Canada is not known for being a highly emotive country. Our culture tends to frown on public displays of emotion, particularly emotions such as anger or sadness. The stereotype is that we are a ‘polite society.’
I’m old enough to remember the days before the internet. I grew up in rural Manitoba and the only time I remember adults showing strong emotions in public was when they were intoxicated. These days, my social media feed is full of strong emotions about all kinds of things, from punctuation to civil wars. There is also an ongoing dialogue, online, about the validity of posts that portray strong emotions and the validity of those who do not respond strongly enough to issues that others hold dear.
I want to talk about some myths about emotions and how they affect our ability to resolve conflicts, to hear various perspectives and connect with those we love.
1. Someone expressing strong emotions is irrational
It is possible to have very strong emotions, express them, and still be utilizing your prefrontal cortex, the decision making, executive, function part of your brain. Emotions do not remove rationality.
It is also, however, possible to have ones’ emotions ‘take over’ and to have difficulty making sound judgement, forming words, and thinking clearly. The kids these days talk about “being triggered” when someone does or says something that causes strong emotions with the inference being that when someone is “triggered” they might act in a way that appears irrational. At these times, it can be useful to learn skills to manage ones emotions in order to be better able to communicate ones valid needs and concerns in a way that does not also cause destruction or unwanted difficulties in relationships.
The assumption that strong emotions are equivalent to irrationality is often used to negate another person’s concerns and to give up any responsibility for acting on the concerns being presented. This is irresponsible, and if done repeatedly, by an authority figure, an intimate partner, or other close relationship, can fall into the category of psychological abuse.
2. Other people are responsible for my feelings
The idea that my sadness or anger is the result of another person’s words or actions is not technically true. It is our own interpretation of those words and actions which contribute to my emotional state.
For example, if a person on the street, whom I’ve never met before, walks by and tells me, in passing, that I’m a lazy person, I will have different emotions than if my boss tells me the same thing. Unless, I already fear that I am a lazy person and take the stranger’s comments to be a message from the universe.It is the context, my thoughts about myself, my beliefs about the other persons’ intentions and how important they are to me, which will contribute to my emotional state. I am responsible for my own emotions. But I can provide feedback to others on what I like and don’t like about their words and actions and can even set boundaries in relationships in response to the words and actions which I don’t find helpful.
(See Where Do I Draw the Line?).
3. I cannot help what I feel
Emotions are a combination of thoughts and physical sensations.
The emotions I experience, in response to a situation, might come on unexpectedly, but after the initial rush, and before the next one, I can challenge my thoughts, determine their validity (see COGNITIVEdistortions), take care of my physical needs, and utilize things that calm me (see How to Make a First Aid Kit for Your Emotions). I can also address the issues underlying my emotions, for example, not setting appropriate boundaries, avoiding conflict, etc. (see Passive Aggressiveness ; Conflict- Approach or Avoid? 6 Things to Consider). Emotions are sometimes a sign that we have neglected our own needs (see What do You Really Need? – A 6 Step Complete Self-Care Assessment Guide.) Addressing all of these things are within my control and can contribute to shifting my emotions.
4. My feelings tell me what the problem is
For example I might think, “If I’m feeling angry, someone must have done something to me.”
The truth is, feelings do not tell you what the problem is they simply tell you that there is a problem.
I might not even notice the dirty socks on the floor on one day, and yell at my kids about leaving their dirty laundry everywhere the next day. Is the problem the socks? Maybe, or maybe, I just had a really bad sleep the night before, or the car broke down and I don’t have the money to fix it, or I just had an argument with my mother. Anything could be putting me on edge. One way to determine if the problem is what you think it is, is to check whether you always feel the same way about a situation or if the level of intensity seems a little over the top for the issue at hand.
It is also possible that my anger about the socks is related to a long term issue in my relationship with my kids where I’ve felt I’ve been unappreciated and disrespected repeatedly and this is just the last straw. In this case, my kids picking up the socks will not actually solve the problem, the problem is in the relationship and addressing the relationship will be more productive than yelling about the socks.
There are many other possibilities regarding what the problem is, see myth #3 to do further research on identifying the problem behind the emotion.
5. If I treat someone badly when I am upset, it is not my fault
We are all responsible for our own words and actions, no matter what our state of mind (barring some situations involving extreme psychotic episodes) and need to do the work of making things right.
Saying something mean when anger is out of control is not uncommon. However, it does not excuse the need for an apology and a need to address the impact of the behavior.
6. Not crying or yelling means that I have no emotions and am, therefore, rational
Those who do not express emotions through crying or yelling are not, inherently, more rational than those who do. Obviously there are people who generally feel less emotions. Others, may have been shamed out of expression sadness or any kind of direct anger or have felt unsupported when they have (often as children). They might instead primarily express different emotions, such as disgust or irritation. These may have been better accepted and might be shown through sarcasm, or passive aggressiveness.
Others might only ever show happiness. It could be possible that someone might genuinely just be a happy person. It can also be possible that someone might feel that it is emotionally, or physically unsafe to express any other emotion. Fear of rejection, abandonment or abuse.
If a particular emotion seems ‘weak’ or ‘dangerous’ to you, or if you find that you never seem to feel some emotions, you might want to consider if you are avoiding those ones for some reason.
Checking to see if your “lack of strong emotional response” is congruent with the situation might also give you a clue as to whether you are actually responding in a ‘rational’ way to the situation.
7. Rationality is superior to emotion
Now, I realize that in North America, in 2019, we have been so steeped in the positivist scientific method and rationality that we can hardly conceive of any other way of being or knowing in our society. However, I will strongly object to the idea that rationality is superior to emotion or vice versa. In fact, it is not a contest. They are completely different things. Knowledge of the mind is different than emotional knowledge and both are necessary in our society for healthy interactions to take place between its members.
8. Some emotions are bad
We often say that we “feel bad” meaning that we are sad or angry. Of course these feelings don’t always feel nice, but no emotion is a bad emotion. It is not wrong to feel any emotion in ANY situation Jealousy, anger, pain, irritability. No emotion is ever bad or wrong. Telling someone that they should not feel that way is harmful. People can feel whatever they feel, no one can tell anyone else what to feel. It is what we do in response to our feelings that we are responsible for.
We can feel attraction to another person’s spouse, we can resent our children for the imposition on our lives, we can find relief at the death of a loved one. None of these feelings make us bad people. They are just feelings.
9. Sometimes people are just crazy
Sometimes an intense, uncontrolled emotional response is a completely rational way to respond to a situation. When my first born son died, I wanted to tear out my hair, scream and lose my mind. In many other countries, grief which includes ‘losing one’s mind’ is incorporated into acceptable rituals. Cutting ones skin, tearing ones clothing, throwing oneself on a grave site has been and still is, in many places considered an acceptable form of grief. but I knew where that would lead. I knew of mothers who had been hospitalized and medicated against their will for ‘losing their mind.’ Heck, there are centuries worth of documentation about the incarceration and confinement of women in ‘hysterics’ throughout history. Many cases which are now being shown to have absolutely nothing to do with their mental health or ability to be safe in society.
Panic attacks are another example of something that can be wrongly pathologized. Sometimes panic is a good response to a situation.
(See A Good Time to Panic).
In fact, I have yet to meet anyone whose actions no matter how ‘crazy ‘ they appear, are not rational to that person’s interpretation of the situation.
Emotions are powerful. They can help us to get closer to those we love, or tear us apart. They can motivate us to make changes in ourself and in our society. All of us can benefit from better understanding our own emotions. Identifying your emotions are the first step towards emotional literacy. The next is to recognize where they come from and the third is to address the issues they are identifying. These three steps can make your emotions a positive force in your life and in your relationships.
For more on emotions, check out…