Understanding Emotional Expression
My expectations of people affect why I get angry—I expect people to be the way I am and they're not, and that's gotten me into a lot of trouble.
—Lisa, age 43
What is an emotion? This is a question that has many different answers depending on who is asked, with the answers constituting theoretical points of view rather than precise definitions. The theoretical view I am most comfortable with is that emotions are motivational systems with physiological, behavioral, experiential, and cognitive components. Emotions have a positive or negative valence (that is, feel good or bad) and also vary in intensity, or arousal levels, from mild to strong. They are often precipitated by interpersonal situations or by events that warrant our attention because they affect our well-being (Harrison 1986).
Emotions motivate us and guide our actions. We behave in ways that help us to avoid feeling distressed and that increase our feelings of pleasure (Tomkins 1984). We feel pleasure or pride when we achieve our goals or meet our needs, and we feel badly, including guilty, ashamed, or distressed, when we fail at tasks that are important to us. William James (1890/1952) wrote that "the normal provocation of self feeling is one's actual success or failure, and the good or bad actual position one holds in the world (p. 197) ... the sum total of all that ... [a person] can call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes and his house, his wife and his children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works ... all these things give him the same emotions. If they wax and prosper, he feels triumphant; if they dwindle and die away, he feels cast down" (p. 188). Recent theorists, knowingly or not, have elaborated on James's thinking. For example, Carver and Scheier (1990) have argued