Interpreting Emotion

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We experience emotions. Living is a feeling experience; we are constantly attracted and repelled, feelings pushing and pulling. These emotional reactions—initial feelings—are followed with an interpretation authored by the “story-telling” brain. Our brain automatically answers the posed question, “Why am I feeling this?” The brain retrieves memories, evaluates context and then creates a coherent explanation—at least coherent to the person involved in the construction. We experience a positive or negative affect and then we interpret the emotion.

Our feelings buzz through our bodies directing action. They move us towards opportunity and away from danger. They shift body resources to match predictions of external challenges. Lisa Feldman Barrett, A professor of psychology at Northeastern University and director of the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory, explains, “your brain must figure out the meaning of those flashes and vibrations, and its main clues are your past experiences, which it constructs as simulations within its vast network of neural connections” (2018, p. 58).

Our body signals friendly or unfriendly along with varying levels of arousal while our brain examines context, draws from experience and interprets the meaning of the signals, giving life to the feeling.

Intimate Relationships and Interpreting Emotion

​Intimate relationships—essential to well-being—stir strong emotions; these emotions have the kindest and harshest interpretations. Relationships easily are filled with unneeded drama that disrupts the bonding and security. While the past and triggers are beyond immediate control, the following interpretations can be examined and challenged.

We need vigilance, guarding against faulty interpretations, creating meaning is not perfect. The story-creating mechanism creates a framework from the past to organize new experience but is not relegated to serve reality. Creating meaning is a subjective process tainted by bias. When childhood fears intrude on adulthood, the slightest event prompts anxiety. Unrealistic fears can be intense, requiring creative interpretations.

​Our psychological past embeds strong reactionary emotions in the present. By and large, the psychological programming operating beneath awareness, full of hurt and sensitivities is often the cause for the strong emotional waves but seldom identified as a factor by our story-telling mind. The emotions still rage demanding explanation; the mind assuages the demands by blaming elements in the present.

​With the underlying causes from our past untreated, the emotion continues disrupting our relationships, waiting for a trigger to erupt. Inside the broken soul the events that trigger high arousal hide behind shadows of protective interpretation. We adopt meanings that serve to protect our ego despite evidence suggestion our interpretation is wrong. Accordingly, our interpretations shift overall views of a partner. In psychology, we call this negative sentiment override. Consequently, we view a partner’s benign actions through brightly colored and biased lenses, citing a partner for all our woes, suggesting they must fix their severe character flaws.

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We Learn Patterns of Interpreting Emotion

Many insecurities established in childhood or from traumatic past relationships, live on—thinly covered, and pleasantly decorated. Excessive dissatisfactions in the present points to the past, new actions trigger past fears, and we then we wrongfully project emotions onto the current partner. The obnoxious fears disrupt opportunities for the new relationship to grow. When partners repeatedly blame, we tire of the accusations and eventually react defensively. A cycle begins, we react to their reaction and they react to ours. The fear of aloneness and abandonment becomes a destructive agent, constantly disrupting as we blame the partner.

Our experience of emotion, followed by our interpretation of the feeling, may lead us off track. Instead of wisely guiding, the feeling experience of living frightens and demands retreat. However, our interpreted emotions may mislead. We must mindfully examine these erroneous pushes to act, seek help and begin the process of improvement.

​Feelings, cognitions and emotions are inherent parts of our human experience. However, we must examine our cognitions, correcting disrupted interpreting of emotion. We should warmly accept these clumsy and coarse characters into our life stories. They give experience novelty and excitement. Instead of smoothly existing in greyness, we dabble in the bright colors of feeling and emotion. We feel life.


Barrett, L. F. (2018). How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain.  Mariner Books; Illustrated edition.

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