1. Expressing an emotion will deplete it and get rid of it. This is one of the biggest myths about emotions and it’s touted by many mental health professionals. Many therapists encourage their clients to express their emotions as an end in itself, as if clients can empty themselves of the emotion like emptying out a bottle of soda. Yes, expressing an emotion will, in that moment, release it and you’ll sometimes feel some relief. But, the emotion will come back as soon as the beliefs that generated it return (which they invariably do). Think about people with anger problems. They get angry, yell, scream, punch a wall, they feel relief and the anger dissipates. But, the anger always comes back (unless something changes in their thinking). You may know someone with an anger problem—how long have they had it and has the anger been depleted?
2. Emotions are irrational and detached from reason. Emotions come from our held beliefs and are the direct result of our thinking. Emotions can be irrational (when based on faulty reasoning or inaccurate appraisals) or rational and appropriate (when based on accurate reasoning and beliefs). The fact that someone is having an emotion doesn’t make the emotion healthy or unhealthy, good or bad, rational or irrational. The only way to verify the validity of an emotion is to identify the ideas that triggered it, and evaluate the truth or falsity of those ideas. Thinking and emotions are connected—you can’t have the latter without the former.
3. Emotions come directly from chemicals in our brain. This is partly true, because emotions are biological and do come from chemicals in our bodies (although what these chemicals consist of and how they generate emotions is not well understood). However, how do the chemicals in our bodies know which emotions to trigger at any given moment? How does the body know to feel sad when a friend dies or fearful when a car is racing towards us? The answer is our minds (through perception, thoughts, beliefs, and mental pictures) tell our brains what’s going on outside of us, and that causes our brains to trigger the particular chemical changes in our bodies that create an emotion. This process happens automatically, in a split second.
4. The only way to deal with emotions is to control them or indulge them. These are false alternatives. Controlling emotions through repression or denying their expression is unhealthy and leads to unhappiness. When you repress negative emotions such as sadness, anger, and guilt, you also repress the positive ones. Indulging emotions means acting as if every emotion you have is true and valid and then acting on them blindly. It’s the “do whatever I feel” mentality, and it’s also unhealthy and potentially dangerous. The healthy approach to emotions is to understand them through the process of introspection, and then decide what to do with them.
5. Crying is weak. I frequently see people in therapy who hold this belief, and as a result, they don’t let themselves cry. Or if they do cry, they feel guilty for not controlling it. Somewhere along the way, the person was taught and accepted the idea that crying is weak and that he or she should control it and just “buck up and be strong.” This couldn’t be more wrong. Emotions are part of our biological make-up. Saying someone shouldn’t feel sad or cry is like saying you shouldn’t feel pain or cry out when stuck with a sharp pin. To deny your emotions is to deny you’re human. When we have a loss, such as a loved one dying or being laid off from a job we love, it’s normal and healthy to cry and mourn that loss. It’s actually healthy to cry because we’re doing what our body requires to heal. It’s also a strength because it takes courage to cry and be vulnerable. How and when we cry is another question, and there are times and places that are more appropriate for crying than others (e.g., crying in front of close friends or loved ones rather than at a job interview). But that’s very different than saying you shouldn’t ever cry, or that crying as such is weak.
Part two will provide the five truths.