Where Do Emotions Come From? (And How to Rise Above Them)



Feelings. What a mess! One minute you’re excited, then you’re anxious. Joy can turn to anger in an instant when expectations aren’t met. Even deadness can be a feeling—a kind of fear of feeling anything too much.

But where do feelings come from?

We seem to have two competing worldviews.  

Losing Worldview: Feelings are the result of what others do to me.

If you listen to most people, you will likely conclude that this way of seeing the world permeates almost everything. On the surface, it is certainly the easiest way to relate to the world.

In this story that many people tell themselves, feelings (especially negative feelings) are what other people do to me. They hurt me. They slighted me. They targeted me. They ignored me.

When we believe that our feelings are created outside of us, we tether ourselves to the world and the people around us. We see them as powerful and controlling and ourselves as powerless and victims. Resentment grows and sets a self-fulfilling cycle in motion.

Winning Worldview: Feelings come from within me

This is rarer. But it is the key to freedom. 

When we believe our feelings come from within us, we have no choice but to own up to our own perception of the world and the people around us. And by looking inward, we get and remain free from tying our fate to people who are innately beyond our control.

This kind of perspective sounds more like this: 

I felt hurt. I felt slighted. I felt targeted. I felt ignored.

The difference may be subtle, but it's crucial. For one, this way of seeing the world wins because it names an experience, and that experience can be explored, even interrogated, without needing to drag another person and their impossible-to-know motives into the mix. And when we seek to first deal with our feelings and perceptions internally, we avoid a host of conflict and destruction that otherwise emerges when we project our feelings and blame onto others.

Ask why? 

One of the most helpful tools for looking within is the word why. It goes like this: 

Why did I feel hurt? Did I have an expectation that wasn't met? Why did I have that expectation in the first place? Was it reasonable? Why do I think it's reasonable? Why do I believe "they" agree with me about the reasonableness of my expectation? Did we have a clear and firm agreement on this expectation?

The root of all kinds of problems—in our lives and our world today—can be traced back to our differing worldviews about the nature of emotions, where they come from, and whose responsibility they are.

But there is an external agitator.

Studies have definitively shown that social media has trained us all to increase the valence of our emotional language in order to earn those coveted ♥️s and 👍s. And this increased valence raises the table stakes for how we treat each other.

A “good job” from the boss barely registers any more if your metric is “crushing” or “killing it”. This gamification of our language and emotion is bad enough for praise. But the mere gamification becomes shamification once we have something negative to say.

Want to feel validated when the emotion called “disappointment” or “disrespect” arises? The algorithms have trained us: try outrage instead. Shame spreads. So “my sadness” gets externalized as a focus on the supposed sins of an outsider. Now sit back and watch the validation roll in. Proof that you were right all along.

But what about abuse, toxic relationships, gaslighting, and...?

Of course, real abuse exists. There are some “toxic relationships”, “fascists”, and “dictators”. But have those realities increased 5X in the last few years? Or could our flippant, memetic usage of the terms be changing our very perception of the fear, disappointment, and anxiety arising within us?

We had hopes. We had attachments. We were insecure.

When the professionals popularized the idea that "all feelings are valid", they took for granted that everyone understood those feelings were arising from within. But every feeling is not valid when it is externalized and laid at the feet of someone else. That is called "projection".

(Pro tip: try not to use "projection" as a diagnostic tool on someone else you're in conflict with. Just try to focus on keeping your side of the street clean.) 


It’s time for us to slow down. We are going to feel hurt in this life, even as we try our best to walk each other Home.

Repeat this when you feel negative feelings arising in relation to someone else: 

My hurt feelings are not their fault. My hurt feelings don’t give me the right to blame or blow up their life. And my hurt feelings don’t require them to apologize. My hurt feelings are just that—mine.

We recommend saving the Emotion Wheel image above to your phone (or find more detailed versions here). It can help you identify the real cause for your rushing heart rate, sweaty palms, knot in your stomach, and lump in your throat.

When we look outward, we only increase the stranglehold we’ve already ceded to someone outside our control.

When we look inward, we get stronger inside.

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