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Emotions vs sentiments: Why you should know the difference

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We need to understand what we can control and what we can't, so we can understand our feelings better.

Do you know the difference between emotion and sentiment? Is there really a distinction between them, or are they synonymous? Knowing the difference can actually help you to better understand your feelings and continue to grow emotionally. There’s a reason why we have two different words — they’re related, but not the same.

What is an emotion?

An emotion is a complex reaction of the brain to a stimulus, whether external (something I see or hear, for example) or internal (thoughts, memories, imagination, etc.). Our brain’s reaction also leads to physical reactions throughout the body, through the secretion of hormones. Emotions are transitory and fleeting; they are changing constantly.

Emotions are like energy that moves through our body, urging us to action. They’re more intense and shorter in duration than sentiments.

The four basic emotions and their usefulness

There are many emotions, but there are some primary or basic ones that form the foundation of our emotional universe. These basic emotions are divided into four large groups: sadness, anger, fear, and happiness. Let’s learn more about each of these four groups.

Sadness: This emotion helps us by giving us personal space and time to deal with negative events. It helps us reflect. If sadness lasts a long time, it becomes a sentiment. When that is the case, we have to pay attention and manage the situation, because sadness is only healthy to the extent that it helps us.

Happiness: This kind of feeling helps us to rejoice in what is good in life, and helps us connect with other people, by sharing and expressing the source of our happiness with others.

Anger: When we get angry, it helps us to set limits and boundaries to separate us from situations that cause sadness or problems. Anger can be positive if we control our reactions. It helps us to identify things that could harm us. It also helps us to express and defend our needs.

Fear: The purpose of this kind of feeling is to protect us prudently against real dangers. When we give too much space to imagination and worry,  fear often becomes anxiety or panic, which can paralyze and invade us in such a way that we can no longer do things normally. Fear is helpful for us and protects us, to the extent that it is proportionate to the danger we face. However, if we allow fear to dominate us, we won’t be able to act effectively. We have to learn to manage it.

What is a sentiment? 

A sentiment is the combination of emotion and thought. It’s the subjective experience of our emotions. An emotion becomes a sentiment to the extent that we become aware of it. That is to say, a sentiment involves both the physiological reaction and a cognitive, subjective component. A sentiment is when we put a name to an emotion and decide how we react to it.

Sentiments tend to last longer than emotions; they last as long as we keep them in mind. Sentiments follow on emotions; we cannot have a sentiment without first having an emotion.

Some examples of sentiments are love, envy, suffering, sorrow, rancor, and compassion. The more we develop our capacity for empathy, the more we will be able to understand other people’s sentiments. For example, sadness becomes a sentiment when we become conscious of it and think about it. The same principle applies to all the emotions we feel.

Key ideas for distinguishing between emotion and sentiment

Emotions are transitory states that come and go. Sentiments, by contrast, last longer in our body and mind — as long as we consciously dedicate time to think about it.

Emotions happen unconsciously, and can appear and vanish rapidly. Sentiments arise when our consciousness intervenes, and we realize what we are feeling. Time is required for sentiments to evolve out of emotionsFor this same reason, emotions tend to be more intense; sentiments require the activation of more complex processes.

Emotion always precedes sentiment. Without emotions, we cannot have sentiments. The same emotion can inspire various sentiments in the same person. For example, the emotion of joy can create a sentiment of love or happiness (or both).

Emotions are psychophysical reactions that take place automatically and spontaneously. Sentiments, on the contrary, are our interpretation of these emotions, and can be regulated by our thoughts.

When we are aware of our sentiments, we can manage them and orient them. Emotions, on the contrary, cannot be handled the same way, because they are there whether or not we want them, arising automatically in response to a situation or a thought.

Learning to manage our emotions is fundamental for us to be able to have a balanced and happy life, giving each experience, encounter, or relationship its proper meaning, with the help of conscious reflection on our feelings. Emotions are often our allies and our motivation. When they become sentiments, our brain and our love can govern them, and can even suggest a different path of action from that initially suggested to us by the emotion we are feeling.

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