Five Emotional Sinkholes and Four Ways To Express Feelings

Ad Disclosure: Some of our recommendations, including BetterHelp, are also affiliates, and as such we may receive compensation from them if you choose to purchase products or services through the links provided

Actually all emotions are created equally through our conditioned minds and are to be handled with great care. In fact, you can get into quite a mess operating with a one-size-fits-all policy! Imagine if you kidded your boss like you do your spouse, or were as tough on your young child as you are with a competitor. You wouldn't treat all your business associates, friends or family members the same, would you? Neither would you treat different physical illnesses, psychological challenges or anything else in an identical fashion. Emotions are no different in wisely adapting a unique approach for each.

Five emotion clusters are best handled with kid gloves, that is, they are possibly "dangerous—handle with care!" The apparent dangerousness of emotions, especially the following five emotional sinkholes, is understandable given how moods and emotions are the result of our thinking conditioned mind influencing a feeling with thoughts, opinions, evaluations, comparisons, and interpretations along with lots of energy and animation.


I'm convinced that human beings have the ability to infinitely concentrate their mind, attention and activity on any feeling or emotion, thereby enhancing that state. However, these five distressing clusters of emotions or affects are particularly susceptible to this occurring and corrosive to the person feeling them and often those around them. To be able to objectively stand apart from uncomfortable emotions is to have the witnessing opportunity to disarm the ego-mind in shedding all dysfunctional thinking influence and surrender the emotions. To be enmeshed, entangled, and involved in these same difficult emotions is to be their resentful slave. In developing your awareness of emotions, it is critical to spot these emotional sinkholes because you are at greater risk. These five affective clusters are potentially depthless in our expressing them. A wise saying goes, "forewarned is forearmed."

Five clusters of challenging emotional expression or affect1

"It is easy to fly into a passion-anybody can do that. But to be angry with the right person to the right extent and at the right time and with the right object and in the right way-that is not easy, and it is not everyone who can do it."

Therapists are Standing By to Treat Your Depression, Anxiety or Other Mental Health Needs

Explore Your Options Today


Psychologist Silvan Tomkin's pioneering work helped identify five clusters of difficult, distressing emotions or affects. I suggest these qualify as emotional sinkholes courtesy of our conditioned mind or ego consciousness. It our "thinking about" some present feeling that changes it into a mood, and then into an emotion. For example, fear is purely a concept created by our conditioned mind. As you put greater resources, like time, money, energy, thought, emotional reactions and activity into these a fearful emotion, you quickly get more fearful, unproductive wheel-spinning and lowered productivity and Presence. Likewise, the more you feel, express and focus upon a fearful emotion, the more you are immobilized, frightened, and in a panic with all the destructive consequences that follow. The sole exception to this is seeing this fearful emotion for exactly what it is, how it originated and was re-enacted, process it through us on all levels and surrender it entirely.

Distress-Anguish: This covers the range of reactions to suffering, loss and grief. This is often experienced as depression, including moodiness and disheartened (mild), unhappy and down (moderate) and devastated and in despair (strong).

Fear-Terror: This includes extreme stress reactions, sometimes described as "fight or flight," and being "frozen" or experiencing an "immobility response," that are associated with perceived threat to survival, overwhelming trauma and abuse. This includes fears, unworkable or useless fears or phobias, terror, and panic.

Shame-Humiliation: The person being ashamed and humiliated characterizes this cluster. The person describes himself or herself as bad, terrible and awful. People experiencing shame and humiliation often display their heads down and eyes down. Shame brings a high level of toxicity. Major sources of shame are barriers to joy and excitement, the shame response, contempt and any negative affect of the other, and from vicarious sources. Shaming behaviors often accompany the socialization of many affects. Shame experiences can be evoked by violating social norms and moral standards.

Contempt-Disgust: Contempt is made up of the two elements of anger and disgust. Arrogant disdain, real and imagined guilt in addition to revulsion and loathing epitomize this emotional axis. Play and humor are seen as contempt through the eyes of shame. When shame is present, a person's eyes often remain down and not engaging another's eyes. This behavior is not about seeing another so much as allowing the other person to see how ashamed they are feeling.

In years past I looked at guilt as taking the following three forms: real guilt, existential guilt and imagined guilt. So-called "real guilt" is when, whether intentionally or not, you did harm physically, emotionally or relationally to another. "Existential guilt" is feeling badly for the harsh, painful predicament of your fellow human brother and sister facing hardship, tragedy, pain, misery and suffering in dealing with homelessness, disease, war, poverty, loss, death, violence, crime and natural disasters. "Imagined guilt" is when you "thought" or "believed" you did harm to another, never checked out whether you did or didn't and did not perpetrate any harm upon another in reality. Seminal psychoanalyst Alfred Adler distinguishes between good guilt and bad guilt, with "good guilt" being when you feel badly and stop doing the objectionable behavior and "bad guilt" being when you feel badly and continue to do it.

Standing in emotional truth, guilt looks remarkably like an aberration or pseudo- emotion, and what we call guilt is actually disgust with a negative cognitive or thinking overlay. Inhabiting emotional transparency, guilt doesn't even really exist, other than as an outcropping of the ego-mind's fantasy of control. When the ego is out of the way and harm does occur, typically the feelings of sadness and sorrow arise with a natural yearning to quickly offer responsibility, regret, apology, compassion, forgiveness, direct help, loving service, commitment to act non-harmfully and appropriate repair, redress and reconciliation.

Thus, guilt of any variety may most accurately be considered a pseudo-emotion, that is, masquerading as feeling bad about some action or inaction when, in fact, it is disgust with a mental overlay of negativity courtesy of our ego. Closely related is disappointment, whether in oneself or another, which the ego uses to "lay on guilt." Without imposing some condition, requirement, expectation or investment upon relative reality, disappointment as well as frustration are simply not in the realm of possibility.

Anger-Rage: This cluster encompasses different intensity levels from being bothered and upset (mild), frustrated to being distressed (moderate) as well as hatred and rage (strong). Anger arises from hurt; they're twins. Find one and the other is not far behind. Fully feel and express either hurt or anger through you and there will be little need for the other. Anger-rage in the form of hostility felt and acted out in behavior is particularly pernicious given it being associated with significant health consequences including hypertension and other physical ills. Hostility felt and outwardly expressed is a critical component of what has been termed Type A Personality. This syndrome, first named in the early 1960's, also includes incessant generation of goals to achieve, time urgency in achieving them, a generalized mistrust of others, along with perfectionism.

Anger also regularly arises from our egos taking positions following ego desires and agendas. When these beliefs and expectations go unmet, as unfounded as they are in the relative realities of the world, we tend to get frustrated which is moderate anger. What does the world know or even care about your likes, wants and expectations? Nothing! Life conditions are only frustrating if you expect something different than what you receive. Typically, rage is born from repeated powerlessness for males and continual helplessness for females, the worst possible ways for each gender to feel, other than the gnawing angst of numb meaninglessness for any human being.

There would appear to be a close linkage between the triangle of shame-humiliation, contempt-disgust and anger-rage. The Course in Miracles states, "All anger is nothing more than an attempt to make someone feel guilty." How often have you been feeling badly about your actions, yourself or the life situation and soon thereafter projected and struck out in angry disgust at yourself, others or the world? It's common. Realized sage Jean Klein calls fear simply another object and as unreal as the ego itself. It is likely that Klein would see guilt and shame in a similar way. Certainly The Course in Miracles does. Guilt and shame might be considered pseudo-emotions given how each can more accurately be called disgust with one's actions and oneself respectively, along with a negative, condemning cognitive overlay. Not fear, not guilt, not shame and not condemnation have anything to do with our true nature or who we truly are.

An antidote to the poison of guilt, condemnation and anger is to release our "hot thoughts" by reframing them in a more constructive fashion. Instead of thinking, speaking and perceiving the other party as a selfish, cheating, unfair and inequitable so-and-so, and all of this happening "to us" as their victim, we can look at them differently. We can begin to seem them as deeply asleep and unaware, not generous or considerate, not loving or attuned to being of contributing service to others in this moment of their life. Instead of seeing the glaring fault, blame them and get ourselves upset over "how they are," of which we have no control to change, it is far more productive to see that person as simply not accepting life responsibilities or not growing, maturing and evolving as beings. Most accurately, we can see this person as not awakening to awareness, being and expression of their true nature. This too will pass. A disarming smile can help.

Taking on another's victimhood, guilt, shame and misery does no one any good. I simply do not feel badly, like guilt, and carry another, like a jack-ass, when an issue is not mine, not owned by me, and there is absolutely nothing I can do about it. Sure I feel sad, sorrow and compassion, or feeling another's suffering, in seeing the misery people face and largely create for themselves. I'm human for heaven sake! Reverend Jesse Jackson gave a responsible remedy: "We could use a hand up, not a hand out."

The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh offers the beautifully elegant example of being in the desert with one glass of muddy water. Clear water will only appear once you let it settle for a while. This way the emotional energy can be converted and transformed into a more constructive feeling energy.2 The same approach can be usefully applied to calming down, relaxing and soothing our highly overactive minds.

Each distressing cluster of emotions that can be traced back to our ego's rejection of sensations or feelings of pain and suffering, requires exercising special care to be adaptive. The temple of Apollo at Delphi, the ancient Greek place of wisdom, had two famous inscriptions: "Know thyself" and "Nothing to excess." Only those who had experienced the consequences of not knowing who they are and making choices, working up emotions, being reactive and taking actions to excess could have lived by such maxims.

Consider engaging in healthy feeling processing to adaptively address these five clusters, with these cautions:

1. Bring an intention and present vision to lightly feel and express through your emotions, knowing that these are potentially dangerous, easily stuck in and destructive given the emotional charge originating from dysfunctional thinking of our ego mind;

2. Engage in healthy feeling processing a little bit at a time with respites: carefully feel, physically express through and release emotional energies and unworkable conditioned thinking; regularly allowing yourself to relax, shake it out; and engage again as necessary;

3. Become ever more aware of how little emotional charge is left, while noticing and continually letting go of mood- and emotion-triggering thoughts;

4. Choose to fill the void left from these emotions with a calm sanity of recognizing the honest feeling present in the body, constructive thoughts, relaxing activities and company, more objectively perceiving "what is" in terms of the affirmative uplifting, the uncomfortable limiting and their synthesis; and

5. Again deeply realize the core misunderstandings and that typically none of what occurred had anything to do with you personally. Consciously decode the messages inside your felt sensations, physical expressions, and feelings to distill the honest feedback and truths from this experience. Be in relaxing calmness and peace. All is well.

Given the enhanced risk of being stuck and captured in one of these emotional sinkholes, one strategy is to proceed lightly and cautiously with feelings and their expression. Being forewarned of the dangers, you can carefully move through the emotional processing in a time-limited fashion and with a realistic action plan for addressing the core causes. The key is to lightly and honestly process them while releasing reaction-triggering thoughts and other ego mind influences to completion. Since you can permit each of these clusters of emotions and affects to unendingly be fed by your attention, intensity and thoughts, another helpful strategy is to wean and wean and wean yourself of doing any of these. Thereafter, you can support yourself by doing activities and having company that affirms, validates and strengthens who you are.

Building upon Silvan Tomkin's seminal work is his student Paul Ekman's remarkable research into emotions and facial expressions. Ekman describes the seven emotions of sadness, anger, surprise, fear, disgust, contempt, and happiness as each having a universal, distinct facial expression. He considers facial expressions the most brief of emotional signals. Each of these seven emotions, with associated specific universal facial expressions, actually stand for a family of related emotions, for example anger ranging in both strength (e.g., irritation, frustration and rage) and type (e.g., resentful, cold, indignant and sullen).3

Four naturally healthy ways to express feelings and emotions

"I was angry with my friend: I told my wrath, my wrath did end. I was angry with my foe: I told it not, my wrath did grow."
—William Blake, A Poison Tree


Feelings and emotions can be healthfully expressed in four major ways:

Athletically: You can athletically express yourself in all stretching, aerobic classes, swimming, walking, hiking, bicycling, weight-lifting and all forms of sports, including everything from baseball and football, to soccer and basketball, to tennis and racquetball, to track and golf, and innumerable others.

Interpersonally: You can interpersonally express yourself with in person, face-to-face conversations with another, couple and family activities, telephone conversations, e-mail and "snail" mail, writing in your diary or journal, group activities, engaging in a shared social activity with a friend or relative, therapy or coaching, and enlisting support from co-workers and acquaintances. Remember, no part of a communication about how one feels includes the word "you." "Giving voice," "having a voice" and "speaking up"with another are critical skills to cultivate and perfect for healthy emotional expression.

Artistically: You can artistically express yourself in drawing, painting, music making, pottery, gardening, decorating, flower arranging, stone cutting, wood carving, graphic design, video and board games, animation, video and movie making, visualizations, lucid dreaming, reading and crafts activities.

Spiritually: You can spiritually express yourself in prayer speaking to the Divine and listening as well, letting the Divine speak through your voice, participating in religious rituals and spiritual practices, scriptural study, affirmations, meditation, communing with Spirit in nature and immersing yourself in Beloved's Love and Light.


1. Silvan S. Tomkins, Affect Imagery Consciousness, Volume 1: The Positive Affects. New York, New York: Springer Publishing Company, Inc., 1962, page 337; explored further in this 4 volume series, especially in Volume II: The Negative Affects, 1963 and Volume III: The Negative Affects: Anger and Fear, 1991.

2. Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace. Berkeley, California: Parallax Press, 1987, 41.

3. Paul Ekman, Emotions Revealed. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2003, page 58.

Additional Resources

As advocates of mental health and wellness, we take great pride in educating our readers on the various online therapy providers available. MentalHelp has partnered with several thought leaders in the mental health and wellness space, so we can help you make informed decisions on your wellness journey. MentalHelp may receive marketing compensation from these companies should you choose to use their services.

MentalHelp may receive marketing compensation from the above-listed companies should you choose to use their services.