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How much emotion is too much?

posted in: Empathic Skills | 4

When I talk about The Language of Emotions, one of the central things I try to get across is that all emotions are useful. If you can approach them with care and ask them the right questions, there aren’t any “bad” emotions. They all have specific things to say and they’re all instructive. In most cases, you can listen to and work with your emotions on your own

However, there are times when you’ll need assistance with your emotions. The way to tell when you need help is simple, because in their healthy state, emotions will respond to you and will move on happily when you’ve listened to their message. If you’ve got an emotion that repeats continually and will not resolve itself (like depression, fear, or anger), that’s a sign that you could use some intervention.

As I say in the book, the problem isn’t the emotion itself. Depression, fear, and anger have very important jobs within the psyche; you need them. But if something chemical, psychological, or neurological is impeding or inflating those emotions, you can easily tumble into confusion, exhaustion, and disorder. So it’s very important that you reach out. Don’t tough it out.

Here’s why: Emotions are very powerful, and their nature is to move quickly, address an issue succinctly and powerfully, and then move on. Your job as the owner and friend of your emotions is to maintain an inner life that makes room for your emotions to do their work. For instance, let’s look at anger:

When someone tries to disrespect you, your anger will come forward to protect your boundaries honorably. With that anger, you can set the person straight (or laugh, or raise your eyebrows, or deepen your voice, or any of a hundred non-violent but self-strengthening and boundary-setting options), and then your anger will recede and your boundary will be reset. Bing. It’s done. No one gets hurt.

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If you and your anger don’t have a good relationship, or you don’t know that anger is the correct emotion for the situation, you might try to ignore it and be polite or weakened around the disrespecting person. You might laugh nervously or your face might redden, and the person will have gotten away with something wrong. That anger will still be there, but you won’t have used it properly, so it will linger. You might second-guess yourself or replay the incident all day. You might think of a hundred things you “should have said.” And you’ll probably now have to deal with an influx of shame (anger at yourself), because you failed to utilize your anger when it was necessary. Doh!

In this instance, this problem with repetitive anger is one you created yourself, not because you’re clueless, but because most of us aren’t taught what anger is for. You can get help with this from a friend or counselor who can help you become more assertive, or you can just start to ask your anger when it arises: “What must be protected? What must be restored?” If you ask your anger these questions, it will give you many honorable options. The trick is to remember that you’re not allowed to break the boundaries of your opponent. You both should be protected by healthy anger, and you both should be restored. Anger is the Honorable Sentry.

If you ignore your anger, you’re teaching the other person to become less skilled, less socially aware, and less valuable in the social world. You’re not doing them any favors; you’re actually dishonoring them. Welcome your anger and let it help you create and define an honorable and healthy sense of self … for everyone.

Now let’s say you feel anger all the time. Politics inflame you, advertising inflames you, other people’s behavior inflames you, and you lash out at people without meaning to. This is a time when you’ve got too much of one emotion, and this is not healthy for you, your brain, or your endocrine system (not to mention your heart!). There’s work you can do on your own, such as asking yourself why you are so completely boundary-impaired that absolutely everything gets to you? However, you’ll also need some help from a counselor or your doctor, because repetitive anger that never resolves is simply not good for you.

It’s not the anger itself that isn’t good for you, because you can get into a repetitive state with any number of emotions (like depression, fear, or sadness), and they’ll destabilize you as well. The problem is that your anger is stuck in a feedback loop that needs to be resolved so that your anger can get back to its regular work! You need your honor and your boundaries back, and your healthy anger will help you do that. But you’ve got to get this feedback problem dealt with.

So the answer to the question How much emotion is too much? is the same for any of the emotions: If the emotion appears constantly or repetitively, and you can’t get it to resolve, that’s too much. That emotion is out of balance, and you need to attend to it so that your emotional realm can get back to its regular work!

Because emotions are so powerful, a repetitive state can throw your chemistry out of balance, so attending to it may require therapy, antidepressants (in cases of repetitive rage, anxiety, or depression), anti-anxiety meds, or a change in your your diet and exercise routines (regular exercise is excellent for your emotional health), so that your body can come back to balance. Emotionally-exhausted bodies also tend to do well on a simple diet with less sugar and caffeine, and fewer processed foods.

You can also study the emotion that got out of balance in your psyche, and wow, it will tell you amazing things about yourself, your family, and the world around you. But first, take care of yourself and get any repetitive emotion back into balance within your entire emotional realm. Emotions are amazingly deep and powerful things, but if they’re out of balance, they can be too much!

4 Responses

  1. Jednorozec Pokojowiec
    | Reply

    Hi Karla,
    It’s really good to see you writing about the emotions again. It brought back a lot of memories of Emotional Genius and that week at Omega Institute. Those were a very important part of my spiritual journey.
    The Light in me salutes the Light in you,

  2. JY
    | Reply

    Anger is a good emotion to address as it seems to be one of the most difficult for people everywhere to get a handle on, understand, and use well. It often underlies depression, despair and helplessness, when its energies are being wasted away.

    In Buddhist philosophy, as I understand it, there are two ways to react to anger. One is to avoid the source of anger, if afflictive action is all that seems possible. So if someone violates your boundaries and you just want to lash out & tear them to pieces, it might be best just to steer clear until another course becomes possible, until some intelligence tempers it. The other, probably preferable, way is to deal directly and compassionately with the source of anger in order to prevent them from causing further harm. This strikes me as your description of using the energies of anger honorably and restoratively.

    On emotions & moods, Paul Ekman draws a distinction between the two. He defines emotions as ever-flowing and briefly felt, while moods stick around & determine emotions:

    “…When we are in an apprehensive mood we are looking to be afraid. We are responding to the world with fear more than anything else, often misperceiving the world. It is as if we need to be afraid when we are in an apprehensive mood, just like we need to get angry when we are in an irritable mood.
    Most scientists believe that moods typically occur for reasons that the person experiencing the mood does not understand—perhaps generated by neurohormonal changes not directly tied to an event in our environment. However, there are certain events that can trigger a mood; for example, if you are sleep-deprived, you are more likely to get either irritable or giddy and to laugh at things you would never laugh at.”

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thanks Judy! You gotta loan me that book.

      So I’m a Buddhist now? Actually, I think I lifted my idea for the “middle path” through the emotions from Taoism. But the two systems have a great deal in common.

      And hey Jed! Emotions is the one thing I could in good conscience save from that old career. Yay emotions! I think if people could understand their emotions in an intelligent and empathic way, we’d have a much better world!

  3. carol
    | Reply

    ” ‘What must be protected? What must be restored?’ If you ask your anger these questions, it will give you many honorable options. The trick is to remember that you’re not allowed to break the boundaries of your opponent. You both should be protected by healthy anger, and you both should be restored. Anger is the Honorable Sentry.”

    Wow…Those two questions are going in my emotional toolbox.

    I’m really enjoying reading your thoughts and insights. I’ll be reading more.

    Thank you for sharing…

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