As a psychologist I sometimes hear the question ‘Can you read minds?’ Of course, we can’t actually claim to go that far, but we do often have insights into how others are feeling, and through discussion we can learn what thoughts might be causing these feelings.
I was recently reminded of our ability to tell how someone is feeling when I took my daughter to watch the most recent Pixar movie Inside Out. The movie features an 11 year old girl, Riley, and her family, who move from Minnesota to San Francisco. The story focuses on how Riley adjusts to her new life in San Francisco. The leading characters, however, are not Riley and her family, but Riley’s primary emotions – Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust.
The idea of primary emotions is taken from the work of Psychologist Paul Ekman (a leading researcher in the field of emotions and their facial expressions – his work is acknowledged in the credits at the end of the film). One of Ekman’s most interesting assertions is that while we all have a wide range of emotions and expressions, we all have the same six core emotions that are expressed in the same way (in the movie they did not include Surprise – presumably because of its often short lived nature!) However, as Ekman also suggests, culture and context can influence whether a person chooses to consciously show an emotion or mask it with another (e.g. showing a mask of joy to hide the underlying sadness).
(Spoiler alert!) In the movie Riley’s emotion Joy tries to overtake the emotion Sadness, believing that it is more acceptable to show a happy face and get on with things. What ensues is a short period of maintaining the status quo followed by an ever-increasing sense of sadness and then a journey to discover the importance of all her emotions.
Emotions play a key role in a person’s life and work. They support our relationships by helping us to understand each other, and they impact our wellbeing by helping us manage pressures. The tricky bit is to analyse these emotions and see how they drive us. In my work as a coach and trainer, I find questionnaires a great way of gaining a helpful perspective on all this. A feedback conversation afterwards provides further insight and direction. My tool of choice in this area is the Emotional Judgement Inventory (EJI). It uses seven scales to measure a person’s current levels of emotional understanding and how they use emotions, and with guidance they can start to enhance their use of emotional information. Because, sadly, in real life there are no animated primary emotions on hand to make the job easier.
For those who haven’t yet seen it, Inside Out is a rare treat – a great way to have a good laugh while taking on board some interesting psychology on the importance of our emotions.
Image © Disney/Pixar 2015