Just as rivers employ the force of churning stones and gravel to chisel out canyons in rocky terrain, the innate drive to create value uses emotional energy to carve out the landscapes of our lives.

Most emotions occur in streams that carry value meanings, with built-in motivations to behave according to one's deeper values. By adulthood, the value meaning of emotions carries a constant warning: Create value and remain true to it, or you won't know who you are and won't accept the person you've become.

On a conscious level, the weaker streams of emotion mark less important levels of value: We want vacations to go well and get disappointed if they don't. The stronger ones, with the most forceful motivations, normally go to the very deepest values: We're impassioned about protecting children and devastated by loss of a loved one.

Most of our emotional streams never reach consciousness, due to the remarkably efficient function of the human brain. Thanks to the value meaning of emotions, we keep more or less aligned with our deepest values, without having to stop and think about them. We may foolishly insist that our children think through the consequences of their behavior (they lack sufficient development in the prefrontal cortex to do so reliably), but the fact is we hardly ever do that ourselves. (If we thought through the consequences of our behavior, our days would consist of little more than getting out of bed, taking a shower, eating breakfast, brushing teeth, getting dressed, and driving to work - by then it would be time go home and back to bed.) Most of what we do we do on automatic pilot, without thinking about it at all, much less thinking through the consequences of each behavior. To keep the vast majority of our behaviors within the boundaries of personal values, we rely on an automatic, low-grade discomfort, stimulated by the mere impulse to violate a deeper value.

For example, if you are hungry, you will feel slightly uncomfortable looking at a candy bar in the grocery store checkout line. That vague, uncomfortable feeling inhibits a primitive, toddler-like urge to take the candy. For the most part, only those people whose personal values do not preclude stealing candy will ever have a conscious thought about taking it. Most of us do not have to consciously think of taking the candy or think of what would happen if we did because the value meaning of our emotions inhibits the impulse. The most we may feel while looking at the candy is a vague discomfort. Developing this kind of value-inhibition in children is what we mean by teaching them right from wrong. Emphasizing fear of consequences merely teaches them to avoid punishment.

We experience scores of similar value inhibitions every day; indeed, we couldn't function without them. The danger lies in blaming these important internal signals - vague discomfort and the like - on "stress" or circumstances or other people. Then they lose the capacity to guide beneficial behavior and become, instead, something to numb, avoid, or avenge. When we try to numb, avoid, or avenge the negative emotions enforcing our deepest values, we lose touch with who we are. When that happens, you look in the mirror and see someone else's face. Ignoring the value meaning of emotions leads to resentment, depression, or anxiety as it alienates you from your deepest values. Eventually you live in the shadows of yourself.

To stay in the sunlight, be grateful for the vague discomforts of life. If you examine their value meaning and do not blame them on anyone, they will enable growth and keep you true to who you are.

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