They Do Exist.

Emotions vs. Feelings vs. Heart: A Study

Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Leticia Aracil. She has spent the last several years as an anthropology lecturer and academic mentor, specifically aiding students understand the value of their emotional structures. I found her observations on emotions, feelings, and the heart to be hugely helpful and informational. It might be a little more difficult to follow than you’re used to, but buckle down and dig through it! It’s worth it. For you academic readers, this should be cake. Enjoy! – Lauren

The Bible uses the term “heart” not to refer to the emotional part of ourselves, but to the most intimate part of us as a whole. We wrongly use “heart” to refer to emotions only, but that mistake is based on how the more important an emotion is, the more deeply it relates to us. Emotions have become a very confusing topic to talk about.

The general feeling about emotions is that no “objective truth” can be said about them, as they are “subjective”. On one side, they are said to be somehow arbitrary, inconstant, and changing, even animal, and opposed to thought and reason; yet, they are believed to be one of the nuclear parts of our self.  Over-simplifying this can lead to really troublesome and heart-breaking conclusions, such as the reduction of love to either simply romanticism or hormones.

But things are not like that.

Emotions, as every other constitutive human reality, are a complex topic and require some distinctions to be thought of straight. You need to understand the way your emotions work to see the logic and deep sense behind them. With this post I wanted to share with the Good Women some structural tips that are useful to understanding and dealing with emotions. This, however, is just a little guideline and doesn’t pretend to be exhaustive.

1st: Emotions are not opposed to reason.

Feelings and thoughts are different things, but they exist in essential unity in our lives.

Every thought is permeated by rationality, and everything known is affected by our emotions: we feel our thoughts and we think our emotions. Just think closely about something that excites you and how much of that passion also has to do with what you know and think about it.

This is because it’s not the eye that sees, the brain that thinks, or the hand that touches. It’s that we carry, in every aspect of ourselves, the whole of our human significance. It’s true that emotions are individual and we are all different in a way, but we all share the human condition and we feel according to it. So, even when we can’t experience someone else’s thoughts, we can talk about emotions with rigour.

2nd: Emotions are important.

They are an intrinsic part of our humanity. The way in which people feel is as singular and peculiar to us as the “rational mind”: they are both signs and consequences of our interiority.

Your feelings as a woman are important and reasonable, because “woman” is the way you are a human being. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

I strongly recommend reading Yashar Ali’s “Why Women Aren’t Crazy”.

3rd: It is not only about self-expression.

Emotions don’t sprout in the middle of nothing. They are related to your reality. Emotions make the bond of your inner self with the world more obvious.

Every emotion is a response to something; they have an object (a reason to be) and content (the way they happen). We might not see or understand where they come from every time, but they are related to how we experience things. The value of an emotion is the value of its object.

It is not the same, the anger you might feel if you accidentally break a glass, compared to the anger you feel when you see someone being abused; it is anger in both cases, but obviously you should not give the same space in your life to both of them. Understanding the value of the broken glass, you might decide not be angry about it, but you certainly should not let yourself not be angry about someone being abused. When you feel angry without knowing where it comes from, be careful what you do with it; feeling and expressing are not the same things.

Your feelings express you, but you could also say emotions are the way the world expresses itself within you.

4th: Emotions are not all the same.

Emotions and feelings are different from one another. A helpful classification could be:

– Physical feelings. The ones that find their origin in states and relations of our body. Pleasure from a good massage, pain from illness. These are the voice of our bodies. Physical feelings are the consequence of a stimulus, of which we might be aware or not. We experience them passively.

– Psychic feelings. These are the subjective feelings or moods. They affect us depending of our character traits and personal experiences. The general sadness you may feel days after a fight, the good mood someone has after a good night of sleep, the side effects of a medicine on your mood, etc. While the physical feelings have a cause, these feelings have a motive. They are not experienced passively, but they come somehow one-sidedly on us.

– Spiritual feelings. They are the emotional response to truth, beauty, and value recognized by our intelligence: the emotional aspect of our heart responding to something of worth. These feelings are the emotional aspect of an act of freedom that involves our whole self, they cannot possibly arise in our hearts unless we’re conscious of the object we are responding to; therefore, they are active and creative feelings. These kinds of feelings are not random or irrational at all, but the opposite, feelings true passion is made of!

For more on this distinction, I recommend the reading Alice von Hildebrand, “In Defense of Feelings”.

What are these distinctions for? They help us find the right place for emotion in our lives.

When I get anemic, I get very depressed. The first time it happened, I didn’t know it could be a feeling caused by my physical body, so I took it for a real state of my heart. I got very worried because I had no reason to feel that way. Nothing I did to cheer myself up worked. A single aspect of my body took control over me in a way that, to all effects, seemed random and irrational – and that isolated me. Only when I became aware it was physical and not psychic was I able to deal with it properly: the angst was gone, and I just had to put my sadness in parentheses and take my vitamins.

It might sound silly to some of you, but think about the horrible torture it might become for a person to believe their pain is coming from the state of their heart, instead of knowing it has physical origin. And the opposite too! Think, for example, about someone trying to fix physically a problem that comes from the soul, like trying to fill emptiness in one’s heart through antidepressants. They will distract this person from the pain, but nothing is remedied.

5th:  There can be wrong emotions.

Believing that our feelings are always “right” is to seriously underestimate our skill to mess ourselves up.

We have to give them credit, but they can be partial, incomplete, corrupted, unfair, inadequate, sick, confused, irrational, poorly managed, misunderstood, etc. We need to be aware of that.

6th: Emotions need education.

Against the general opinion, spontaneous feelings can be unauthentic. Not only they are likely to be superficial or incomplete, but also might be more of a reaction than an expression of ourselves as a whole. Acting on spontaneous feelings can be an involuntary lie, they might take only immediate situations into consideration and fail to recognize consequences.

Along with our intelligence, talents, and manners, it is crucial that we learn about our emotional dimension, to become more authentic.

How do we do this?

Educating our emotional selves is not restraining. It helps us experience our emotions fully and more clearly, and also gives us access to subtler levels of emotions we might be missing or experiencing without knowing it.

1. Realize that your emotions are not you but an aspect of you. Strive to know yourself, but keep yourself open to surprises.

2. Take responsibility of your feelings because they come from you.

3. Strengthen the connection your feelings have with other dimensions of your self (like intelligence and will).

4. Deal with your emotions knowing how they relate to the world. If you know what makes you angry, you can avoid it if necessary, or prepare yourself for it so it won’t hurt your balance. We need to know which things deserve which kind of emotions, learn how to handle them, and correct their deviations.


Our hearts are vulnerable, meaningful, and strong. Don’t allow yourself to give your heart to what doesn’t deserve it, or keep it from what does deserve it – that’s confusing and painful. We must take care of our hearts.

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16 Responses

  1. Liz

    This information would have been invaluable to me at 14 years old. It was very confusing as a young girl dealing with my feelings. This is really well put. Thank you.

    January 29, 2012 at 5:06 pm

  2. Pamela

    This is really informative!
    I love the part about how we need to educate our emotions.
    It makes me think of David in Psalm 42 where he says “Why am i discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my hope in God! I will praise him again, my saviour and my God!”
    He says this a few times throughout the chapter.
    When our feelings do not reflect the truth of God’s character, we need to educate them on that truth.

    January 29, 2012 at 7:06 pm

  3. Ruthie D.

    Love this! Thanks for writing.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:49 pm

    • Leticia

      My pleasure.

      January 31, 2012 at 1:24 pm

  4. Tessa

    How do you figure out if an emotion has a physical, psychic, or spiritual origin? That seems like a really important distinction.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:00 pm

    • LeticiaCortinaAracil

      This is a very interesting question Tessa, but tricky to be answered. It can be indeed important to tell apart the character of feelings but, ultimately, you are the only one who can really tell (unless we are dealing with a pathological situationl).

      Feelings rarely come as clearly differenced as any analytic cataloguing will make them look. Keep in mind that, in the end, you are the one feeling and you are a unity with all those three dimensions listed here working together. Your reality will always be more complex than any category. The main condition then is to know yourself and to look at yourself with honesty, not trying to fill a list of traits that are to become a synonym of “good” and “bad”.

      This said, the distinction can be made: the quid is this object and content thing I mention in part 3.

      January 31, 2012 at 7:51 am

      • LeticiaCortinaAracil

        Your feelings are talking about the relation you have with something, knowing the nature of that relation would give away the character of your feeling. Let me give you some examples:

        – If I’m being grumpy (content) because I’m hungry (object), I can clearly tell this feeling is something working in the physical level. The relation here is clear.

        – If I feel sexual desire for a random stranger (content) because I feel lonely (object), it is certainly not a physical feeling! It doesn’t seem so because the relation is less obvious as it is directed towards someone else when the real object of the feeling is me. This is certainly something that deals with the psychic-spiritual level.

        January 31, 2012 at 7:53 am

        • LeticiaCortinaAracil

          – If I’m feeling terribly sad for days (content) because a random stranger was impolite to me in the tube (object), I can tell the reaction is not proportionate with its object, so I can suspect something else goes on with me. A logical reaction of sadness (which would work in the psychic-spiritual field) might be magnified by a physical condition (like in my example of being anaemic), making this sadness belong to a physical field; or maybe this man being rude it is not the real object of my sadness bout the detonator of something else.

          But, I’m using deliberately troubled examples. Trouble is easy as an example. Let’s put a positive one:

          -An optimistic mood (content) in response to an adversity, like being fired from my job (object). This might be the result of my character type, that makes me be generally positive (psychic feeling) or can be the response of the insertion of that adversity in a context of self-improvement (certainly a spiritual feeling).

          January 31, 2012 at 7:53 am

          • LeticiaCortinaAracil

            You will normally be able to tell there’s a sense between how you feel and the reason you do. There’s where you need to look at.

            In ay case, the one here is just one of the many ways in which you can approach to this complex question of feelings (and it is done from a phenomenological point of view). If you don’t find it helpful, I really recommend widening the view and looking also at other possible ones that might be more helpful to you.

            I hope my answer helped you here.

            January 31, 2012 at 7:54 am

  5. Rachel

    how do you know if an emotion is wrong? i just skimmed through this, so I might've missed it.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:36 pm

    • LeticiaCortinaAracil

      It is actually a very good question Rachel!

      Emotions, taken as atoms with no relation with anything, are neither good nor bad. But they don’t come that way in our lives. In every case I talk of them as something integrated with our active living, and I mean “wrong” placing them as a part of that whole.

      You can take this “wrong” in a cognitive sense or in an ethical/moral sense. It applies to both but differently.

      In the first sense, the emotions always point to a reality and in a certain way. They tell us something about something going on with us. But the clarity with which we see this doesn’t depend on the emotion but on us, and we might get the message wrong.
      For example, if I’m upset about something that went wrong at work and my housemate does something that casually takes on my nerves I might get very angry at my friend; ; then, the emotion will point at this person’s action as the cause of my anger, while the real reason is what happened at work.
      So let’s put this as: I can be wrong about my emotions . And I can see this if I pay attention.

      January 31, 2012 at 1:21 pm

      • LeticiaCortinaAracil

        We can also condition ourselves into a twisted emotional responses to some things (out of habit, past experiences, education, etc.), mess them (repressing them or giving them too much importance, keeping them in a child-like state, etc.), or be conditioned by some health circumstance (like a bi-polar). In this case the emotion is working wrong, not because it is itself reprehensible, but because it is out of balance, out of its place of significance in my life and that will lead me to (or are result of) a wrong behaviour ethically speaking.
        Some examples of this:
        -Feeling guilty about having a huge ball of chocolate ice-cream when you don’t need to lose weight,
        -Getting emotional pleasure out of pain (yours or someone else’s),
        -Feeling life is not worth living because my favourite TV show was cancelled

        We can see they are wrong because we can look at their sense and say something about it with our lifes.

        I hope I answered you.

        January 31, 2012 at 1:22 pm

  6. Elizabeth

    Very interesting and helpful article! i specifically found the 3 different categories of emotions to be enlightening. i do have a question about them though… i find it confusing to figure out the classification of your emotion– since we are all physically made up so differently, have all had unique experiences and therefore process and perceive things so differently. Like you said in your answer above, we are "whole" human beings, so it almost seems impossible for me to categorize my emotions because all the elements that could possibly play a part. I know i'm probably overcomplicating it….but this question comes up because I've dealt with anxiety and depression for a lot of my life, and this past year I've been overanalyizng this struggle, sort of making myself crazy trying to find the source of it, so that I can find the solution and help myself. I've always attributed my emotional highs and lows to my hyper-sensitive personality. i feel EVERYTHING so strongly. Whether it's a joy or a pain, I become totally overcome with it. It's just how i operate, out of my emotions (i'm an INFP if you're familiar with that pers inventory). But, over the past year, my eyes have been opened up to the potential physical sides of it. Could it be a chemical imbalance that makes me prone to feeling so emotionally low or anxious at times? Or could there be some other physical cause, like a vitamin deficiency? OR could I be prone to depression/anxiety because experiences I've had as a child? And, after a year of literally researching and analyzing the mess out of every cause— I've come to the conclusion that despite knowing the cause or source of the emotion or tendency, it's my reality. And i ultimately have to bring these emotions to God, and until He beings me clarity otherwise, I am who I am for a reason, no matter the classification or cause of my current emotional state. But, on the other hand, I want to be able to understand myself, because I feel like understanding brings healing. And, if there is a reason I feel the way I do I want to address it, especially if there is a physical component that could be treated. So, with all that said, I guess I'm wondering about the worth of classification. What if your searching and trying to find the source of an emotion/emotional state but can't find the answer? Do you just accept it as who are you are and move on? or is there a way to get to the source that I am missing?

    July 24, 2013 at 10:18 pm

  7. Anon

    Very interesting thanks!

    October 15, 2013 at 10:11 am

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