The Wonderful World of Emotions!
As we study emotions empathically, we’ll look at each emotion in terms of what it does, what gifts it brings you, and how you can work with it — but before we look at emotions individually, I’d like to focus on four ideas that are widely shared, completely accepted — and absolutely problematic.
Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s ground-breaking reframing of emotions as action-requiring neurological programs is wonderfully helpful, but there’s so much trouble in the emotional realm that I want to clear away four ideas that create endless emotional confusion. Before we can empathically explore the specific actions your emotions require, we need to take a look at some commonly accepted ideas that actually prevent you from being able to approach your emotions — or anyone else’s — intelligently.
- The problem with valencing (imagining that there are positive or negative emotions, or pro-social or anti-social emotions)
- The problem with expression and repression (having only two options for working with your emotions, both of which can be unhelpful)
- The problem of nuance (not understanding that emotions arise in a multitude of intensities, and are present in your every waking moment)
- The problem of quantity (not realizing that it is completely normal for emotions to arise in pairs, groups, or clusters)
In this excerpt from my new book The Art of Empathy, let’s look at the problem of valencing.
Valencing is a way to separate things into specific categories, and emotions are valenced in two ways: they’re categorized as either positive or negative, or they’re framed as either pro-social or anti-social. So instead of being viewed as a constellation of important, action-requiring programs that are reliable parts of your cognitive abilities, emotions are separated into categories that have come to mean good versus bad, wanted versus unwanted, or nice versus mean.
Here’s the problem: If you believe that emotions are positive or negative, you’ll tend to focus on the allegedly positive ones and avoid the allegedly negative ones – and you won’t develop a full range of emotional or empathic skills. You might be able to work skillfully with the emotions you identify as positive, but you might be clueless about the emotions you identify as negative.
And if you believe that emotions are pro-social or anti-social, you’ll think that only a few emotions are acceptable in your relationships; therefore, when supposedly anti-social emotions arise, you may become shocked or destabilized, and you may view yourself and others in ways that actually reduce your social and emotional intelligence. You may think, for instance, that people are trustworthy only when they display emotions that you approve of; but that people who display emotions you don’t like should be avoided, shamed, or changed.
If you valence emotions, you’ll also lose awareness of and access to a great number of the skills your emotions bring to you. If you look at the three emotions I described here in terms of the skills and gifts they bring you (fear, anger, and shame), you’ll notice that they would all be valenced into the negative or anti-social categories – they would be typecast as emotions that cause trouble, don’t feel good, and don’t look good to others.
However, without them, you would have no instincts or intuition (fear), no capacity to set boundaries or protect your (or others’) voice, standpoint, or sense of self (anger), no capacity to manage your behavior (shame). When any of these emotions are necessary – when any of these actions are required – then each of these emotions is the most positive emotion possible. When any emotion is necessary and appropriate, it’s always positive (if you really need to use that word).
If you had inserted one of the allegedly positive emotions – such as happiness – into the place of these three emotions, you’d see something very negative indeed, because happiness was not required in the situations I referred to. Happiness is a very specific emotion that arises to help you look forward to the future with delight and amusement, and it’s wonderful! But so are anger, fear, shame, grief, sadness, jealousy, envy … all emotions are wonderful and necessary when you need them, and all emotions are a problem if they arise at the wrong time.
For instance, if you’re at a funeral, happiness is completely inappropriate – you need your grief to help you mourn your losses. At a funeral, grief is the positive and pro-social emotion, and happiness is negative and anti-social. Of course, emotions move and change during a funeral, and it’s normal to cry, and then laugh, and then smile, and then cry again – but pasting an unchangeably happy smile on your face during a funeral is not pro-social.
Or let’s look at fear – if a car is veering directly toward you on the freeway, happiness would probably lead to injury, because you need the lightning-fast instincts and intuitive actions of fear to get yourself to safety. In a situation of immediate physical danger where fear is required to save your life, happiness is a ridiculous emotion – it’s completely inappropriate.
So instead of valencing emotions into simple-minded either/or categories, the empathic approach is to observe all emotions as reliable and evolutionarily evolved responses that are uniquely appropriate to specific situations.
When you stop valencing, you’ll learn to empathically respond to what’s actually going on – and you’ll learn how to observe emotions without demonizing them or glorifying them.
When you can understand emotions as action-requiring neurological programs, you can ask whether the program is appropriate for the situation? If it is, you can support it, and if it’s not, you can help yourself or others take a look at why that program got activated, or why that emotion is so prominent that it steps into situations where another emotion would be more suitable (see the post How much emotion is too much?).
In this empathic approach to emotions, you’ll learn to welcome all of your emotions (and the emotions of others) as valid and legitimate action-requiring aspects of social skills, empathy, cognition, and intelligence, because all emotions are necessary.
Unvalencing emotions is a crucial first step to working with the first three aspects of empathy (see Six Essential Aspects of Empathy). When you can approach emotions empathically and welcome their gifts and skills, you’ll be more able to manage your Emotion Contagion, increase your Empathic Accuracy, and gain extensive Emotion Regulation skills. Unvalencing emotions will help you understand them, welcome them, and work with them empathically. Win!
In the next post: The problem with expression and repression