The Fork in the Road of Emotions

In October last year, I began to see Brené Brown’s promos for her new book, The Atlas of the Heart, which was just published on November 1. This romp through the spectrum of feeling holds no appeal for me in its promise to dive into all 87 human emotions. Absolutely terrifying. Do we even need 87 emotions? Where do they come from? And if they are all eventually tossed on a waste heap, I’d like to plan detours around this pile of detritus. Like all thought, emotions are ephemeral, flowing through us, dissipating, dissolving, disappearing. There is nothing to hang your hat on here, much less to hang as a shingle with your occupations embossed and gilded on it.

Right up front, you will recognize me as a compiler, rather than a splitter. I learn by making complex concepts simple—neatly ordered in drawers, on shelves, stacked and arranged for easy access. Brené is in the splitter camp. Maybe academics add another comma to their salary by splitting easily digested, single-digit servings of categories into multiples of a dozen Thanksgiving banquet offerings to feed three generations and the once-removed, as well as first, second, and third cousins. I know two emotions that encompass (compile) all 87 of Brené’s.

The curtains rise. Consider this: There are only two emotions—doubt and joy.

Yes, it’s that easy. Imagine going through every day “compiling” feelings into these two states of being: doubt or joy. There are degrees of each, yet neither end of the spectrum—strong to weak—allows an emotion to slip out of the shadow of these two categories.

The beauty of this simplicity is irresistible to me. Why complicate matters by splitting emotions into 87 possibilities when emotions are too often dramatized with strident arm-waving and chest-beating, projected beyond walls. How emotions can serve us best is as guideposts or maps. Good feelings of any varietal indicate you have chosen the fork in the road toward Joy. Celebrate, embrace, stay on this road, and your thriving will continue and contribute to the lives of all you touch—your family and your community. But if your experience is suffering, pain, anger—an emotion that feels like a contraction of your life and being—examine it. It is likely rooted in doubt—a loss of trust in your innate security and freedom. When you feel doubt, you have surrendered your life-given privilege to grow and thrive.

Through a daily practice of mindfulness meditation, you become keenly aware of your emotions—doubt or joy. Awareness is the first step toward using the guidance they provide. Is the emotion a feeling of contraction, thus falling into the big category of Doubt? Or does your emotion give you a feeling of expansiveness, curiosity, awe, and delight, thus falling into the big category of Joy? Seek joy and use the information that doubt offers to rewrite the story you tell yourself in order to pivot toward joy.

Two Final Thoughts

1. A memorable “aha!” moment in my life was learning that, at its root, anger is fear. When a parent screams a visceral alarm bell at their child, whom they see running into the busy neighborhood street, they are in abject terror of their child being maimed or killed by a passing car. This blood-curdling anger emanating from them is a “cry” of fear. Does the parent feeling anger turn to punishing the child with a belt to the butt? Or does the parent recognize her feeling as fear and gather her child up in a bear hug, to rock her babe and herself gently until the tears subside? Understanding the root of one’s emotions is critical for clarity in human relationships.

2. Why “doubt vs. joy” and not “negative vs. positive” or “fear vs. love” or “angst vs. calm” or “discomfort vs. equanimity”? It’s personal to me. It’s not scientific. Doubt and joy do not assume fault or frenzy, nor are they solely identified with romance, religion, maturity, or specific relationships. They are universal, free of assumptions and associations. They are not lumped with shame, regret, wisdom, health, lack of health, or even something to be transcended or outgrown. Clean, uncomplicated, and accepted as a part of everyday life at any age and stage—any educational level, intelligence, custom, gender, ethnicity, origin—south or north of the equator. Choose these two words—doubt and joy—or any two words that work best for you: contraction vs. expansion, angst vs. flow, etc. Let me know what categories you decide for yourself at: