Therapy Blog

Complex Emotions

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When discussing embarrassment, according to the American Psychological Association’s Kristen Weir (APA, 2012),

“Embarrassment is what’s known as a self-conscious emotion. While basic emotions such as anger, surprise or fear tend to happen automatically, without much cognitive processing, the self-conscious emotions, including shame, guilt, and pride, are more complex. They require self-reflection and self-evaluation.”

For the purposes of this post, it is the self-reflection and self-evaluation part that defines the Complex Emotions. I should add that when we combine more than 2 emotions (the Dyad/Compound emotions), I believe that we get into different flavors of Complex Emotions. Generally speaking, these Triad emotions (quad, etc) will typically require more cognitive processing, and that cognitive processing is in part what, in my interpretation, Weir is referring to as self-evaluation and self-reflection. It’s the cognition that connects them into what feels like a singular emotional experience. Think of 3 music notes played at the same time to make a chord. With some practice, you’ll notice that you can hear each individual note AND the simultaneous expression of the triad chord (This is a vast oversimplification of what the auditory complex etc. of the brain does with sound, but it’ll suffice for our purposes).

In the same way that our brain can experience both individual notes and the expression of a triad chord, we can practice mindfulness to identify the components of complex emotions.

Emotions + negative judgement of self = Dark complex emotions

Weir’s description of shame and guilt are great examples of dark complex emotions. They are directed inward, have a component of negative judgment, often unnecessarily negative. With pride, there is a dark complex of self-reflection and self-evaluation, and there is a more positive version (being proud of your hard work) of inward directed judgment.

Of course, we can also apply complex emotions to how we feel about others. Stay tuned for an update on this, and other forms of complex emotions.

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