World Emotional Literacy League
World Emotional Literacy League

The Nature of Emotions –

Creation and Modification


by Dr. Dean Van Leuven

2012 Conference Paper



Whether our response to an arousal stimulus results in a negative emotion or a positive emotion is determined by our perception of the event.

We have positive, love-based responses, such as joy and happiness.  They feel good to us.  Our primary emotional experience is the need for love.  We feel good when we experience it.  When we are experiencing fear or anger, we are out of love and we feel bad. 


Fear and anger are feelings not acts.  They are not the act that we carry out in what we do or say.  They are the creator of the thought that motivates us to act.  They are our mental reaction to what we perceive to have happened to us.  For example how another has treated us.  We feel fear or anger when our belief system tells us that something is not the way we think it should be, or is dangerous to us in some way.


Biological research has shown us that there is no such thing as pure anger untouched by our culture, our conditioning, and our perception of the event.  Anger is a signal that something is wrong and that something must be done to change things. Our idea of what is wrong is created from all of our past experience and learning.  The physiological symptoms are the same for the love-based emotions as they are for the fear-based emotions.  Our mind just interprets them in a different way.  The arousal response, both positive and negative, comes from adrenaline. Physiologically our body re-acts exactly the same to fear and anger as it does to love.


If the body produces the same physiological symptoms for love, joy, excitement, anxiety, fear, shame and anger, then we know that the emotional responses to being aroused are acquired ones that we have developed in our own mind.


Once we know that our undesired negative responses are not determined by the event but are only our chosen way of responding to the event, we know that we are not bound to suffer because of them.  Changing to a more positive emotional response is always an available option.  Since we chose our emotional response in the first place we are capable of choosing a new and more effective one to replace it.


Many are trained how to respond without fear or anger when something goes wrong on the job or in our profession.  We do it because that is what we are taught to do.  We can also learn to train ourselves to react without negative emotion to the situations that arise in our daily life and in our relationships with other people. 


Airplane pilots, firefighters, store clerks, attorneys and others are trained to be problem solvers so that their normal routine is to respond rationally rather than to react emotionally - at least to those things which they are trained to deal with in this way. 


For those of us who lack such training, fear and anger often results from our feeling of inadequacy in how to deal with the situation.  The answer can be as simple as learning how to solve a problem using rational rather than emotional skills.


Why We Get Fearful or Angry


 Our fear and anger depends mostly on our particular beliefs about the world and how we ought to experience it. Our beliefs about ourselves and other people, about the world and how things should be, and about how life should be lived, come mainly from our experiences growing up.  What we learn from those experiences helps us to develop our unique pattern or response to life in the way that we do.


We learn about fear and anger from our parents, our friends and our society.  We are usually taught that anger and/or fear are appropriate in certain circumstances.  If fact almost every book I have ever read on the subject has suggested that they are the normal way to react – that we express them at certain times - and that such expression is healthy.  This is because we live in a fear/anger based society.  This is the way our society has learned to think and react.


We are taught that we must protect ourselves from others.  We are taught to expect that things be a certain way.  We are taught that the world is a dangerous place and that it might hurt us in some way.  And we are also taught to be angry when things are not what we want or think they should be.


Our society often teaches us to repress our upset feelings and to be polite.  When we do this we are left with an underlying fear or anger that drains our physical, mental, and spiritual energy.  Rather than confronting and solving problems with loved ones or colleagues, we ignore the problems and the feelings.  But the upset remains under the surface and often is expressed in an indirect way.


Sometimes we use anger because it works, and this strengthens our belief that anger is positive.  For example a child will try different techniques – some anger based and some not – and if anger works, he or she will continue to use it.  If temper tantrums produce the sought after result, then the child will make sure to have one when he or she wants to change something that is not going the way they want it to at the moment.  If temper tantrums don’t work the child will eventually realize that and try something else. 

Both negative and positive responses are available in any stage of life.  Until we find out what works best we keep trying what is available. 


Once we grow up we have the capacity to identify what is not working and to experiment with new ideas and actions until we find what works best in any particular situation.


Another reason that anger seems to work is because anger is the active form of fear. It is a much stronger emotion than fear.  When you are fearful, being able to shift to anger is a positive and a helpful step.  Anger is a step up from fear and can seem helpful, but when you accept anger as a method to resolve a problem you are accepting a very inferior and unsatisfying solution as compared to what is potentially available to you.


The biases of our mind survive because they seem to work for us.  They prevent us from losing confidence in ourselves Our ego seeks only information that agrees with itself.   We need to believe in our biases in order to have a basis for our very existence.


It is possible to have a belief system that is open to examination and change.  Such openness comes about when we recognize and accept that there always may be a better way of looking at and responding to our world, and to our life.


Fear depends on our perception of an event as somehow dangerous to our existence, or to our well being; or a threat to someone or something that we care about.  Fear gets our attention but it tends to immobilize our thinking and our actions.  If we haven’t already developed a way to respond to a particular situation it causes difficulty because our strong emotional response will get in the way of our minds ability to solve this problem; and to develop the best possible response for the particular situation.  


We can learn to look at an event just as something that needs our utmost attention rather than as a negative and dangerous thing that threatens our existence and freezes our thinking process.  When we do this we are more effective in dealing with the situation.  Our reasoning remains unimpaired and we will find more appropriate responses.


How Our Emotions and Beliefs Interpret an Event


Our emotional response to a particular event is primarily determined by our preconditioning and by our general way of looking at things – our beliefs.  But we can also learn to question our beliefs and change our response.


We have many fear and anger producing beliefs that hinder our progress in life.  Such beliefs are the ones that create negative feelings.  They make us upset and depressed and don’t help us to deal with life as it really is.


The difficulty is that if we see these beliefs as the appropriate way of dealing with things, then we think of our anger as appropriate or justified.  Whether we like anger or not, we think that we must have it because we believe it helps us do what we are supposed to do.


Our fear or anger results from our appraisal of a particular situation, which in turn depends on the beliefs we hold, the thought processes we use, the attitudes we practice, and the way we look at things.


We upset ourselves by making demands instead of having preferences about how things must be.  Once we think things must be a certain way, we tend to use anger-inducing thoughts to increase our anger.  Our ego likes to make the situation appear worse than it really is because this justifies our anger.


We look at things the way we do because of the basic beliefs we have developed.  These beliefs affect our thoughts, our decisions and our behavior.  If we keep our belief system open to review and change we can correct the ones that create problems for us.


Is Fear or Anger Helpful?


We develop habit patterns for most of the things we do in life, and they are often difficult to change or break.  We break one by putting a new habit pattern in its place.  And we do this by practicing the new response over and over, until it becomes a new habit.


We are all born with a strong tendency to be creative and constructive and to solve problems that naturally arise in our daily lives.  It is a matter of training ourselves to respond in the way we want to respond.


If we are aware of the beliefs and thought processes that feed our fear or anger, and if we know why we tend to get fearful or angry, then we can change our response in those situations when fear or anger is likely to flare up.  We can reprogram ourselves to behave in a different way. 


We use anger to show other people they are out of order, but there are other ways to show people that we are unhappy with them.  We don’t have to use anger as a substitute for our lack of assertiveness.  We can learn to be assertive without being angry.  We will be much more effective and much happier when we do.  We don’t have to use anger as a substitute for our lack of assertiveness.


The Things That Make Us Fearful or Angry

It is helpful to have a good idea of the things that cause our fear and anger.  If we know the causes, then we can learn to either remove them or to change the way we respond to them.


Most of our fear is caused because we see the possibility of something dangerous or something that we cannot control.  We have learned that the way to keep ourselves safe is to be fearful.  So when we perceive something as threatening in any way we become fearful.


Most of our anger is caused because the outside world does not live up to our expectation or our dreams.  We keep insisting that the outside world be a certain way.  When it isn’t we get angry.  For example, you are in a nice restaurant having dinner and small children who are part of the family at the next table are being loud and disruptive, and that upsets you.  You have an ideal view of how these children should act.  You keep demanding that children act that way even though you have no power to control them.  And you get angry when they don’t do it your way.


We get angry when others in our culture – or outside of it – don’t follow the cultural rules.  A major role of anger in our culture is its policing function.  For example, you expect people to stay in line and take their turn. Our society demands this behavior because if people don’t follow these rules the less aggressive of us will have to wait much longer to purchase our goods and go home.  When someone doesn’t follow the rules and crowds to the front of the line, others often react by getting angry and shouting at them to get to the back of the line.


Although every culture’s rules are subjective, and different segments of our society may have conflicting rules, anger is often employed against those who go against the rules, in order to coerce them into conforming.  We have learned to use anger as a method of controlling other people.  It seems natural and necessary to use anger simply because this is how we have learned to control other people.  And because many of us refuse to accept cultural differences as natural and desirable we live in a very angry world. The government and the media use anger to shape our opinions about other people and other ways of doing things. 


Sometimes we get angry because expressing anger is a common and acceptable attribute to our family of origin.  One’s family has a huge effect on how one reacts to conflict.  In some families, fighting is seen as bad.  In others, you don’t even count for much unless you can stand up and fight for yourself.  We not only learn our emotional style from our family, we also acquire the unique set of values our family holds.  How our anger gets triggered – and how we express it – are closely tied to the lessons we learned as we were growing up.


We develop a belief system and then get angry when things don’t go according to our beliefs.  Our ingrained beliefs lead to disappointment, frustration and anger when things don’t go the way we think they should.


“Other people” are a major source of our anger.  When we don’t trust others, we think, “I am going to get them before they get me,” and we view everything they do with mistrust, it’s as if our brain is out to lunch.  We are programmed to mistrust and we automatically respond from our emotions.  We don’t view the behavior of another person as a new problem to solve.  Instead we deal with the situation as one that we already have the answer to.  We deal with this new person just as we have already dealt with all of the un-trusted people of our past.


Not being fearful or angry doesn’t reduce our ability to feel emotion. In fact it intensifies it.  Studies on addiction show that the reason we are addicted to something is that negative emotions mask our ability to fully experience our natural state; which is our positive emotions.  We become addicted to something because it allows us to temporarily get past the mask of our negative feelings and feel our pleasure. We feel extremely good during the time the addictive substance suppresses our negative emotions.  This is the only way the addicted person knows how to feel good.  They want to feel good so much that it doesn't matter that their addiction has serious side effects.  When we learn how to experience pleasure naturally the addictive substance is no longer necessary in our life.  When we remove our negative emotions so that we can experience pleasure naturally we no longer need our addictions. 


 What Negative Emotions Do To Us

Feeling the emotion associated with anger is our first awareness of its presence.  But beneath our anger lies a primary emotional pain, such as pride, shame, hurt, frustration, sadness, terror, worry, or fear.  Anger is just the way we have chosen to respond to something that has come to our attention that has a negative effect on our state of being.


When we get angry we experience a host of physical changes to our body.  Anger interferes with efficient thinking, problem solving, planning, and success in school.  When we are angry, our bodies get hot, our muscles tense, our hearts pound, and our thoughts race out of control.  When we’re in the midst of such physical reactions we need to stop and pay attention to what has triggered the angry reaction and why it has done so.  Until we are able to relax and think clearly again, we will not be able to act effectively, or communicate clearly.  Instead, we’ll be in danger of choosing angry responses that our reflective reasoning would tell us are ineffective or inappropriate.


Anger can actually get to the point where it makes us physically and/or mentally ill.  It causes us difficulty with our school work. It can even cause marital instability, conflict, and divorce.  It may limit our educational achievement and occupational success.  It makes us poor parents.  It stands in the way of intimacy.  It can cost us lots of money and economic achievements.  It can even shorten our life expectancy.


The Costs of Negative Emotions


Now as you are learning to apply these new skills I challenge you to further  develop these skills in order to achieve emotional wisdom in your own life and in our society, so that we all able to live and work together in greater harmony and ever greater personal peace.  By this I mean learn to recognize and establish beliefs that produce inner peace for yourself that also produce both harmony and well being in our world society.


Because we believe something is going to cure us it does.  We refer to this as the placebo effect or wellness thinking.  It is such a strong effect that all research on medicines is done without letting the patient know whether he is taking the real medicine or just a sugar pill. The opposite also applies.  When we think we are going to get sick we most generally do.  If we want to be happy and well it is extremely important to believe that we are.  Studies have consistently shown that people with positive mental attitudes live much longer on average than those with a negative mental attitude. 



The chain of events in making a choice


How we perceive what the world offers.  

We react to particular circumstances and events according to our own particular beliefs.


How we accept what the world offers. 

Our beliefs about what happens and what should happen in the world affect how we respond emotionally.


How we chose to experience our life. 

What we choose to do in the world will change not only ourselves but also the world and the way we feel about it. 


How we respond to what the world offers. 

How we respond affects everything that happens after that.


By the choices we make. 

The things that happen in our lives come into being as the consequences of our choices.




Steps to Developing Emotional Intelligence


  1. Understand how your mind works.
  2. Create your goal.
  3. Create new beliefs to support your goal.
  4. Learn how to recognize and locate problems.
  5. Learn how to make changes
  6. Do the Work!




Checklist for finding a belief that is troubling you


Ask yourself:


1.   Exactly what you are upset about

2.   What belief you have that is causing this feeling

3.   What related or sub-beliefs you have that are supporting this


4.   What memories you have that are causing or supporting this


5.   Why you believe this belief is true.

6.   Is this belief absolutely true?

7.   Do you want to change the belief, or keep it?

8.   If you decide to keep the belief are you willing to give up being upset?

      about it?      



Additional questions to consider if you have difficulty

identifying the upsetting belief.

1.   Do I have a belief that I should be upset about this?
2.   Do I have a belief that I am “less than” in some way?
3.   Do I have a belief that I should have my own way about this?
4.   Do I have a belief that others should do it my way?
5.   Do I allow myself to do things I don’t want to do?
6.   Do I have a belief that my existing beliefs are absolutely true?
7.   Do I dislike changing beliefs?
8.   Do I truly want to get over being upset about what is happening?

9.   Do I believe I can find a positive solution if I keep looking?







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