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Your Emotions Are Fundamental

Keep this in mind for more rewarding disagreements.

Key points

  • People have a surprising range of emotions related to the same events, even extremely negative life events.
  • Emotions aren’t automatic. They’re a combination of internal sensations and predictions about what those sensations mean.
  • People who can distinguish between their emotions more precisely regulate them better and deal better with stress and conflict.
  • Emotions don’t tend to change on command. So, debates about what each other “deserves” to feel are not helpful to conflicts.

Phakyab Rinpoche, a Tibetan, was held in a Chinese prison, where he was tortured for three months. He later made it to New York as a refugee and was enrolled in a program for torture survivors. His story offers up some fascinating cross-cultural insights. Here’s what he recounts from meeting with his psychologist:

Although I can see this young woman intends to be genuinely benevolent and open to my story, a misunderstanding quickly arises between us as soon as I mention my detention and tortures. I will soon realize that Westerners easily indulge in victimization. This explains their amazement, and their total lack of understanding, when I joke about the ill treatments I suffered in prison.

In her eventual report, the Bellevue psychologist will state: ‘Mr. Dorje’s affect was stable, however, it seemed inappropriate at times. For example, he was smiling, animated, and even laughed as he described his torture in detail and his survival.’

She would have better understood my feelings had I acted like a punching bag and expressed myself with the tearful language of complaint. Then she would have sympathized and undoubtedly shared my wailing, my indignation, my anger, and my hatred toward my torturers. During our interview, I got the impression that she was driving me into a corner and wanting me to accuse my tormentors. That was when I burst out laughing.

How can I take on a hatred I do not feel?

In fact, on that day, even if I was only a penniless refugee and a sick man with a gangrenous leg, I was not the victim. The victims were my jailers. I had left prison, but what about them? They were locked up in a vicious spiral…

It’s important not just for effective therapy but for effective communication, more broadly, to listen.

Showing respect to someone means trying to let go of what you assume they “should” feel. Instead, listen with curiosity and discover the person’s actual feelings.

Phakyab Rinpoche’s words powerfully illustrate a central and surprising point about emotions. We humans can have a remarkable range of feelings about the same events.

Even a situation as horrible as being tortured doesn’t automatically generate only one possible response—such as anger.

You might think that people who respond to trauma as Phakyab Rinpoche did are just repressing their “true” emotions. That’s possible. But multiple studies have looked for and failed to find evidence of, for example, repression of grief following a loss and that grief coming out later in some other harmful way. (Repressed PTSD has been found but seems to be very rare.) This research suggests that, following traumas, relatively positive emotional responses like Phakyab Rinpoche’s may be surprisingly common. It also suggests that if you force yourself to think you’re in denial unless you feel distraught after a negative life event, given enough time, you might just succeed in getting yourself to feel worse with no real benefit.

It’s hard to avoid messages that tell you what you “should” feel. “You should feel blessed,” says a happiness guru. “You should be outraged,” writes an activist. “You should just laugh it off,” your partner tells you.

But feelings don’t tend to change on command.

Experiments suggest that trying to force ourselves not to feel something doesn’t work well. And telling ourselves to feel some way that we don’t actually feel can backfire.

Emotions are absolutely fundamental to our actions and beliefs, but they aren’t so easy to control. You might think you know how you or someone else “should” feel. But that belief could just block you from connecting with yourself or that person.

A tremendous amount of energy is wasted on telling each other what to feel. Many of us go even further and try to plug each other’s feelings into a hierarchy and figure out who “deserves” to feel what. Much like the therapist did in the story above, this is the opposite of helpful listening. We’re too wrapped up in theories and abstractions when we do this. That takes us away from the immediate moment and the present emotions. And that can be disempowering.

 Ollyy/Shutterstock
Source: Ollyy/Shutterstock

What is an emotion?

“An emotion is your brain’s creation of what your bodily sensations mean, concerning what is going on around you in the world,” neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett contends in her book How Emotions are Made. “Emotions are not reactions to the world. You are not a passive receiver of sensory input but an active constructor of your emotions.” In other words, an emotion is a combination of internal sensations and predictions about what those sensations mean.

Feldman Barrett shares evidence that folks who can distinguish between their emotions more precisely, using larger and more refined vocabularies to label and understand them, are more flexible in regulating those emotions, deal with stress better, and are less aggressive when someone hurts them.

This evidence provides good reasons to get as comfortable as you can with feelings: your own and other people’s.

Emotions in Conflicts

As soon as a conversation turns difficult, it can be helpful to pause and try to notice what you feel. In his book Nonviolent Communication, psychologist Marshall Rosenberg notes that finding your feelings is different from making accusations. “I feel that you’re being a jerk” is just a judgment of the other person. “I feel impatient” is an actual feeling—it’s your interpretation of your internal state.

Be as clear and specific as possible. Finding precisely how you’re feeling (here’s one list that might help) can liberate you to communicate in richer ways, especially in difficult conversations.

Many people don’t like to talk about their feelings, so you could make a best guess and ask the other person (e.g., “Are you feeling discouraged?”). Finding out what they’re feeling can enrich your understanding and empathy.

It’s empowering to remember that, as fast and out of control as they might seem, your emotions aren’t purely automatic. They rely on your predictions and interpretations.

This means that you can keep the responsibility for your feelings with you. It means not getting into debates about if a feeling is “right” or “wrong.” It doesn’t matter. Phakyab Rinpoche felt what he felt. Someone else might have felt hatred. Someone else might have felt intense anxiety. And so on. None of these is the “right” feeling or the “wrong” one.

Stop trying to force emotions (your own or anyone else’s) to change. Instead, listen to them as much as you can. This may be deeply challenging. It may require the help of the right caring people in your life, whether friends, family, or trained professionals.

Know that in conflicts, emotions aren’t the problem. What you say, believe, or do, can be problematic, but an emotion is just an interpretation of your internal sensations—nothing less and nothing more. An emotion isn’t doing anything on its own.

This insight frees you, as well, from the impossible burden of trying to make other people happy. Since you don’t generate emotions in anyone else, all you can do is act in ways consistent with your values. You can do your best to be kind or caring, but you can’t cause someone else to respond how you might hope.

Of course, shifting how you relate to emotions is only one part of improving your conflicts. I’ve written a book full of other empowering stories and evidence-based tips.

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