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Are Emotions Real?

I am driving long distance and a random conversation about emotions starts with the other passenger.

“Are emotions real? How do I know if my fear is real?”

“What an amazing question!” I thought.

What followed was a hour-long, healthy and constructive dialogue on the truthfulness of emotions.

We eventually settled on a multifaceted answer, 'emotions are always real, but not always’.


Emotions are a natural and healthy responses that humans experience as a result of a real or imagined experience.

I see a famished tiger in the jungle, my brain may produce fear to alert me to danger.

I see my child proud of her art project and my brain may produce a sense of joy to remind me that all is well.

Emotions are always real to the person who experiences them. They are a subjective experience, felt, more or less intensely, in response to specific stimuli.

The above two examples are concrete, and easy to understand, however, we can often experience clear emotions even from imagined realities.

I am in my office cubicle, slogging away as a corporate slave and feeling miserable about life (real emotion). Suddenly I remember that in 3 days I will be on a flight to a beautiful beach-holiday and I experience a surge or joy and excitement. At this personal level of experience, these are also real emotions, even if they are in response to just a thought and not a “real” event.

At the subjective level, therefore, no matter what emotion emerges, the very fact that we experience it, makes it real.


What happens when a friend speaks to me with a direct tone and I react with fury, as if she just attacked me with a knife?

Or what about that time when I lost my child’s water bottle and reacted as if I lost a loved one to illness?

Is my emotion real then?

I suppose the answer depends on the level of analysis.

“Real” conjures the idea of something that exists or occurs as a fact. While we accept that a felt emotion is real to the person who experiences it, what would happen if we expand the meaning of ‘real’ to something that is not imaginary?

In this case, the interaction between the emerging emotion and the events that caused it, seems relevant.

It follows that reacting with fury when a friend is speaking with a direct (but respectful) tone, may not be an appropriate response, as well as feeling deep grief for loosing a water bottle.

In this case, I would say that an emotion is always real when it is an appropriate response to a situation that warrants it. But it is not real, in so far as it emerged from an imagined reality, when it is an inappropriate response to a situation.


My passenger and I settled on this somewhat incomplete conclusion, and soon found ourselves in another intriguing exploration.

As the person experiencing the emotion, how do I therefore know if it was an appropriate (“real”) emotion or not?

The answer is that often we don’t know, not until we have at least completed a minimum assessment of the situation on hand.

The process becomes easier and more automatic the more we practice, but at first it can be rather clunky and confusing. To actually pause and ponder whether our response was appropriate to the situation while experiencing the emotion, requires a level of presence and awareness that most of us can’t access in the heat of the moment.

With practice, we can learn to notice the emotion, enquire about the current situation, recognise what triggered our emotion and establish if our response was appropriate in the space of a few seconds.

Thank you for reading.

I base all my articles on real case studies and research findings that are relevant to my work and my clients.

Feel free to reach out to me with any questions or if you would like to explore a project together with your organisation. I have enjoyed my speaking engagements of late and open to do more of them if the theme is meaningful. Do reach out.


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