We can learn to distort, ignore or explain them away in a number of ways. But this does not change the fact that for all of us they play an essential part in deciding our inner harmony and sense of the quality of life.

Key words; Breathwork, psychology, emotions, neuroscience, child-rearing

© Gunnel Minett, September 2008

About the author:
Gunnel Minett is a psychologist, author and breathworker. Her books, Shri Haidakhan Wale Baba (1984), Breath & Spirit (1994) and Exhale (2004) have been translated into several languages.