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Why You Are Not Your Emotions

Emotions are like costumes. What if you could wear them only when you need them?

June 12th, 2020

Many of us may not be aware of what emotions are. Depending on where you were born, you may not have the vocabulary to describe them because you never talked about them, so you didn’t need the names for them. If you practice a religion, you may not have been given permission to acknowledge or manifest them, and you may find many of them labeled as sinful; some branches of Buddhism, for instance, use the term “delusion” to refer to basically all of them and assume that having them is “ignorance.” Hence, it’s not surprising that so many of us fail at managing them. It is more likely that we either learned to repress them or that we have learned that manifesting them intensely gets us some attention or some comfort.

“Emotion,” like the concept of “mind,” is something that even if we don’t know what it is, we all know we have. Experiencing emotions is part of feeling alive; they are such an important part of our communication that Emojis have become as important as the alphabet.

Still, finding one definition of “emotion” is impossible. There is no one accepted theory that could explain what emotions are and how they operate.

My way to explain this puzzling lack of consensus among hundreds of academics that have tried to describe them is that emotions go beyond science: they are a phenomenon that includes survival mechanisms, cultural values, social judgment, and personal identity.

Do you know that the word “emotion” was only started to be used as a psychological category — and a subject for systematic inquiry — during the 19th century? Before then, relevant mental states were categorized variously as “appetites,” “passions,” “affections,” “drives,” or “sentiments.” Notice how biased the synonyms were! The word actually comes from Latin and means “movement” but was incorporated into the French as émotion, with the assigned meaning of physical disturbance. Only just recently scientists use it to refer to “motivation.”

Like most of the concepts in psychology — and psychology itself — the study of emotions is recent. During the last four decades, there has been a back and forth between scholars, scientists, neurobiologists, and philosophers about whether emotions are physiological manifestations of thoughts or if the thoughts come after the physiological response or at the same time, as well as whether they are directly tied to changes in facial muscles or to gut feelings. Does it matter if they are thought-dependent or sensation-dependent? Maybe that’s been the wrong place to be looking for their definition. The difficulty in understanding emotions may be the fact that they carry judgment and judgment carries fear!

How could we distinguish if the emotion is a pure and spontaneous manifestation after a stimulus, or if it gets enmeshed with a reaction to our interaction with the world? I’ll elaborate more on this idea as soon as I describe the process that got me there.

According to Carol Malatesta from the New School for Social Research in NYC, different cultures have different scripts for how positive and negative emotions should be experienced and displayed; results from one of her studies indicate that infants’ expressiveness become appropriate according to cultural, gender, and familial demands well before their first birthday. That means that the way we regulate our emotions is also influenced by the values of our environment, which mandates our emotional experience. McRae at al (2008) have researched the subject and found that men and women may differ in the regulation of their emotions due to culturally-based gender norms and expectations.

These findings are significant and useful for our daily life and our functioning in society because the understanding of the regulation of emotion seems even more relevant than having a definition of emotions. One of the most challenging parts of having emotions is being able to control them; they seem to be in control of our behavior and experiences more than us having control over them.

Brans & Verduyn from KU Leuven in Belgium say that intensity and duration are two central characteristics of an emotional response. Emotional intensity is mainly predicted by the self-evaluation of the event that originated the response, while emotion duration depends on the type of regulation strategies the person counts with. It’s actually more common that people identify the intensity and duration of an emotional reaction than to recognize the emotion itself, because it’s easier to identify what/who is causing the reaction, and to notice the time it remains looping our thoughts.

Still, there are theories that state that emotions come in episodes — like waves. Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a Harvard brain neuroanatomist, well known for her TED talks and her book, “My Stroke of Insight,” describes from her experience and investigations that once the emotion gets triggered, the brain releases chemicals that surge through the body and the person undergoes a physiological event. She adds that within 90 seconds from the initial trigger, the chemical component of the emotion dissipates from the blood, and the automatic response ends. However, if the person remains engaged with the emotion after those 90 seconds, then that circuit will continue to run.

For decades, the studies about emotions were based on behavior and it could be said that it was assumed that the regulation of emotions was volitional, describing dysregulated behavior as “inappropriate” as if those that experience intense emotions had a choice on how to express them. The modern understanding that emotions are a chemical reaction, and that the arising phenomenon has a limited life, changed the story.

When we associate emotions with behavior, we are attaching emotions to our identity. Identity is what defines us as a person, with the qualities, beliefs, behavior, looks, and/or expressions we recognize in ourselves. Since emotions carry judgment from either our culture, religion, or family values, we judge ourselves for experiencing emotions. If the emotion is acceptable to our clan, we will identify ourselves under a positive light, but if the emotion(s) is reprehensible, we will believe we are defective and probably unlovable. When this happens, our emotionality shapes our identity and we identify with the most predominant emotions we experience.

Some ways in which we become our emotions:

  • we will be “the brave” if we have courage, or “the coward” if we feel fear;

  • we will be “the depressed” person if we feel sadness, or the “drama-queen” or “the hysterical” if we have strong emotions;

  • we will be named “aggressive” if we feel angry, and “insecure” if we are anxious;

  • we will be called “arrogant” if we feel pride, and “greedy” if we experience ambition.

No wonder why we have learned to suppress our emotions! Nobody likes to be assigned shaming labels.

The advances of neurobiology and the studies of trauma syndromes have added a new way to understand emotions because they inform us of their connection to our level of arousal ( how ready a person is to perform appropriate tasks in a timely and effective manner), their role in survival, and the origin of our “unauthorized behavior” (defining them as inappropriate depending on the culture). This can contribute to ending the stigma around emotions and mental illness, and start a new dialog on how wrong it is to mandate their expression and repression.

Antonio Damasio, for example, a neurologist and philosopher, defined emotion as a neural object and as “an unconscious reaction to any internal or external stimulus which activates neural patterns in the brain.” McFarlane, van der Hart, and van der Kolk in a chapter they co-wrote of the book Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body, and Society, explain that the function of emotions is to alert people to the occurrence, significance, and nature of subjectively significant events. Joseph LeDoux, a great contributor to the understanding of the emotional brain, explains that while there are unique features of human emotion, at least some aspects of human emotion reflect our ancestral past. What this teaches us is that emotions function as signals to readjust one’s expectations of the world, and to take adaptive action to survive and thrive by detecting and responding to challenges and opportunities.

This means that if we see emotions as part of our adaptation and the innate survival mechanisms ruled automatically by the brain, we can understand that emotions are something that happens to us and not something we are. That’s the reason emotions have been described as directly tied to changes in facial muscles (facial-feedback theory). We react to the type of facial expression of others on whether they represent danger or safety. Using this approach, we could avoid being ashamed of experiencing emotions since they are natural occurrences of being human. And we can welcome them instead or reject them. There is actually no use to repress them since they manifest anyway.

I see emotions as costumes.

We can wear them when we need them, but we don’t become what the costume represents. We can have a variety of them in our closet and only wear them when required, instead of wearing them day and night. As Dr. Boyle-Taylor explained, if we don’t stay engaged in the emotion — as in wearing the costume — the emotion fades away. But if we personify the emotion, it ends up becoming part of our own judgment and perception of our sense of self, which will modify our behavior unnecessarily. Emotions should be more like garments and less like tattoos.

In essence, emotions are messengers or messages. When our brain perceives the need for action, there is an activation that manifests as a physiological reaction in our body as a signal. It can present itself as tightness, tingling, warmth, tears, sweat, or those butterflies in your stomach as when you see that beautiful person approaching you. Those signals are trying to tell us that we need to be proactive because we may be in danger, or in need of action.

For example:

  • Anger may be trying to tell us we need to protect ourselves, maybe from abuse.

  • Envy could be trying to say that we need to work harder to reach the position we wish to attain and we haven’t.

  • Guilt may be saying that we should stop acting the way we have because we can damage others.

  • Shame may be advising us to make corrections to our actions

  • Anxiety must probably be saying that we need to take care of something because we may not like the consequences if we don’t.

All our emotions have messages and if we listen without acting them out, they will inform us how to proceed and dissolve by themselves after a little while. No need to make them last longer. If we don’t listen, then they may become louder and remain activating our nervous system defenses. Emotions are part of our survival mechanisms and they will persevere if we dismiss their importance. This means they all should be welcomed, no exception. If we don’t suppress them, they will be thankful and we will be thriving.

Working in identifying our emotions, naming them, listening to them, and allowing them to be without judgment is fun and mentally healthy. Nobody even needs to know we are experiencing them if that’s going to be disruptive to them.

We may be still far from having significant changes to the social norms that mandate which emotions are acceptable and which are not, but if we learn to experience them in a non-judgmental way, we may be changing the norms and the perception of who we are.

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