What do we have emotions for?

Many people who come to therapy set themselves the goal of feeling better and many disappointingly re-negotiate the goal of getting better at feeling. What does this mean and why? What do we have emotions for?

An evolutionary perspective on emotions is to view them as signals, signalling that there is something in our environment we need to attend to. This environment can be external (e.g. having to pay a bill), and lets us know we need to problem solve.

Most of our thoughts are not necessarily facts; they are impressions of the world and therefore opinions, views, beliefs, assumptions. It is important to make distinctions between thoughts as facts and thoughts as opinions as their exit point is going to be different. We problem solve with facts and challenge opinions. In the court of law this would apply.

Our emotions, feelings and desires make us unique as an individual. We like and dislike different things; we have different interests, passions and desires. Therefore engaging with our desires and likes is beneficial from the point of view of maintaining individuality and looking after the ‘individual’.

There is a general trend to take measures to eliminate negative emotions, such as anxiety, anger and frustration to minimise the probability of feeling negative feelings by avoiding them. If we were to artificially split our emotions into two categories:

I category: anxiety and
II category: all the rest of the feelings: upset, sadness, irritability, anger, frustration, disappointment, excitement, joy and happiness. 

- and we attempt to numb and avoid negative feelings, the bad news is that we can not selectively numb the ones from the second category.

If we attempt to avoid the negative ones, unfortunately we bypass the pleasant ones as well. We can't choose and pick which feeling to experience. Also if we numb feelings from the second category, the primary feeling that we are going to experience is anxiety. Therefore for someone who is primarily anxious, the question is what other feelings are they trying to avoid? Many people struggling with anxiety report having no joy, excitement or happiness. No wonder that this is the case as the best friend of anxiety is avoidance and with avoidance comes taking no risks to the detriment of the individual.

Emotions are not good or bad, they are what they are; it is more our judgments of them. We need to be concerned more with what they signal and if they signal something, it means that they work for us. Painful emotions are particularly important because they leave significant scars that we need to attend to.

Emotions are short lived; they die out as our body and brain are not equipped with the ability to run over a long period of time with the same emotion. The idea of experiencing a variety of feelings means that we are not stuck.

Many theories of emotions have in common the idea of appraisal: assessing whether something is rewarding or punishing. Our emotions consist of cognitive processing (the argument of an emotions existing in the absence of a cognition has been long debated) which analyses the stimuli to determine its balance: positive '+' or negative '-'. Why this is important and needed? The theory of an emotion being a state elicited by rewards and punishes helps us move forward in understanding emotions.

We are equipped to obtain rewards and avoid punishers. For instance we feel happy when we win a game or have a financial gain, or when we are praised. We feel fear if we see a car coming towards us in the street. Our make up is to avoid punishers with the view to perpetuate our species and seek rewards that could make the individual unique, distinctive and different.

Let’s look at what our emotions signal by matching an emotion with cognitions, thoughts:




Physical or/and psychological threat


Others have broken my own rules


There are obstacles/limits in what I want to do. Omission of an expected reward.


I have broken my own personal rules. Presentation of both a reward and punisher.


Prepare body for sickness.


Bottom line. What is acceptable/not acceptable/what makes us/defines us.


Being seen as inadequate in the eyes of others.


Others/self breaking a deal


Accusing self or others of a wrong doing


Termination of a reward. Loss.


Removal of a painful stimuli


Current relationship threatened by better quality of relationship with other/s

These examples indicate how our emotions are produced by the presentation, termination or omission of a pleasant/rewarding stimuli (also called rewards or positive reinforcements) or punishing stimuli (negative reinforcements or punishers). The differentiation between rewards and punishers is extremely important as our feelings can be placed on a vertical and horizontal continuum. 

Presentation of positive reinforcements:




Termination or omission of positive reinforcements:





Presentation of negative reinforcements:




Omission of negative reinforcements:


The great benefit of our feelings is that they are motivational; they motivate us to act in a certain way:




 Avoidance, safety seeking/flee/fight




Make amends


Retrieve in order to facilitate the identification of other positive reinforcements

The function of an emotion ultimately is to elicit an automatic response on the basis on economy of resources. This automatic response is physiological, chemical, cognitive and behavioural. The physiological and chemical response is to prepare the individual for action.

There is a word of caution when it comes to automaticity as automaticity means autonomic, autogenous, in psychological terms habit. Anything that is a habit or a pattern needs to be attended to, needs a curious mind and needs questioning. We reserve the right to be suspicious about patterns. Automaticity means no awareness, something that is learnt with no language, through repetition and normally mimics a fear based response. Automaticity means looking after the species, rather than the individual. It is now explained as why certain things that we do automatically are not in line with our values, goals in life: such as nail biting, checking (in OCD), seeking reassurance, keeping quiet in social situations.

Variety of responses                           Repetition


Goals, values in life                             Automatic/felt sense


Looking after the individual               Looking after the genes

We must be aware that with overtraining, responses might become inflexible, in that the goals might no longer be influencing our behaviours. If behaviour becomes over learnt and therefore a habit, we run the risks of making automatic responses that are not goal directed. The impact of this analysis is huge in psychotherapy. As such states are states of the brain, the firing of neurons, seeking to look after the species rather than the individual. Only acting in line with goals has the function of looking after the individual, hence the need to find meanings, engage with meaningful activities. Please see for further reference ‘Satisfaction in life, the ultimate algorithm’.

We introduced above the concept of felt sense within the idea of automaticity. Felt sense is mostly present as a mode: we just feel it, believe it: not feeling like going out when depressed, seeking to hurt back when we are hurt, seeking to avoid when not knowing in advance, holding resentment, seeking reassurance, seeking to do certain things in order to prevent something bad from happening, seeking to judge, being harsh with self and others. Many of these behaviours are not in line with one’s goals and values and yet are very powerful and almost hijack the individual into acting on. The word of caution is again expressed to remind ourselves that these behaviours have the function of looking after the genes, not after the individual. We strongly advocate when people have a felt sense to consider whether it is in line with their goals, values and where they want to be in life. If the answer is no, there is a good reason to abandon the behaviour.

Another important aspect of emotion is that the individual can perform any action to obtain a reward or to avoid a punisher. Thus there is flexibility of action. This explains how people respond differently to the same or similar situations, hence the need in therapy to formulate in a manner that is idiosyncratic (specific to the individual). This is why the same strategies do not work for everybody.

The moral/key message of these notes is that our emotions are a condition necessary and sufficient to act on when dealing with a great deal of information. Acting in line with an emotion is helpful and needed, however check if it elicits a response based on our goals and values in life. Increased awareness of automaticity means increased options to behave differently. A fear based response is unlikely to help us act in line with our goals in life.

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