Emotions in the Real World

Of course you feel misunderstood.

Posted May 09, 2020

If you feel misunderstood by other people (and your individual therapy is failing on top of it), the likely reason is that you (and your therapist) are emphasizing your feelings and failing to see your emotions as social phenomena. It is unlikely that you (or your therapist) will understand your emotions in a real-world context just by examining your feelings or their presumed significance to your childhood.

The truth is, emotions tend to feel very different on the inside then they look on the outside. Resentment and the many forms of anger are primary examples. On the inside, you feel like you're treated unfairly, if not victimized. That is definitely not what you look like on the outside, which is why you get such a negative reaction to what are often legitimate complaints made out of resentment or anger.

The Social Function of Emotions
Humans were tribal from the beginning of our time on earth. Emotions were the glue that held us in the tight social units that proved so advantageous to survival. To this day, our response to one another is essentially emotional. For the most part, our emotions when in proximity to others are automatic responses to their perceived emotional states, which are often directly transmitted through contagion and attunement. Here we tend to be pretty accurate in judging other people's emotions, i.e., you feel the other person.

The felt-system of emotional interactions evolved in much smaller populations. In modern times, there are just too darn many of us. Too often we infer the emotional states of others from their appearance, ideas, beliefs, and behavior. Modern humans have lost a great deal of accuracy in inferring the emotional states of others, especially in regard to what other people are reacting to, namely what we are doing. When it comes to emotional interactions, we have built-in blind spots. The stronger the emotion, the greater the blind spots.

If you feel like a victim on the inside, there is a very good chance that on the outside you seem aggressive, rejecting, dismissive, cold, or self-righteous, which, of course, compounds your hurt and frustration.

We have no control over what other people do, but we can influence how they react to us by making sure our behavior reflects our most humane values. This will feel less reactive and more authentic and reduce the likelihood of being misunderstood.