Decomposing Emotions; Tools for Getting to the Root

Emotions are powerful.  They are complex and they are primal.  And they can give us insights to things we haven’t figured out yet.  Emotions come in layers.  There are basic emotions which exist just as they are and can manifest other emotions. Then there are the other emotions, which can be boiled down or followed back to the basic emotions.


I first stumbled onto this while in shavasana in a yoga class.  I was bored at my job and that led me to be cranky in general.  As I was lying there, the teacher was discussing boredom (no coincidences in the universe?) and how boredom had its roots in anger.  My eyes popped open as that rung true for me.  I was bored, and part of the reason I was bored was because I was angry about my job.  I just needed a push to get me looking in the right direction.mentorsignpost


Once I recognized that my boredom was rooted in dissatisfaction and resentment in my job, I shifted my way of dealing with my job which not only decreased my boredom (and underlying anger) but also led to a promotion.  I started to explore the idea of how emotions can hide and manifest as other emotions.


Some are easy to spot.  Boiling down an over protective feeling has its roots in love or lust.  Some are not so easy such as the link of boredom and anger.  Another one is indifference, which also has its roots in anger and can be quite difficult to pick out.


The question becomes how do we spot the root emotions that are lurking underneath what we think we are experiencing and what we are projecting out to the world?  Unfortunately I don’t know of anyone that has a single answer to that question.  What I do have to offer is a set of tools to help identify and decompose what you’re feeling to get to the root emotion.  Here are my favorite five.



No, not the final frontier, but the space that exists between a stimulus and a reaction.  Within this space, is the opportunity to examine (without judgment; this is key) what the initial reaction is, and then to determine if that’s what is desired.  Within this space you can look at the emotional response and look for where it comes from.


Write it down

Some reactions come up or stick out in your mind.  Tucking that away for later is helpful.  Keep a notebook or even a scrap of paper (or an app for those who prefer) handy to write down what happened, what you experienced and how you reacted.  This is especially useful if you aren’t sure why you are reacting to something a certain way, or are interested in changing your reaction.



Once the reaction is noticed and you decide to change it, it’s time to figure out what needs to change.  I’ve found meditation to be my favorite and most beneficial tool for figuring out and distilling my emotions down to their root.  Sometimes I will run as a way to figure out what is really going on.  A good two to three hour run clears out almost any cobweb.

buddha statue


I like this tool.  Not many do.  Silence for many people is uncomfortable.  I like it because it removes the distractions and temptations to look, feel or experience other things.  In silence, I find many things.  For me, this can come during meditation (turning off the music), running or just sitting watching nature.  One note here, silence when you aren’t alone isn’t easy.  I recommend silence in solitude first so you get comfortable with it.  Then take it for a test drive in public.



This may seem strange to put in, however it’s critical in my opinion.  In my Tae Kwon Do school, Honesty is the fifth principle the students explore.  For the teens and adults especially, I ask them who it’s most important to be honest with.  The answer I’m looking for is “myself.”  It’s been my experience that honesty with oneself isn’t as common as most think.  When tracing emotions, I can’t stress enough the importance of being honest with oneself.  Without this component, we continue to hide from ourselves.


Image courtesy of Creative Commons, Tela Chhe.

Image courtesy of Creative Commons, Tela Chhe.

Understanding the reason(s) why we react a certain way takes courage, honesty, time and practice.  It’s not one of the easier pursuits.  But done with compassion for ourselves and others, it can be one of the most rewarding.  It allows us to take ownership of our emotions.  And once we do that, we gain the choice, the freedom, to change our reactions.  Armed with that, how can we not make the world a kinder, better place?

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of


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