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Emotional Power

The popular binary view of emotion-coping is fraught with long-term pain.

Key points

  • Popular descriptions of emotion-coping, if followed, reduce the odds of acting in your long term bests interests.
  • Popular views of emotion-coping tend to be binary: express or suppress.
  • The actual choices are express, suppress, or regulate.
  • Emotions are regulated by choosing focus, interpretation, multiple perspectives, and appreciation.

Personal power is the ability to act in your long-term best interests. Emotional power in the ability to use inherently short-term emotions for your long-term best interests.

Popular descriptions of emotion-coping reduce the odds of acting in your long-term best interests. They tend to be binary: express them or suppress them.

Suppressing emotions is clearly bad for physical and psychological health. This empirical fact has led to an unfortunate cult of feelings, where every feeling that happens needs to be expressed.

Trouble is, we don’t merely express emotions; we amplify, magnify, and decontextualize them. That is, we change them, in a manner similar to the observer effect in physics. In exchanges with others, expression of strong emotions impairs reality-testing, creates temporary narcissism, and makes it impossible to see other perspectives, much less any kind of nuance.

The binary view of emotion-coping, embedded in contemporary culture, is no small contributor to the polarization and intolerance of disagreement that infects the land.

It ignores the primary function of emotions: arousal - signaling the organs and muscle groups of the body to prepare us for action. (The root of the word “emotion” is “to move.”) The action they prepare us for is:

Approach, Avoid, or Attack.

For example, compassion and affection prepare us to approach; anger and resentment prepare us to attack, mentally or literally. No one subscribing to the cult of feelings advocates attacking, so we’re told to “feel the feelings” but don't act on them. In other words, we’re supposed to taste the food, but not swallow. It’s worth noting that research on the ill-effects of suppressing emotions does not distinguish between suppressing feelings and motivations. We can only guess which is worse.

In any case, the physiological arousal of emotions, evidenced in facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice, is next to impossible to suppress completely. That's why people know you're feeling negatively about them when you smile and try to be courteous.

The binary view of emotion-coping also ignores the evolutionary function of emotions. They did not evolve for self-discovery or to lend insight about childhood experiences or relationship dynamics. And they are not ends in themselves to be experienced for their own sake; they’re signals about a possible reality that require attention. They evolved to help us negotiate the environment at the moment and in the near future.

Thankfully, there’s an alternative to express or suppress, and that’s regulate. Emotions don’t just happen to us; they're embedded in perceptions of ourselves in the environment at the moment. We regulate them by changing perceptions of self and/or other people.


Emotional signals run on autopilot. The negative ones function like a smoke alarm. When the smoke alarm goes off, we don't scream, "We're all gonna die!" We check to see if there's a fire in the house. Most of the time there isn't, but if there is, we put it out. Emotions are signals about a possible reality. We should check them out but not confuse them with reality. The smoke alarm in not a fire.

If you assume that emotions are reality rather than signals about a possible reality, they are likely to work against you, motivating behavior which:

  • Violates your deeper values (causing guilt, shame, anxiety)
  • Impairs your health
  • Harms your relationships.

You can make emotions work for you by choosing to:

  • Focus
  • Interpret
  • See multiple perspectives
  • Appreciate.


Focus creates artificial importance by amplifying and magnifying the object of focus. What we focus on becomes more important than what we don’t focus on. Much psychological suffering comes from making less important things more important than the most important things.

The best way to regulate unpleasant feelings is to focus on what is most important: your health and well-being and the health and well-being of those you love. In the thralls of an attack motivation, ask:

How important is this issue?

Will I think it’s important tomorrow?

Next week?

Next year?

On my death bed?

What can I do to improve it (make it a little better)?

Try to focus on what you can control. Focus on things out of your control - what other people think, say, and do - makes you feel powerless. Feelings of powerlessness tend to motivate devaluing or aggressive behavior, which undermine your long-term best interests.


Almost every event and behavior is open to more than one valid interpretation. Develop the habit of choosing the most benign interpretation plausibly possible. That typically will be the one that makes you like yourself the best.


“They’re probably talking behind my back.”


“They’re probably chatting to form a connection with each other.”


“She’s narcissistic, ill-mannered, manipulative, self-centered.”


“She’s distracted, overwhelmed, anxious, guilty, ashamed.”


We live in an era of information overload and sensory saturation. Lost in the glare is the transcendence of appreciation. We have a great deal more to appreciate than preceding generations, yet we seem to devalue more and appreciate less. This is due in large part to the cult of feelings, spawned by the binary view of emotion-coping.

I don’t believe we can maintain well-being without appreciation, without opening the heart to be enhanced by the experience of someone or something. In the act of appreciation, life means more to us. The experience of being alive is greater.


  • Regulates negative emotion
  • Overrides bad habits
  • Strengthens connections with others
  • Improves close relationships
  • Gives dimension, dynamics, color to experience
  • Increases meaning and purpose
  • Makes us happier.

I don't mean to suggest that any of your emotions are unjustified. They are perfectly justifiable. You have absolute right to all your emotions. You have the right to make them work against your best interests. And you have a compelling right to let them work for your best interests.