As we enter the “silly” season, and come together over family members who we might not have seen for many months, we may notice our emotions shift.
But what sort of relationship do you have with your emotions? Are they a problem to fix? Are they a monster to chain up? Are they fuel for your ambitions? Or, maybe you don’t particularly notice which emotions you have and when.
The following short article first walks the edge between psychology and philosophy, but ultimately hopes to give you small something of substance, an entrée to nourish your sense of self.
Clinging To Reason
Coming from my background in clinical psychology, emotions, like pretty much everything psychological, were seen as problematic. This appears to be a speciality of Western society; a direct offshoot of the Calvinist-Kantian romanticised notion of rationality.
Romantic rationality? Yes I’ll let that irony sink in a moment.
We’ve had 3 centuries of hype over how freakn awesome reason and logical rationality is. Yet if we can examine with an objective eye our obsession (oooh, is that also an irrationality?) with being rational, we may see it’s propensity for futile and counterproductive efforts and how it, paradoxically, leads us into a lifestyle diverging from common-sense.
Therapy with a Hammer
Anyway, back to psychology. If all you have is a hammer, you’ll see everything as a nail. Psychological training equipts one to see all manner of problems and about-to-be-problems churning and champing in everyone’s mind; almost invisible there, hiding behind gesticulations and tics, freudian slips and stammers. Like the president of a paranoid empire, seeing all manner of natural phenomena as an incoming threat (another modern Western speciality: whole-life competitiveness).
Frankly, your garden variety psychologist—whether noob or veteran, probationary or PhD—they’re all likely primed to view every part of your psychology as an issue waiting to be fixed. A concerned parent, or if you’re particularly unlucky, a patronising Messiah-wannabe, looking at you with a frowning “tsk tsk. You poor thing. Let me help you the way I know how.”
Yes, psychologists are prone to cognitive biases too. And emotions, as one the most potent parts of your psychology, aren’t exempt from this skewing of perspective.
But wait, don’t pry open the head just yet! Is it actually a problem to fix? Or is it chugging along more-or-less just fine?
Emotions aren’t in competition with you, nor are they a waste product. They are there for a good reason. A very good reason. Human emotion is one of the most powerful and intricate of all our survival mechanisms, honed over aeons of biological and societal evolution.
It’s ok to eat fish, ’cause they don’t have any feelingsNirvana – Something in the Way
René Descartes likened the cries of a distressed animal to a squeaky machine. The philosopher who wrote about not trusting even his own senses (despite taking care to curate his relations to others) understandably has no room to think animals might possibly have their own internal experiences, such as emotions. Modern day experimental psychologists still tend to doggedly follow Descartes’ disbelief that animals are capable of feeling emotions. Yet at the same time, behavioural experimenters will readily note exhibited fear responses (oy wait, fear…. didn’t we call that a human emotion?).
The point here is that emotions are something evidently integral to certainly all mammals, perhaps to all invertebrates. Humans have them too, because they offer an evolutionary advantage. Or perhaps Charles Darwin would rather I say: because of the evolutionary advantage of emotions, humans!
Regular readers of my blog will already know this, how fear keeps you alive when the sabre-tooth tiger lunges at you, et cetera. Other emotions, not quite so primal as fear, are tuned to more niche aspects of human survival, such as navigating social hierarchies.
Make Allies of Enemies
So now we see human emotions aren’t a cancer to excise from our lives. We need them. Indeed, we survive and prosper, at least in part, thanks to them.
In deeply troubled individuals emotions may follow a pathological pattern. They may rocket up too quickly to intolerable levels, they may linger an inordinately long time, or they may vacillate too violently from one extreme to another. My patients suffering Borderline Personality Disorder experienced emotions in all three of these destructive patterns simultaneously. In such cases, the hammer of psychology—the old medicine-based psychiatric attitude of fixing diseases—does help. (Albeit, it’s not that simple— BPD treatment definitely requires more than just standard CBT therapy or other such problem-focused therapies.)
For my other psychology clients, and particularly now with my private coaching clients, emotions aren’t so utterly devastating. Instead of violently lashing our emotions into line, and sneering at their nefarious designs to cause use misery, emotions should be seen for what they ultimately are—a powerful ally.
Emotions for Motivation and for Anxiety
In motivation training, clients learn to actually put their emotions to use, leveraging their goals onto this deeply-evolved motivation system. Many of their goals seem to be constantly self-sabotaged because they are operating in competition with their emotions. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, in The Scarcity Mindset, in a duel between your conscious and subconscious, such as between a goal and an emotion, you can always count on the latter to win.
For those I see suffering from anxiety and incessant rumination, a similar adversarial relationship with their emotions is again found. Gripped with fear—fear of the future, or public spaces, or dentists—the immediate response is to wrangle with this runaway emotion and get it under control. If in “crisis-mode”, or full-blown panic attack, there’s little else to be done. But actually the key is to carefully rework the connection one has with the fear into acceptance. It sounds counter-intuitive, but this is the sustainable solution to living with anxiety and panic.
Your Oldest Friend
This is only the very beginning of the journey of changing the perspective one has toward one’s emotions. The ultimate in co-working with emotions is when you’re able to strategically apply the right Mindsets to the situation.
All too often I witness people, myself definitely included, regarding their own emotions as a problem, whether or not they’re even conscious of of having made that judgement. But your “problem” emotion, whatever it is—anger, jealousy, fear, frustration—is not your adversary. In fact, if anything, it is probably you who are being adversarial, wasting your own willpower in competing with yourself.
Just like making amends with an old friend you once fought with, coming to terms with your emotion isn’t something you can just flip-around in one minute. It takes time and the discipline needed in pursuing a long-term project. But once you get there, the reward waiting for you on the other side is truly worth it.