Existential and experiential feelings

We assume certain feelings to be existential. When we are in their grip, we associate our identities (at least in those moments) with the feeling itself. The language we use reflects this.

Any feeling that we use to fill the blank, “I am ______” is one such existential feeling.

I am anxious.

I am angry.

I am disappointed.

I am amused.

On the other hand, there are experiential feelings, which we regard with a certain amount of distance. Here, we use the formulation, “I have ____”

I have a fever.

I have a headache.

I have a sore throat.

I have an upset stomach.

With experiential feelings, we separate our identities from the feelings themselves. This allows us to do something about those feelings – such as go to a doctor, take some medication or rest and recover. Separating our identities from these conditions gives us a sense of agency over them. We do this most readily for physiological conditions, because our minds are able to separate themselves from our bodies.

However, several existential emotions also manifest in the body. When we are angry, we can feel our blood rushing and our heart-rate increase. We begin to perspire faster and our breathing becomes quicker. In other words, “I have anger”, might be a more correct statement than “I am angry”. With the former, we have the emotion while with the latter, the emotion has us.

Of course, going around saying “I have anger” is sure to earn you some strange looks and prompt exclusion from parties and other social gatherings. We are, unfortunately, stuck with the conventions of the languages we use.

But every time we say we are something, we could have an alarm go off in our head and recognize how we might be confusing an experiential feeling with our existential state. This recognition restores our sense of agency from the emotional states that have us in their grip.

Inspiration: Searching Inside Yourself w/ Chade-Meng Tan –  The Heart Wisdom Podcast with Jack Kornfield

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