When you hear the word “emotions” you’ll probably start listing off the classics. Happy, sad, angry, and afraid. If you’re really fancy, you might throw in surprise. The more social folks gravitate towards relational emotions. There’s shame, pride, love, and envy. What few people consider is that emotions aren’t just transformative forces. Instead, they are transformative for a very specific reason. They help you transform, down to the biological level, to meet the challenge of the moment. They aren’t forces. They are forces towards actions. When looking at emotions in this way, it’s a whole different ball game. We don’t simply feel. We feel with a purpose. The question becomes, exactly what are you doing when you are emoting? Getting a sense of that opens up a whole new world of personal insight and a deeper free will.
Researchers outline three basic emotional acts. They can be instrumental like a tool to get something you want. Any parent can tell the difference between their child crying in pain and crying to annoy them to get off the computer to give them a toy. One is sadness. The other is pragmatic. Emotions are also used to hide your actual feelings. Sadness is often suppressed by less genuine feelings. Take losing that big promotion. That experience has an interesting effect of inspiring a lot of happiness. Sure, some of it is real. But a fair amount is a good way of hiding the vulnerability of disappointment. Finally, emotions are used to act in an adaptive and in tune way with what is going on in your surroundings. This type of emotional expression is a primary emotion. They are genuine. They are purposeful. And, they can only be felt when you are willing to be vulnerable enough to listen to themselves.
Looking at emotions this way is especially important when it comes to anger. Anger is one of the most powerful emotions. Its force is so intimidating that people tend to water it down as much possible with, “just being annoyed” or “only upset.” Anger, as a primary emotion, fuels you to confront injustice. It’s the feeling you have when you see something wrong and are compelled to fix it. As a secondary emotion, it buries your real feelings of vulnerability. Loss and sadness are it’s usual victims. It’s easier to rage against a loss than mourn it. Other feelings can be ignored with it as well. Love and fear of rejection can be swept under the anger rug. This is your growling neighbor who invests a little too much in making sure others don’t like him. When used instrumentally, it can get you a lot without needing to exert thoughtful responsibility. Remember the toddler example?
Tying this all together, it’s important to know what you’re feeling. For a lot of people this is extremely hard to do. However, it is just as important, if not more so, to know what it is that your emotions are moving you to do, not do, or ignore.
Yonasan Bender, LSW graduated from Hebrew University’s School of Social Work. He has his psychotherapy practice at The Place: The Jerusalem Centre for Emotional Wellbeing. To share your thoughts, experiences, questions, or a different perspective, you can reach Yonasan Bender at 053-808-0435 or email him by clicking HERE. To learn more about him and his work, click HERE.
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