Integral Life Coaching


Book Review: How Emotions Are Made By Lisa Feldman Barrett

(864 words)

What I learned from How Emotions Are Made:

In this book, Lisa Barrett offers the results of her scientific study in her lab bringing the most recent neuroscience explorations to understand how our bodies including our brains work to make emotions. 

In the journey of this book, we learn how one brain with notions such as concepts, social reality, and affective realism can create many minds. How our emotions are made is the question.

Barrett argues emotions are concepts that we learn as we grow based on what we get exposed to. Emotions are not universal. Depending on the environment and our exposure to life we could have different understanding of different emotions and express them differently. It is important for each one of us to understand that the emotion represented by a common name like sadness could be experienced and expressed differently by different people. She argues that our brain perception is also affected by our mood that is called Affect in this study. She brings examples of studies on judges who approved more paroles after lunch compared to before when they felt hungry. 

Barrett mentions in her book, “What’s innate is that humans use concepts to build social reality, and social reality, in turn, wires the brain. Emotions are very real creations of social reality, made possible by the human brain in concert with other human brains.” Us, humans constantly create new social realities based on our new beliefs.  

As she describes, affective realism is the phenomenon that you experience what you believe. And then she writes, “Nobody can completely escape the affective realism. Your own perceptions are not like a photograph of the world. They are not even a painting of photographic quality, like a Vermeer. They are more like a Van Gogh or Monet.” Impressionism is the best each one of us can do to see our version of reality.

Based on the stimulus inside or outside, we could experience a mix of emotions that could be hard to understand, let alone to regulate them. How can we understand our mixed emotions that our brain experiences? Barret suggests that we need to come up with new concepts such as chipslessness where we enjoy eating chips while we feel guilty and when we get to the last piece, we feel disappointed and relieved at the same time. Or how about the power of mixed emotions for an immigrant feeling safe and even relieved by not being in her motherland, while heartbroken watching her country facing hardship, and feeling helpless that she cannot stop the violence in her land. There are unlimited numbers of these mixed emotional experiences that could be even unique to each person. We need to learn how to recognize our emotions, conceptualize the experience, and accept them before taking any action or shaming ourselves on the contradiction of our emotions. 

To understand our emotions better and to practice self-regulation, it is necessary to understand the complexity of what happens to our body when emotions are aroused. 

When we understand better how our emotions are made, then we need to learn how to regulate them to build a flourishing life. Barrett introduces the concept of body budget that is constantly calculated by our brain based on moment-to-moment activities and our perceptions based on our previous experiences. Other variables in calculating our body budgets are the genes we inherited as well as our perception of reality and the relationship with other humans around us and what their brains’ perceptions bring to us. 

In general, we replenish our body budget by eating, drinking, and sleeping and reduce our body spending by relaxing and spending time with loved ones. 

Other budget balancing activities suggested in this book are included, getting a massage, practicing Yoga, having house plants, making our living environment tidy, having regular meet up with people who we enjoy their presence, watch a sad movie that gives us a good cry, walk in nature, handy crafts, learn a new skill or language, adopt a pet, get up and move, change your location, and learn what habits don’t serve you anymore and practice changing them. 

Other ways to replenish your body budget could be keeping track of the positive events in a day and what bring a smile to you. When possible, recategorization of our emotions is another way of regulating our body budget. For example, the anxiety felt in our gut for having an exam could be recategorized to feeling energy and determination.

What I’d like to be able to do is bring this concept offered in this book together with The Language of Emotions by Karla McLaren, and the research study on “An Atlas of The Human Body That Maps Where We Feel Emotions”. The tree studies offer depth of understanding on our emotions from different stand points yet provide overlap. For us to understand our emotions and regulate them in order to live from a connected state of being rather than impulsive and reactive, we need to understand how emotions are made, where and how we sense them in our body, and what message each emotion represents. That understanding helps us to learn what practices could help each of us – uniquely – to regulate our emotions and develop deeper wisdom.

Let’s create more clarity on our reality,


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What Is Personal Growth? Horizontal & Vertical Human Development

While writing my memoir a few years back, my writing coach and editor, Mathina, asked hard questions in every chapter of my life and wanted me to convince her as a reader why I did what I did. To answer her questions and write a compelling story of my life, I needed to learn the psychology behind my behavior and others in my life. I also needed to be vulnerable and bring out authenticity through my words. The vulnerability was so strong that I needed the help of a psychotherapist to help me process the past traumas.

By sharing my story, I felt more seen and heard and that brought me a deeper connection to life. I learned and grew. I developed more self-awareness. I had many meaningful moments of feeling worthy and good about myself, stronger than my unpleasant feelings, and of course I had many moments of disconnection that needed self-care. I got to a point where I had learned too many different self-development tools that were missing the coherence.

While I was holding memoir writing workshops, I got encouraged to learn to help myself and others on our growth journeys whether it’s about writing a memoir or wanting to share their stories in a safe and private environment. I signed up for a coaching course, a one-year program that would help me to become a certified integral coach. At the coaching institute, New Ventures West, I learned about a coherent way, a path that could be built individually for every person’s self-growth and to integrate all aspects of life.

Based on Integral Theory the overall approach to self-growth happens both horizontally and vertically.

In horizontal growth, we evaluate our different types of intelligences (cognitive, emotional, somatic, & more) and try to learn new skills for better performance and efficiency. That is an important part of self-growth towards self-actualization introduced by Abraham Maslow. The horizontal skills could be better time management, obtaining a degree, getting more efficient at work out, driving, winning more advanced levels in our video games, becoming successful as a businessman/woman or an achieved entrepreneur, being an engaging public speaker, and you name it. These are great skills but if they are all to boost our ego or make us look better in the society, they soon lose their meaning. When we want to get better at our skills in order to add meaning to life and create new concepts to enhance others’ lives rather than conforming to the cultural demands and competition of feeling superior, then we can enjoy our skills and even walk in the path of mastery for a chosen skill.

And yet, self-growth is even more than this. We need to align our mind (thoughts), heart (emotions), and body (intuition) in order to live fully. We need to grow in other dimensions too.

The vertical development helps us to make a deeper connection with life and live with more fulfillment. It has several steps that go deeper and deeper. What I mean by that is the deeper we grow vertically the less self-absorbed we become. We see ourselves as part of a bigger system that holds our worth as well as other beings. These steps don’t happen unless we develop regular practices of self-care, self-awareness, and self-compassion.

There are several models and studies that show and explain how a person can make a deeper connection with life. I will introduce these models in future blogs and for the sake of keeping each post short, I chose to provide an outline of The Ego Development Theory enhanced and popularized by Susanne Cook-Greuter.

Here are a few stages of human/ego development that many people are traversing in the current societies in the world. 

Conventional state ( almost 80% of the world population – searching for knowledge)

  • Stage 3: Group Centric/ conformist
  • Stage 3/4: Self-Centric/expert
  • Stage 4: Self-determining/achiever

Post-conventional State (almost 20% of the world population – searching for wisdom)

  • Stage 4/5:  Self-questioning/individualist
  • Stage 5: Self-actualizing/strategist
  • Stage 5/6: Ego aware/Alchemist

And as evolution is happening these stages advance deeper and deeper….

As we achieve deeper stages we create a bigger perspective towards the world, ourselves, and others. We become more tolerant at listening to other viewpoints and communicate with more compassion. We enable stronger self-reflection and even self-observation skills as we go deeper. We develop more trust and acceptance in life.

The bottom line is we all want to live fully in a relatively safe world that we can flourish and bloom. Every one of us has a responsibility for self-growth and there are no two similar paths for individuals’ self-growth. Every person needs to build her/his own path. The new Personal Coaching methods provided by a professional could be a help to those who like to choose a method and brainstorm their self growth design using the ability of our analytical skills from the newer part of the brain that makes humans different from other species.

Photo by Singkham on