When I go out to speak about The Language of Emotions, I often have the audience call out the things they’ve learned about emotions. I start off by saying “Big girls don’t cry, There’s nothing to be afraid of, You should be ashamed of yourself …” and then the audience adds their own versions of the messages we all get as other people attempt to manage our emotions for us (or shame us about them). We ingest a huge number of messages about the inherent wrongness of emotions, which is one of the major reasons we grow up and learn about everything but emotions. I say in the book that humans are “intellectually brilliant, physically resourceful, spiritually imaginative, but emotionally underdeveloped.”
Our ignorance about emotional development has unfortunate consequences in each of our personal lives, but it also has societal repercussions, in that the understanding of emotions has been medicalized (many emotions such as shame, fear, anxiety, and anger are treated as problems in and of themselves) and professionalized. So if you’re having trouble with your emotions, you often have to pay someone to help you figure them out (if you have the money, or if your insurance covers mental and behavioral health). If you don’t have the money, you’re kind of on your own, so maybe you fill up on the junk food of pop psychology books, or try to ignore the issues and hope they’ll go away.
Developing emotional skills isn’t something we generally do out in the open, or in a logical, step-by-step manner. We often have to get our emotional education by hook or by crook, and in many cases, we don’t even realize that we are getting emotional education, because we call it anything but that (Are you a Skilled Emotionologist?). We just don’t think clearly about emotional skills, and we don’t identify them properly when we see them, because emotions have been so thoroughly demonized. This is deeply saddening, because emotional skills are absolutely necessary for our thinking processes, for learning, for attaching value to data, for our decision-making, for our communication and relationships, and for our capacity to survive and thrive in the social world. Therefore, even though we’re not taught to respect or even properly identify emotions, we’ve all found secret and roundabout ways to develop emotional awareness. Some of us work with emotions better than others do, but we all work with them in every second of every day. We have to.
Another stumbling block I see (especially among highly educated people, who should know better) is a simple-minded, black-and-white approach to emotions and rationality, where emotions are characterized as lower than, less intelligent than, less trustworthy than, and just plain less than rationality. At my talks, audience members will often call out messages like, “I can’t talk to you if you’re gonna be emotional, Can’t we be rational?, Your feelings will lead you astray!” The endlessly repetitive messages we get are that you should always trust your rational faculties over your feelings and emotions, because rationality is just … better somehow.
Irrationally attached to myths about rationality
But in truth, rationality is not any better, higher, or less prone to error than emotionality is, and we know it. We know that our rational faculties are easily fooled, which is why we love books filled with optical illusions and tricks that take advantage of the huge holes that exist in our perceptual faculties. An entire field of study called critical thinking exists to help us steer our way around our multiple cognitive blunders, which invade all areas of our thought processes, including our memory, our understanding of probability and statistics, our vision, our hearing, our sense of touch, our capacity to identify change (see this fun perceptual blindness test on Youtube), and so forth. Our rational brains are not perfect recorders of the events we witness; they make things up and screw things up all the time. The idea that we can trust our rational faculties over our emotional faculties is just wishful thinking (which is yet another cognitive error). Both faculties (and I truly hesitate to separate emotions and rationality, since they’re not separate in thinking, in feeling, in cognition, in neural structures, or in reality) have their strong points, and both faculties have their weaknesses. However, both are crucial to everything we do. We really have to understand and work with (and sometimes in spite of) our rational blunders and our emotional blunders if we want to get anywhere interesting, and if we want to live worthwhile lives.
What’s interesting to me is that — even though both areas of cognition are very fallible and mistake-prone — the correction of our rational blunders has not been professionalized or medicalized in the way emotional correction has been. You can pick up any number of books on cognitive fallacies, or you can join a skeptical group of equal amateurs, and you can go about understanding and managing all of the rational blunders humans have identified. I mean, unless you have a true neurological disorder that, for instance, makes you think your hand is controlled by alien entities, you don’t need medical or professional help to approach the endless ways your rational faculties screw things up.
I don’t see this same approach in regard to emotions. Instead, emotional blunders tend to be characterized as more serious, less fun, and less interesting than logical blunders are. I’m not sure I have this exactly right, but it seems that emotions really scare and confound us. It’s almost as if we assume we can’t trust them, because, you know, they’ll get you!
Of course, there are plenty of cognitive blunders that involve our emotions and feelings, such as the blunders we make in obediently following people in our political party, or people who agree with us. However, cognitive blunders are not caused by emotions. Emotions are simply one aspect of thinking, and while they are as fallible as any other area of cognition, they really don’t need to be the whipping boy of the human experience.
Emotions are just as important as any other aspect of cognition. In fact, I’d say — because the information most of us have about emotions is so ludicrous (it is not real; it is reified) — that understanding emotions (and knowing how to work with them — not demonize or ignore them) might be the single most important thing we can do to improve our capacity to think rationally, to function coherently, and to live meaningful lives.
I wrote The Language of Emotions because my feeling is (ooh, I said feeling!) that where we reliably fall down is in the area of emotion. I spent a great deal of my life in the spiritual community, where the idea is that if we could all be more spiritual (and therefore less emotional), then everything would be fantastic and all of the problems inherent to humanity could be fixed. I didn’t see that idea play out, though many of my spiritual friends are truly wonderful people. What I saw is that no matter how many spiritual teachings you ingest, you still have to deal with emotions. Sadly, many spiritual and religious teachings (Taoism is one notable exception) really distrust and demonize emotions — which means that they can make spiritual people less functional in the presence of normal human emotions. That’s really a shame, and an unnecessary waste of human potential.
But it’s not a problem unique to the spiritual community. For the past ten years, I’ve been closely observing and carefully participating in the skeptical and rationalist communities, where the idea is that if we could all be more rational (and of course less emotional), then everything would be fantastic and all of the problems inherent to humanity could be fixed. I am not seeing that idea play out, though many of my skeptical friends are truly wonderful people. Frustratingly (because it’s not at all rational), many rationalist and skeptical teachings distrust and demonize emotions, which means that they can make skeptical people less functional in presence of normal human emotions. What I am seeing in these two dichotomous communities, and everywhere really, is that no matter how much time you spend trying to be rational, or spiritual, or physically fit, or artistically talented (etc.), if you don’t understand emotions, you’re gonna fall on your butt.
Emotional skills make every other area of your life work better
No matter who you are or what your chosen skill set is, your life will work better if you understand emotions and how to work with them. When you understand that anger exists to help you set boundaries, you’ll be able to reframe your behavior when you feel angry so that you can act in honorable ways. You’ll also know how to behave when other people feel angry. When you know that fear exists to help you identify change and alert you to possible hazards, you’ll learn to listen to it rather than fight it. When you know that sadness exists to help you let go of things that aren’t working anyway, you’ll be able to let go and make room for things that do work.
When you understand that shame and guilt are important behavioral brakes that keep you and other people safe from your potentially bad behavior — which will in turn protect your relationships and your place in the social world — you’ll learn to pay close attention rather than demonize these vital social emotions. You’ll also learn that shaming other people can only work in very specific instances, and then, only in very small and expertly applied doses (the point is to help misbehaving people connect to their own shame, not yours). And when you understand the purpose of happiness, contentment, and joy, you’ll be able to live more gracefully with them, rather than chase after them in a futile and ultimately joyless way.
Every one of your emotions has evolved over millions of years to help you survive and thrive as a member of an intensely social species. Yes, emotions can be troublesome, but not any more so than any other aspect of cognition or humanity can be. The trick is not to imagine emotions as the worst things that ever happened — the trick is to understand them. If you know what they’re for, how to work with them, how much is too much, and which specific skills they bring you, your emotions can help you live more rationally, more spiritually, more artistically, and more humanely.
This being human … it’s a work in progress. But it’s good work if you can get it.