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Compound Emotions, including grief, guilt, shame, anxiety, stress and burnout

Many emotions fit quite well under one of the primary emotion umbrellas. Examples were given as each primary emotion was defined under The Six Primary Emotions. Often, however, the sense of more than one primary emotion is included in a single word. I will discuss some examples of this here.

You may notice a new element under this heading, in that thought, and particularly belief, sometimes plays a part in the generation of an emotion – as, for example, with guilt and shame, both of which are discussed below. This does not mean that wanting has gone missing. It is just getting a helping hand from one or more thoughts or beliefs. (Belief is discussed at some length in my article called Conditioning, Beliefs and Basic Attitudes.)

In the case of two closely related compound emotions discussed below, stress and burnout, physical exhaustion and/or illness also play an obvious part. The interaction of thought, emotion and physical health, however, is not limited to these examples.

Grief and guilt will be discussed at much greater length than the other compound emotions – though the discussion of grief is in another article (see link in next paragraph). This is partly because of their great importance as causes of emotional suffering. But it is also true that everything said about the cause and cure of grief or guilt, can equally well be applied to any other painful emotion.


I have put the heading "Grief" here simply because Compound Emotions would not be complete without it. However, a heading is all it is going to be – grief will be discussed in detail under The Healing of Emotions. Although that title applies to all painful emotions, grief is the example that I will use. This is not only because of its importance in its own right, but also because grief includes most painful emotions.


In everyday speech, the word "anxiety" usually refers to this compound emotion, which is a distressing, apprehensive feeling, mainly consisting of fear and hope about a future which seems uncertain and threatening. The fear is often, but not always, somewhat more evident than the hope. The distinctions between anxiety, anxiety disorders and the physiological and physical concomitants of anxiety are very important (see the footnote under Hope and Fear in Exploring the Primary Emotions) but they are outside the scope of this book.

Many everyday situations are accompanied by anxiety, which is generally accepted as an unpleasant, but bearable, part of "normal" life. Examples of the infinitely variable situations which may cause anxiety include facing a new challenge, knowing that you will soon learn about a significant gain or loss, and living with conflict. The last of these is discussed in some detail in my article called, not very surprisingly, Conflict.

The fear underpinning anxiety often has no clear object. In other words, the thing feared is often vague and ill-defined. Indeed, in the case of generalised "free-floating" anxiety, the thing feared may be completely unknown. In other cases, the thing feared may be perfectly well defined, but the timing or degree of the threat may be ill-defined.


Gratitude includes friendly feelings like approval, goodwill, warmth and affection, all of which are found within propathy. However, there is usually also a sense of obligation. And the latter tends to cause, to a variable degree, feelings like resentment, antagonism and aversion, or even outright malice, all of which are found within antipathy.

In some cases there may also be some sadness about having to rely on the largesse of another person. There could also be some fear about a possible inability to fulfil the perceived obligation – which could then cause a feeling of shame (discussed below).

So gratitude, an apparently straightforward response to receiving a kindness, turns out to be a bit of a minefield. It is not only a compound emotion – it is quite a complex one. It may only take a few paragraphs to describe it, but it can take a fair bit of unravelling if it crops up in your Wanterfall work.


In jurisprudence, to be guilty simply means to be the perpetrator of a crime. However, in its psychological sense, guilt is a compound emotion – and one of the most powerful known to man. Unfortunately, although it can sometimes lead to beneficial changes in behaviour, the power of this emotion is usually either mainly or entirely destructive.

Whereas fear can be a terrible enemy in some situations, but a helpful reminder of danger in others, guilt seems to act as an enemy in most cases – and a true friend in none. In my opinion, it is one of mankind's greatest enemies. For this reason, I will talk about guilt at some length. It has two main components, and I will look at each in turn.

The first main component of guilt is disapproval of self, often extending to outright anger at self, or even hatred of self. This can alternatively be called self-condemnation. Often, it is clearly related to one or more known acts, which are perceived as reprehensible by the person involved (and perhaps, but not necessarily, by one or more other people). At other times, the memory of the acts involved may be suppressed or repressed to such an extent that the guilty feeling is not consciously related to any cause at all.

The second main component of guilt is fear of consequences if the reprehensible acts (whether or not consciously remembered) are discovered by others. This fear of consequences may be felt as a background anxiety in some cases, but it may be acute and severe in other cases.

So we can make quite a simple summary, for one of mankind's worst enemies: self-condemnation and fear of consequences. However, simplicity has nothing to do with significance. World War 3 is a pretty simple concept, after all. So let's look at the adverse effects of guilt, which make it such a terrible destroyer of human beings – including many cases of collateral damage.

There are two adverse effects caused by the self-condemnation component. The first is a failure of any sense of inner wellbeing. Without noticing it very often, people in reasonable emotional health experience friendly feelings directed towards the self, which are present by default and create a sort of background feeling that life is OK. But self-condemnation locks out this background of self-generated warmth, leaving the sufferer feeling cold and friendless – all the time.

The second adverse effect of self-condemnation is an external analogue of the first, influencing specific aspects of everyday life. It effectively puts a damper on any happiness which might show signs of being available. The sufferer's mind does this by ruling, either at a subconscious or conscious level, that happiness is simply not deserved. The same usually applies to hope. Not deserved – take it away. No jury is involved in this process. The inner judge sits alone – and knows no mercy.

Next, there is one adverse effect caused by the fear of consequences component. This fear often locks out any help that might be available. In other words, it prevents the person from sharing the matter with any other person (which could be the first step towards healing) or from seeking professional help (which could be lifesaving). Only a truly fiendish malady prevents its own cure. And, in this way, guilt does exactly that.

Sometimes, one more factor may be present, to a varying degree, as a secondary result of the main factors. That factor is sadness – a perfectly logical sadness, about the loss of the previous, and much happier, state of mind.

Now, if you check the emotions mentioned under the present heading, you will see that the unpleasant side of the Wanterfall Chart (fear, sadness and antipathy) is fully represented in guilt – with the antipathy directed inwards. While the other side (hope, happiness and propathy) gets stamped out if it so much as emits a feeble glow. Also, as mentioned, external help is usually locked out by the fear of external condemnation and punishment. So the suffering caused by guilt is not only severe – it is usually also prolonged.

If that were all that guilt could offer, it would already be much too much. However, in some cases, the punishment already described still does not satisfy the inner judge. Self harm of a physical nature may also be part of the sentence handed down. This may extend to suicide, especially after an entirely understandable, but equally misguided, attempt to ease the pain of guilt with alcohol, tranquillisers, other drugs, other high risk activities – or all of the above.

The reason that drugs, including alcohol, can increase the risk of suicide is simple. Many drugs, whether prescribed or not, tend to sedate the last remaining vestiges of common sense and/or inhibitions – leaving the sufferer completely at the mercy of that virtual (and virtually merciless) inner judge.

Do you think I have painted guilt in excessively dark and dramatic tones? Far from it. Unfortunately for many people, and their loved ones, the description of guilt given above is really rather tame, and completely fails to do justice to this powerful and cruel enemy – the cause of broken hearts, broken families and broken lives beyond counting.

No, I have not done guilt justice. However, I think I have provided a glimpse of the main elements from which it is constructed. And importantly, that glimpse shows that guilt is, in essence, no different from any other emotional pain. That, in turn, means that it can be healed by the same process that can heal grief – as discussed under The Healing of Emotions.

There is an important caveat here – guilt does not always travel alone. It can be one of the symptoms of various mental illnesses – especially depressive disorders and schizophrenia. When that is the case, the primary need is for treatment of the underlying condition. Emotional pain responds to the healing of emotions – but mental illness requires expert diagnosis and optimal medical treatment.

Before leaving guilt behind (highly recommended) I would like to say a bit about its prevention. I will follow the usual approach to the control of an infectious disease, because I think that approach suits guilt rather well.

The first step in preventing infectious diseases is avoidance. We try to avoid direct or indirect transmission of the infectious agent to a susceptible person, by following various infection control practices. Some of these are universal, and others are tailored to the particular type of infection involved.

As soon as a safe vaccine is available, we also practise immunisation. Given optimal use of avoidance measures and, where available, immunisation, treatment may rarely be necessary. But it becomes essential (and, at the population level, is also part of future prevention) if the other methods fail.

So let's apply this approach to guilt. Firstly, avoid carriers of judgmental attitudes – because judgmental attitudes are the main infectious agents in guilt. In this case, avoidance requires limiting communication as well as keeping your distance. Also, do not contribute to judgmental conversation yourself. Judgmental attitudes cannot be aimed – they scatter in all directions. That includes the direction of the perpetrator.

Secondly, disinfect known carriers by applying forgiveness. If nothing else, the practice will come in handy – you never know when you might need to forgive yourself. In any case, forgiveness, like judgmental attitudes, cannot be aimed. So when applying forgiveness, you will inevitably be hit by your own "friendly fire" – which, for once, will actually be friendly.

I expect I could go on in this vein, but I want to move on to immunisation. Is there a safe and effective vaccine available for the prevention of guilt? Well, not exactly. However, in my opinion, the practice of constant, non-judgmental self-awareness (the first pillar of Wanterfall work) confers partial immunity to guilt as one of its many beneficial side effects.

Learning to be non-judgmental as you notice your own thoughts and feelings is very good practice for avoiding the fundamental error of co-operating with guilt through self-condemnation. Such failure to co-operate will often prevent guilt from taking root. Guilt relies so heavily on a judgmental attitude that it simply cannot survive without it. So a non-judgmental approach to life provides considerable protection.

EEEEs work, employed in its role as part of the second pillar of Wanterfall work, can further strengthen this protection, by cleaning out any pre-existing pockets of guilt discovered along the way. These might otherwise act as fertile soil for new guilt to thrive in. Also, each time you notice that guilt is not only dangerous, but also optional, the immunity will grow stronger. And if, just once, you see that guilt is virtual and not real, you will never be able to take it completely seriously, ever again.

EEEEs work in the absence of Wanterfall work is, of course, not part of individual prevention, it is treatment[33] for something which was not prevented. However, treatment of individual cases is an essential part of prevention at a population level – because it helps to prevent further spread of the infection.


We've just finished with guilt – and now along comes shame. But there is some good news – because of the fairly close relationship that shame bears to guilt, I will not have so much to say this time. If you understand guilt, you can understand shame quite easily. And most of my ideas about prevention and treatment are similar, too.

There are three main components to the feeling of shame. The belief (which may or may not be correct) that others know, or will discover, something reprehensible about you and will therefore disapprove of you. The agreement that this disapproval is appropriate. And the choice (usually not conscious) to co-operate with them in causing yourself pain through self-condemnation.

As with guilt, memory of a past shame may be suppressed or repressed to the extent that the feeling of shame is not consciously attached to anything specific. Also as with guilt, there may be sadness about the loss of the previous state of mind, and an artificial barrier may be erected against self-directed propathy or incidental happiness.

Fear of discovery is not usually a major element. Often, discovery has already occurred. Alternatively, it may be thought to have occurred. Sometimes, it may just be considered likely to occur. But if there is a significant fear of discovery and its consequences, the feeling is probably closer to guilt than shame. Alternatively, guilt and shame may be coexisting.

The underlying issue with shame is something which is thought worthy of disapproval, but it is often not a bad or criminal act (which is often the trigger for guilt). In fact, shame is often felt about no act at all – just something that one is. But, in both guilt and shame, self-condemnation is the engine that drives the pain. Without this engine, there can be neither guilt nor shame.

A young girl might feel shame because she has painted her toenails the "wrong" colour, or perhaps because her friends have heard her parents arguing. A truck driver might feel shame because he or she made bad time between two towns. A cook might feel shame because the food tastes bad. Anything that people might disapprove of will do. It need not be extreme. (And it need not be suffered – like guilt, it is entirely optional.)


Stress is a term which is used frequently, but is not always very clearly defined. It often appears in occupational contexts like law enforcement, intensive care, palliative care and disaster relief work; but there is stress in every workplace. It can also be found in the home – or anywhere, for that matter.

The word itself gives the impression that some sort of force is being applied. We know that anything will break if the force applied to it exceeds its strength, so the implication is pretty clear that, if stress gets bad enough, something will give. Before that point, we might suffer, but not actually "break".

We also struggle against various forces when we exercise, and under the right conditions this can be very beneficial. A somewhat analogous phenomenon occurs when we study, and become better educated as a result. The term "eustress" (meaning good stress) is sometimes applied to stress that seems to be beneficial.

The opposite of eustress is sometimes given as "distress". However, this term is so broad as to cover virtually anything unpleasant, including physical problems like shortness of breath or a sore foot, so it cannot be assumed to mean a deleterious dose of stress unless this is specified. In some cases, of course, the context will make it clear.

Anyway, the general idea is that the victim of stress is being expected to struggle against, or through, some thing or things which can usually be tolerated up to a point, but are likely to prove harmful or even disastrous if that point is passed.

Overwork is often a major element in stress, especially long hours of mentally taxing work. Constant tiredness, no time to resolve everyday emotions or engage in recreational activities, and an ever-increasing mountain of pending matters, all move the pointer from eustress towards distress.

Feeling anxious is almost always part of the equation. In some cases, so is feeling depressed (discussed below). Conflict, which is the subject of a separate article, is a particularly potent stressor – especially when it includes a "double bind"[34]. In the case of work related stress, grief, which is also the subject of a separate article, might enter the picture if a promotion is missed, especially if a colleague has (hopefully only metaphorically) knifed you in the back. Griefs outside the workplace, such as a bereavement or the end of a relationship, can be the last straw when stress is already considerable.

All of this means that stress has intellectual, physical and social dimensions, as well as its complex emotional component. It certainly sounds pretty dire – but that does not make the situation hopeless. Firstly, the emotional component can be approached as discussed under The Healing of Emotions. Resolution of emotional distress will usually have indirect beneficial effects on the physical, intellectual and social aspects of the situation as well.

However, effective stress management also requires attention to the factors causing and maintaining the stress, and these aspects are not covered in Section 4. I will comment briefly on them under the present heading, but the three main prerequisites for that task are outside the scope of this book.

Those three prerequisites are communication skills, problem solving techniques and optimal physical health. Although none of these issues are covered in Wanterfall, the first two are addressed in current or forthcoming publications from[35]

There are also various practical issues that can be helpful along the way. When stress occurs in the workplace, for example, an experienced administrator or negotiator, who is neither involved in the situation nor associated with any adversaries, may be able to provide invaluable advice. A union or professional association may be able to recommend such a person, or alternatively may assist you directly.

Understanding your job description, and having a general idea of the legal requirements that exist, is essential prior to commencing any specific negotiations. It is also important to enlist all the help, both in terms of influence and emotional support, which is available to you. This might include work colleagues, though some care is necessary with them, as they could conceivably have one eye on your job.

The excessive workload will certainly need to be moderated as soon as possible. When the usual delegation process is exhausted, your supporters (if any) may help by taking on some of your work. Beyond that, it will be a matter of deferring where possible, and cutting corners wherever it is safe to do so.

So stress is an interesting mixture (OK, a horrible mixture) of emotional distress and just about every other aspect of human experience. When it is mild, it may not matter too much. It may even make you stronger. But when it is severe, it can be overwhelming. Indeed, it is far from unknown for the overall solution to stress at work to include a new job. Sometimes it includes a new life partner, as well.

Such major changes often bring with them further large doses of stress – and often grief, too. All of this can be lived through, if you work hard on all the different components of the various problems, and take the actions which seem necessary at the time. This is not easy, but it is possible. However, as usual, I don't expect anyone to believe that in advance.


Burnout is the disabled state which results when severe stress (see above) exceeds the capacity of the individual to tolerate it. Such a person may remain in the workforce, in which case they often do more harm than good. Alternatively, they may be on stress leave (perhaps compulsory) or on sick leave. Or they may simply leave their job (voluntarily or otherwise). Family and social life will usually be severely affected.

From the employer's perspective, burnout is a waste of a good employee – one with knowledge, skills and experience which may have been developed over years or decades. This should make the employer very co-operative with the work-related aspects of treatment. However, that does not always occur.

From the employee's point of view, burnout is usually a physical, emotional, social and economic disaster, which may take months or years to recover from. When treatment is not optimal, recovery will be further delayed. At worst, lifelong disability could result.

This need not be the case. Although early treatment would have been preferable, late treatment is quite possible. Because burnout is the terminal phase of stress, its treatment is basically the same as the treatment of stress – as described under the previous heading. However, the doses – especially the dose of EEEEs work – may need to be increased.

Feeling Depressed

I say feeling depressed, rather than being depressed, to distinguish this compound emotion from clinically significant depressive disorders. This is an easy distinction to make in words, but in practice it often requires medical assessment. (The features of depressive disorders are outside my current scope, but they are discussed briefly in another publication.[36])

Anyway, when we feel depressed in the emotional sense, we are usually somewhere on the right hand side of the Wanterfall chart. We feel sad, perhaps irritable or angry, and perhaps vaguely guilty; we don't seem to be able to enjoy life very much; and we feel pessimistic about the possibility of improvement.

If the cause is mainly or entirely emotional, it is likely to be helped by the Emotional EEEEs approach, which is described under The Healing of Emotions. Of course, many other methods of treating emotional distress also exist. A few of these are discussed in another booklet currently in preparation.[37]

However, if the depressed feeling lasts for days on end, or if it is getting worse rather than better, or if it is very severe, then perhaps it is not just a matter of emotional distress. Perhaps it is a clinically significant depressive disorder – in which case it needs medical assessment and treatment. And if there are any thoughts of suicide, medical assessment is always urgent.[38]

But what if you just don't know whether feeling depressed is due to emotions, or an illness? What can be done then? When in doubt, seek medical advice. This applies in many situations, of course, but it is particularly important when feeling persistently depressed. The distinction between emotional distress and serious depressive illness can be almost impossible for the sufferer or their friends to make – but it can always be clarified by a thorough assessment by a good doctor.[39]

Other Emotions

In general, I find that all of the words used to describe emotions can either be placed in the general territory of one of the primary emotions already discussed, or else they can be derived from two or more of those primary emotions. This sometimes requires a bit of approximation, though, as neither language nor people are entirely regular in their behaviour.

Here are a few examples of words with emotional connotations: yearning, grievance, heartache, wretchedness. Can you decide which primary emotions are involved? You might also like to start your own collection of words with emotional connotations, as you encounter them from time to time – and then decide which of the primary emotions they are derived from, or contained within.


(Click the number of a footnote to return to its reference in the text)

[33] I am referring here to treatment of emotional distress only. As discussed under Cautions, More Cautions, and in various other places, nothing described in this book is advised as treatment for physical or mental illness.

[34] A double bind means two requirements which are mutually exclusive or incompatible, creating an unresolvable dilemma.

[35] Notes on Communication, and A Few Self-Help Techniques – both free e-booklets (the latter in preparation) from

[36] Depressive disorders are described in the draft publication An Introduction to Mental Illness, but work on this draft has been delayed and may not proceed.

[37] A Few Self-Help Techniques, a free e-booklet (in preparation) from

[38] This is not to say that every thought about suicide leads to suicide. However, suicidal ideas are often a feature of severe depression, and they are not infrequently the precursor of attempted or completed suicide. They must always be taken seriously – even if the person has "cried wolf" before.

[39] If you do not know a good doctor, recommendations from family, friends or neighbours, sometimes followed by trying again until you are satisfied, is one way to find one. Local consumer organisations may also have some information. Officially, the staff of community centres will tell you that they cannot comment. Off the record, they sometimes give invaluable hints.

(Click the number of a footnote to return to its reference in the text)


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