What Are Emotions For?

Have you been afraid lately? Maybe while watching a horror film on the couch ? It’s that time of year, right?

Have you recently felt angry or confused? With this mess that we’re in, I’d be surprised if you weren’t.

How about joy–a wave of unadulterated bliss? The word joy can connote a kind of cheesy or naive thing. But some experiences are genuinely blissful. I hope you’ve had some of that recently.

Through the course of your life, you’ll experience the whole spectrum of emotions…

Anger

Apathy

Shame

Hate

Fear

Worry

Confusion

Jealousy

Envy

Panic

Sadness

Grief

Momentary Depression

Happiness

Contentment

Joy

Karla McLaren, in her book The Art of Empathy, organizes human emotions into the sixteen categories above. And, she further explains, each emotion can occur in soft, moderate, or very intense states. Anger, for example, can vary from irritated (soft) to aggravated (moderate) to enraged (intense). Even the same emotion at the same level of intensity can differ in sensation. Irritated is a little different than impatient, which are both slightly different than displeased. Even though they’re all fundamentally a soft form of anger.

Given the range of intensity for each emotion, and the subtleties of a particular intensity level, there are probably hundreds of distinct emotions we can each experience. To top it all off, we often feel multiple emotions (each one of different intensity) at the same time. Soft shame with intense worry with moderate sadness, for example. No wonder there are days when you just can’t adult.

Surely there’s a purpose to these rushes of feeling. Human beings have evolved for hundreds of thousands of years, and we’ve had emotions longer than we’ve had language and names for them. They must have been around for that long for a reason. What does it mean when we feel these sensations, and why are there these particular kinds of sensations–worry, jealousy, happiness, and the rest?

Antonio Damasio, a professor of neuroscience, describes emotions as action-generating neurological programs. As a nerd, I like the precision of that description. But that’s a bit dry and abstract. Maybe we could think of emotions like the push-notifications on your phone. With phones, a notification pops up to alert you—based on some event or some person’s actions (a weather alert, a message from a friend, being tagged in a post, the final score of a game). You see the notification and what it’s for. Then you take the necessary action to complete the process (reply, like, swipe to see more, put on a jacket, celebrate in the streets, etc).

Emotions are like the push-notification system for our selves. When triggered, emotions draw our attention to things happening around us or to us that we need to respond to. Different emotions are triggered by different situations. Anger arises to “address challenges to your voice, standpoint, position, interpersonal boundaries, or self-image.” Contentment arises “to help you look toward yourself with pride and satisfaction.” And similarly for each of the other emotions.

With every emotion, there are a variety of responses we might carry out. Some are more helpful and some are (much) less helpful. To go back to our friend anger, if someone pisses you off, there are a lot of ways you can follow through on your anger. You could scream–at them or privately in another room. You could beat the crap out of someone or something. You could try to ignore or suppress the fire burning inside. You could acknowledge your anger and try to understand what challenged your voice, point of view, or personal boundaries.

When we’re not angry, it’s pretty easy to recognize that acknowledging anger (or any emotion) and maturely thinking through why we’re feeling it is probably the best route to go. But, of course, some emotions–especially in their intense state–can make it incredibly hard to be mature and thoughtful. We often react without thinking at all. A little while back when I was angry, I erupted instinctively and broke a window by throwing my wallet at it. Absolutely moronic. But for a moment it felt like a sweet release. The broken glass everywhere and the window in need of repair made it clear that was the wrong response.

So when an emotion arises–when our body gives us a notification about what life is doing to us in that moment–how can we better understand what needs to happen? What’s the right conclusion for the action-generating neurological program? Again, Karen McLaren is super helpful.

First, she says, you need to recognize and name the emotion you’re feeling (or emotions–plural–if there’s more than one at a time). We can get mixed up. It doesn’t help that often when someone is having a strong emotional experience we describe them simply as being emotional. Why is Andrew emotional right now? Ugh, I’m so emotional.

OK! There’s a lot of emotional activity going on. Which emotions? Sad is different than afraid or worried, but they can be confused. We have to learn how to identify the particular emotions–the notifications–we’re receiving. When an emotion wells up inside, take a moment to name it. It can be surprisingly revealing when you pinpoint what you’re feeling.

Next, you need to question the emotion. OK, I’m feeling angry. I know that I get the anger notification when my sense of self or personal space is challenged. So: “What needs to be protected? What must be restored?” Those are the key questions for anger. Each emotion has its own set of questions (check out McLaren’s book for the full list). Worry, to consider another emotion, “arises to help you organize, plan for, and complete your tasks…to help you orient to possible upcoming change, novelty, or hazard.” Worry happens when the path just ahead is uncertain. So, if you’ve identified that you’re feeling worried, ask yourself: “What triggered this feeling? What really needs to get done?” What got you going on this worry train? What do you need to do to be as ready as possible for what’s ahead?

Happiness, contentment, and joy are unique in that they give rise to statements rather than questions. If you’re feeling one of those three emotions, you simply get to say thanks. Whatever is going on in your life is rewarding. Savor it.

For the rest of the emotions, the ones that generate questions, the final step is to act. What did the answer(s) to the questions tell you? If you’ve nailed down the emotion is anger, did someone’s action invade your personal space or suggest you’re inferior? How are you going to address that with them in a mature and thoughtful way (rather than blowing up in their face or chucking a wallet at the window)?

Did you think someone slighted you but actually they didn’t? Sometimes the action is to check that what you think happened is what actually happened. We always need to go deeper than perceptions. As McLaren says, “…emotions are always true, because they’re always responding to emotionally evocative stimuli, but they’re not always right, because the stimuli may not be valid.”

If we go through all the steps of this action-generating neurological program reflectively and wisely–feeling, naming, asking, acting–we’ll finish it and be back to a place of balance. That’s the sign that your action was a fitting one. It takes practice, and we all blow it sometimes. Shame is an emotion, too–”to help you moderate your behavior and make sure that you don’t hurt, embarrass, destabilize, or dehumanize yourself or others.” When we feel shame, the questions become: “Who has been hurt? What must be made right?” Those will get you on track to fixing things.

We have emotions for a reason. They draw our attention to what’s going on. Each sensation is unique to correspond with what’s happening. Ask the questions. Enjoy the rushes of happiness, contentment, and joy as they come. Emotions are the original notifications in our lives. Don’t swipe them away.

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