Upset is Not an Emotion

One of my best friends from college majored in psychology, and while in undergrad she worked in one of the professor’s labs studying the interaction between families and schools and education. You know, totally not depressing stuff at all. Anyway, she spent a lot of time “coding,” which I’m still not 100% sure is what it sounds likes, but senior year she also got to participate in family interviews. Before she did this, she had to practice, and since I was right across the hall I was one of the lucky few selected to pretend to be a six-year-old while she asked me questions about my family life.

I’m sure you’re all shocked to learn that I make an excellent squirmy six-year-old.

Anyway, I was absolutely belligerent on every point, which was good practice for her, but one of the biggest problems I had was a section of the interview where she described various scenarios and then asked me how I felt about them. On her side of the futon she had a list of various emotions (I guess for future coding purposes), and part of her job was to help me (help, not guide, which is tricky) verbalize them.

This ended up looking like like variations on the following theme:

“Let’s say your sibling took your cookie,” she would say. “How does that make you feel?”

“Upset,” I would say promptly.

She would sigh. “What do you mean by upset?”

“Upset,” I would repeat, obstinately, until she would finally break character and not-quite-shout “UPSET IS NOT AN EMOTION, JO” and I would stubbornly reply, “Well, why not?”

She explained to me that “upset” is incredibly imprecise–you can be “upset” by a pet’s death or “upset” that your sister broke your favorite toy or “upset” when you don’t get into the college you wanted, and since it’s used in so many different circumstances it’s practically useless when it comes to data collection. A fair point, I supposed grudgingly, but who cares? Aside from emotional data collectors.

Fast forward four years and a few communication classes (that I also initially resisted, another post) later, and I use this knowledge whenever it’s applicable–which isn’t often, but occasionally during marital disputes or gentle conversations with friends I channel my friend and patiently try to tease out what “upset” really means. After all, you might have the most precise language and communication abilities possible, but if you can’t suss out your own head, how are you supposed to know what to say? If communication is in part about “I”-statements–if conflict resolution starts with you being able to articulate why you’re arguing in the first place–“upset” just isn’t going to cut it. My friend had explained to me what we all unconsciously know: “upset” just doesn’t quite reach the heart of how you’re feeling.

So imagine my surprise the other morning when, as I was lounging in bed crafting an email to a friend in my head that would express my emotional state regarding something that I should be over by now–something that happened to someone else when I wanted it to happen to me–I thought, I confess that I am still angry–

And then I stopped, and in my mind I amended, I’m still upset–

And immediately upon thinking it I stopped again because I knew exactly what I was doing, and thanks to my college friend I knew how to articulate it to myself, much to my disgust. I didn’t want to admit that I was angry–not just to my friend, but to myself. I wanted to hide it away under “upset,” to avoid the fact that though I don’t really have a right to be angry and that I know being angry won’t make a difference, that I should just accept it and move on. In my mental revisions I settled for “disappointed,” which was still a cop-out but at least was something, a name for a feeling instead of a hand-wave.

I don’t want to be angry. I’m trying not to be–and really, in honest fairness, I think “anger” is a bit harsher than what I’m feeling–“disappointment” is definitely there, and “frustration,” and some “sadness,” and a certain “grumpiness”–

and it’s easier to lump it all together as “upset” and leave it at that, rather than trying to tease out each feeling, let it have its time, and then put it away. I want to just be upset. The word has flavors of the irrationality of adolescence (which I remember so clearly), the flurry of emotion that you know isn’t really reasonable but which you’re unwilling to abandon. But it’s a lot harder to justify that kind of clinging this side of twenty, so I suppose I’ll keep on with the reflecting and the letting go and the seeing who I am and how I feel face-to-face.

But at the very least, I can ruin the word for the rest of you on my way out.

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