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Our Irrational Emotional Life

Worry, anger, and jealousy, oh my!

Emotions serve important functions in our lives, not only to influence our well-being but also how we relate to others. We enter life crying and screaming, and although we eventually learn to keep most of those outward emotional expressions in check, there are times when negative emotions get the worst of us.

Psychologists understand emotions as complex states involving mind, body and external environment. As summarized by Stanford University’s Elise Dan-Glausner and James Gross (2013), emotions are “patterned appraisals that lead us to coordinated changes across experiential, behavioral, and physiological response systems” (p. 832). Let’s translate this elegant, if not a bit technical, definition into common terms. We base our emotions on our perceptions of the events going on in and around us. In turn, our emotions lead us to show one or more patterns of behavior. When something makes you angry, you may lash out, and when something makes you sad, you cry. When you’re experiencing the positive emotions of love you may show affection, and when something strikes you as funny, you laugh.

Being able to understand and control your emotional responses are key skills that influence your relationships with others. People will stay away from you if you’re constantly expressing negative emotions. You might even put your job security, relationships, and health at risk. Under the wrong circumstances, you could even lose your life, such as expressing road rage.

Anger is just one potentially destructive emotion, however; there are others far more subtle yet equally powerful in their effects on you. Let’s take the vague sense of intense dislike you may find yourself having toward someone you barely know. It’s hard to pinpoint the source of your annoyance, but you know that something about this person is irksome. To understand this experience, you can start by asking yourself whether it’s the person specifically or someone the person reminds you of who’s the real source of your displeasure. Through the process of transference, identified by Freud in his psychoanalytic writings, we project onto other people the feelings we have toward someone else. Traditionally, transference occurs in psychoanalysis when a patient “transfers” her feelings about her father onto the therapist (who may not even be a male).

The process of transference isn’t limited to the psychoanalytic or even the therapy couch. We are constantly transferring our feelings about one person onto someone else such as when that person is in a particular role such as a boss who seems like a mother figure, leading you to experience either inappropriate love or resentment. We may even allow our feelings about someone to transfer onto someone else who bears a physical resemblance to the original source of our conflicted emotions. Perhaps you don’t like the person who delivers your mail but don't know why. It's possible that he’s done nothing but remind you of a big kid who lived down the street who used to bully you in childhood due to his height or his facial features.

Jealousy may have at least some of its roots in transference. An acquaintance succeeds in achieving a goal (a raise, promotion, or romantic partner) that you wanted, and you’re seething with hurt and rage. Under ordinary circumstances, you’re really not like this at all and in fact, are pretty satisfied with your own salary, job, or close relationship. Again, once you start to look inwardly at what's going on, you might realize that your envious feelings can be attributed, instead, to the fact that he’s a lot like your older sister who constantly beat you out in everything from grades to popularity contests and is still gaining more of the family favor and attention every time you all get together.

You might also experience a related set of feelings through countertransference in which you find yourself reacting to someone who stirs up certain feelings in you but not due to any resemblance to a person in your past. In psychoanalysis, this occurs when the therapist starts to react emotionally to the patient's particular interpersonal style or even psychological issues. It’s not simply that the therapist experiences the kind of associations that occur in transference, but also that the therapist experiences the feelings that the patient typically stirs up in others.

For example, consider a school psychologist who’s usually very generous with her time and happy to assist her students. There’s one certain student, though, whose mannerisms trigger feelings of impatience and annoyance. Instead of burying those feelings, she might use them as a way to gain insight into that student’s interpersonal style and perhaps develop a therapeutic plan on that basis.

Understanding countertransference could also help you approach your relationships with others more productively. Thinking about that friend who’s accomplishing what you’re not, let’s say you don’t have an older sister and try as you might, there’s no one she reminds you of. It just doesn’t seem like transference is operating here. Instead, it’s possible that the way you’re feeling reflects the way a lot of people feel toward this woman. She rubs everyone the wrong way by her constant drawing attention to herself and his exploits. Depending on how close you are to her, you might consider drawing her aside and giving her a little helpful advice in plain speech (no need to use psychoanalytic terminology!). If you’re not that close, you can tuck your reaction away and keep it as a reminder not to be as self-aggrandizing when you come upon a piece of good news about yourself.

It goes without saying that worries and fears are other negative emotions that can greatly interfere with your quality of life. There may on occasion be a reality basis to those emotions, but often they reflect irrational beliefs. One of the most common is to let your mind wander off to worst-case scenarios, or “catastrophizing,” when something starts to go wrong. A close relative has suffered an accident, and it’s hard for you to stay positive because all you can think about is the prospect of this relative becoming permanently disabled, or worse. Perhaps you’d like to try a new hobby, but all you can visualize is yourself being a complete failure and making a fool of yourself. Therefore, you don’t even want to experiment or just give it a try. You may realize that these negative thoughts and visualizations are indeed irrational, but this realization doesn’t minimize their impact on you.

The next time you find yourself unusually preoccupied with the prospect of something going wrong, try to identify what you’re thinking. The entire premise of cognitive therapy (e.g. Wenzel, 2014) is that by changing your thoughts, you can change your emotions. Therapists trained in this tradition ask you to articulate these thoughts and then challenge the ones that are particularly irrational (e.g. “I must always be perfect,” “Bad things are bound to happen when I try something new”). It’s not always easy to work this kind of magic on yourself, but by engaging in constructive self-talk, you may very well be able to make significant inroads.

Once you start to feel a little better about yourself and more confident in your ability to overcome at least some of your negative emotions, you can build on your improved mood and take on the more challenging ones. It’s possible that, after really trying to tackle these issues on your own, you are still experiencing more negative emotions than you’d like. At that point, you may wish to consider professional help.

We should recognize, though, that negative emotions can have value. A life without worry, fear, anger, or even jealousy would be a dull one indeed. The trick is finding the balance between the positive and negative emotions in your life. If you can use your emotional reactions to achieve greater self-understanding and acceptance, your positive emotional experiences will only continue to grow.

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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014


Dan-Glauser, E. S., & Gross, J. J. (2013). Emotion regulation and emotion coherence: Evidence for strategy-specific effects. Emotion, 13(5), 832-842. doi:10.1037/a0032672

Wenzel, A. (2014). Cognitive therapy. In L. S. Greenberg, N. McWilliams, and A. Wenzel, Exploring three approaches to psychotherapy (pp. 129-182). Washington, DC US: American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/14253-004