Emotions Are Important, But Not So Much

Emotions drive us, need to be dealt with, and are less important than they seem.

Posted Jan 21, 2019

Art by William Berry / Alexi Berry. Used with permission.
Source: Art by William Berry / Alexi Berry. Used with permission.

Emotions drive us, perhaps more than we would like to admit. In fact, the philosopher Hume postulated that we are more influenced by our feelings than by reason. We may not even be aware of how much our emotions influence us. But if one can accept that emotions play an unconscious role and would like to make more rational decisions and decrease the impact of emotion, this post may help. 

I’ve already made the case that psychology suggests we create reasons for our behavior that often mask the true driving force. I refer the reader unconvinced of this to some of my other posts (see “The Top 20 Ways you are Lying to Yourself”, “The Big Lie”, “The Truth will Not Set You Free”). In short, reasons are created to make choices seem logical. There are a number of contributors to one’s decision, and some can be found in the readings suggested above. The one contributor we are concerned with here is emotions. Psychology has long recognized this, though perhaps not explicitly, by noting defense mechanisms such as rationalizing (creating rational reasons for something we desire) and justifying (convincing arguments that others would have behaved the same way in the same emotional situation). Yet people remain largely unaware of when they are using these defense mechanisms and allow emotions to unconsciously dictate behavior.

It is necessary to be clear strong emotions must be dealt with; ignoring them or suppressing them is not the suggestion of the argument that follows. However, emotions often run amok, and people can get caught in a cycle of negative emotions, reliving the hurtful (or angering, or any other negative emotional state) experiences rather than effectively dealing with them and moving on. As a therapist who utilizes mindfulness-based techniques, I agree there are occasions when one must “lean into” the negative experience, and allow it to be fully experienced, rather than avoiding it. Williams, et. al, identify avoidance of negative internal states as a precursor to chronic unhappiness (p. 35-36). 

This brings up the quandary of when to lean into feelings, and when to effectively move on from them. There is a delicate balance and the line is not clear-cut. Many theorists discuss how to determine if your emotional reaction is healthy or a product of maladaptive patterns conditioned from your past. I recommend the reader to another Psychology Today post, “How Emotions Guide Our Lives,” by Lisa Firestone, for more on this topic. The line, however, remains blurry because we can’t trust our own analysis (or, quite often, anyone’s analysis). Accepting this ambiguity, one may want to try different techniques at different times. 

The technique I am advocating here goes against what most therapists suggest. Most therapists suggest exploring the emotion, sitting with it, leaning into it, processing it, and then it will eventually dissipate. Again, this is appropriate at times. 

As I discussed in, “The Words in Your Story,” experts in emotions proclaim that what we’ve learned about emotions, that there are six universal emotions that all humans experience, is erroneous. Experts such as Lisa Feldman Barrett and Tiffany Watt Smith claim that in actuality, language and our culture shape what we experience, and what we name those experiences.

Other psychological studies indicate that often when we are explaining our emotions, we are doing so with the sometimes erroneous assumption that something external caused the emotion. For example, someone smiles at you, that makes you happy, and you smile back. Studies indicate that this chain of events which we accept might be incorrect. Someone smiles at us (likely because of evolution and this automatic behavior being one that helps survival, transmitting that “I am friendly”), your brain registers the smile, mirror neurons mimic the behavior, you smile, and then, because you are smiling, you feel happier. Yet due to the way our analytical brain makes sense of emotion and cause and effect, we believe actions precipitate emotions. They do sometimes, but not all the time. The point is we cannot always trust the mind’s interpretation and explanation of why an emotion exists. This doubt that is created can be the gateway to a more mindful approach. 

Another reason we might not need to pay so much attention to emotion many already know: Your internal state affects your perception and leads to exaggerated or inappropriate emotions. There are numerous examples of this: Those who feel they “need” a cup of coffee before they can be nice; knowing you’re in a bad mood and taking things the wrong way; being “hangry”; and many more. There are times we all realize our internal states are affecting our perception and leading to an emotional response that may not be warranted. It shouldn’t be a big leap to accept there are a multitude of other instances when your internal state affects perception and thereby your emotions. 

To make this useful for coping with emotions, I suggest slowing down and stopping the story in your mind about what is causing the emotion and instead reflecting on the four possible internal states that Lisa Feldman Barrett identifies: pleasant, unpleasant, aroused or calm. According to Dr. Barrett, these states are the actual core of whatever emotion you have learned you are having. The core doesn’t contain the story. It is simply the internal state. When one also realizes the story isn’t truth, it is only one’s perception of reality and there are a multitude of other perceptions about even just this event that is causing the internal state, a sense of calmness may arise. 

To summarize, people want to change unpleasant or aroused feelings, especially when they linger. (I assume no one wants to change pleasant or calm feelings.) This can be accomplished through an awareness that what one is truly experiencing is an internal state of unpleasantness or arousal, or a combination thereof. This removes the conditioned label associated with the emotion. Then one works to remove attachment from the story, drops explanations for it, experiences just the internal state, and accepts it. The feeling becomes much easier to cope with. In many instances it goes away completely, or better said, it flows into another internal state. 

This may take some practice, as we have been conditioned to accept our emotions as reality. But as with all mindfulness practices, practice is the act of mindfulness. Mindfulness is not a stagnant state one achieves. 

Copyright William Berry, 2019

References

Williams, M., Teasdale, J., Segal, Z., and Kabat-Zinn, J., (2007), The Mindful Way Through Depression., The Guilford Press, New York, N.Y.

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