In part one of this post, I provided five myths about emotions. In this post, I present five truths.
1. Emotions are our fuel. Without emotions, we wouldn’t have motivation to do anything. This is hard to imagine, as you have always had them. Emotions provide the fuel to go after our goals and values. Without the feeling of excitement about a goal, for example, or the anticipation of the feelings of joy and pride when we achieve it, we would never go after the goal. Without the incredible feeling of love, we would never pursue a romantic partner or even want to be in a relationship. What would be the point? Emotions are our rewards for accomplishing things that are important to us (e.g., getting a much coveted job, receiving a good grade in school, beating our time in a 10K). It’s feelings that make life worthwhile and that allow us to enjoy the values we have.
2. Emotions are uniquely human. Animals don’t experience emotions like human beings do. This is because we have a rational mind that can think abstractly and conceptually. Animals are only perceptual beings, and therefore their emotions are based on physical sensations, such as pleasure and pain, comfort and discomfort. For example, a dog might cry when you leave him home alone. But, this is not the same as a woman crying when her husband goes off to war. The dog is only aware (perceptually) that you are not there and he’s “sad” because he’s not getting attention, affection, or food. He doesn’t think, “My master has left me, which means he won’t be playing with me, petting me, or feeding me.” He cries because these things give him pleasure and comfort when you’re there, and pain and discomfort when you’re not. The woman’s sadness about her husband is very different. She understands conceptually the many reasons she loves him, and that she’ll be without him for a specified period of time. She also knows that her husband could get seriously injured or killed, and this would be a huge loss. She might also feel proud of him for his courageous desire to defend his country and those he loves. Her ability to think abstractly and conceptually allows her to experience emotions at a much deeper and more complex level than a dog or any other animal can. Human beings are the only animal that have this unique capacity.
3. Negative emotions are not necessarily bad or unhealthy. Sadness, guilt, anxiety, fear, and anger are commonly referred to as negative emotions, because they’re usually painful and unpleasant to feel. However, these emotions (when coming from rational premises), are a normal part of life and are actually healthy and beneficial to us. For example, when we lose something we value (a friend, a job, a favored possession) we feel sad. This is not only normal and appropriate, it’s healthy. It would be unusual and abnormal to not feel sad after losing a major value. The more important the value, the stronger the sadness. If we didn’t ever feel sad, it would mean we didn’t value anything, and then our lives would hold no meaning or joy. We feel angry when there’s been an injustice or when we think something is unfair. The anger is valuable because then we can do something about it and stick up for ourselves or right the injustice (if possible). But, we would never do this if we didn’t feel the anger to begin with. All negative emotions have this benefit. You just have to make sure the emotion is coming from an accurate assessment based on facts. If it is, it’s valuable; if not, then you can correct your assessment and that will change the emotion.
4. Men have the same emotional capacity as women. A common belief in our culture is that men are more rational and women are more emotional. Many people believe this is a genetic or biological difference, and that this is just how men and women are built. The fact is that men have the same capacity to feel and express emotions as women. The problem is that culturally, most men are taught from a young age that being a man means to be “strong” and not show your emotions (unless of course it’s anger). Women, on the other hand, are supposed to be more fragile and sensitive, and it’s normal for them to cry. Because these ideas are saturated in our culture, they become accepted as true and become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But, this idea causes a lot of harm. Many men tend to repress their emotions, which leads to unhappiness, stress, and potentially, mental health problems. It also wreaks havoc in relationships because women are left having to guess or mind read what their partner is thinking and feeling, which leads to many misunderstandings and built-up resentment. The antidote to this mentality is to reject the premise underlying it, and for men to realize that it’s healthy and part of being a human being to feel and express emotions.
5. Nobody can make you feel anything. Most people think that their emotions come from what happens outside of them—such as situations, events, or other people. You hear people say all the time, “He made me so angry,” “She made me feel bad about myself” or “She makes me so happy.” But, it’s not other people’s actions that make us feel something, but rather how we think about their actions. If someone says to you, “You’re such a jerk and so insensitive,” and in your mind you agree with their statement, you’ll feel emotions such as sadness, shame, or guilt. If instead you think what the person says is ridiculous, you might feel amusement or nothing at all. It’s the same statement but depending on how you process it in your mind, it’ll create varied emotional reactions or no reaction at all. When you fully accept the truth that other people don’t control your emotions, you’ll gain power and control over your life because you’re now taking full responsibility for your emotions, and not blaming them on something outside of your control (i.e., someone else’s behavior). Once you do this, you can decide how you want to react to the person and how best to handle their behavior towards you. If you don’t accept and take the responsibility that you’re in the driver’s seat of your emotions (or at least can change a reaction you don’t like), you’ll always be at the mercy of other people’s behavior, and that’s not a healthy or happy place to be.