Try this: ask three different people whether they can describe to you what an emotion is. I can guarantee that they’ll give vastly different answers to your question. Without knowing exactly what an emotion is, you can’t really have a conversation about it, as you might be speaking of an entirely different concept.
Since there are so many different characteristics and properties to emotions, the best thing you can do is describe them along the lines of these three components: (1) an emotion moves you (2) an emotion can be felt in the body, and (3) an emotion is different for everyone.
An emotion moves you
The word emotions derives from the Latin word motere, which means ‘to move’. The prefix of e- indicates the direction of the movement. Take ‘love’ and ‘awkwardness’ as examples. If you’re in love, you want to be close to this person. You move into the direction of him or her. But if you’re in an awkward situation, the thing you want most is to get away. You move away from the situation. An emotion therefore is a tendency to exhibit a certain behavior.
Because an emotion has direction, it means it is always aimed at something (or away from something). This could be a situation, a person, but also a completely hypothetical or imagined situation. You can for example get annoyed by a teammate (a person), be happy about a victory (a situation) or be afraid to make a mistake (hypothetical/imagined situation).
An emotion can be felt in your body
In one hour you need to perform. The more you think about it, the more your heart-rate increases. The palms of your hands are a little bit sweaty and you can feel that your mouth is dry. This moment is the only thing on your mind, and there is no more space for anything else.
Suppose your body is an orchestra. An orchestra exists out of many different instruments that together can produce a wide range of sounds, just as your body. The first violin is your heart, the transverse flutes are your stomach and the trumpets are your skin. When all sounds together create a coherent piece of music, we call it a symphony. Or in the case of your body, an emotion.
In the anticipation of the performance your body is playing a certain symphony. You recognize this because you have felt it many times and you can pinpoint which emotion this is. But what if the orchestra plays two songs at the same time? Or if every musician starts playing a random string of notes? It becomes harder to give the ‘song’ a name. Yet, you can hear all of these sounds. Your body can feel the same way, which sometimes makes it very difficult to describe exactly how or what you feel.
Your brain is the conductor of the orchestra in this metaphor. You cannot control every individual piece of the orchestra completely, but you can direct the collective. But only if you’ve put in the necessary practice.
An emotion is different for everyone
Think back to the performance mentioned above. What emotion were you associating with it? The description of this situation will be experienced by many as tension, stress or anxiety. And the way in which you experience tension can differ greatly from the way in which I experience this. Your emotion is not mine. Two different orchestras can play the same song in a slightly different way, or in such as vastly different style that the songs barely even resemble each other anymore. The same goes for emotions.
The emotion that was described in this example does not necessarily have to be tension, or stress. Your body does the exact same thing when you are enthusiastic or very eager to get started. When the same sounds have different names, it changes the way you look at them, and in turn how you experience them. This can have a large effect on the behavior you show as a result of the emotion, or on the subsequent thoughts arising in your mind.
Every emotion in its essence therefore is a tendency towards a certain behavior, and every emotion has its own specific and characteristic way of manifesting for each and every one of us.